With the Yale basketball team visiting Illinois this week, it brings to this writer’s mind when other hoop representatives of those universities got together in what was a much more meaningful and attention grabbing game, sixty-seven years ago.
UPDATE: Yale may have to wait another 66 years to gain some payback against Illinois, after failing to pull out a win in its long awaited game on the winner’s campus, as Ilinois won 69-65. It was just the second meeting of the teams since their memorable NCAA clash in 1949 (subject of the following article), and the Illini has now won all three of the matchups. In this 2015 version, the Bulldogs overcame a 10-point second half deficit and trailed by just two points in the closing seconds.
The result this time was amazingly close to the final score of that 1949 game, with each team’s total just two points less than 66 years ago. The score in that one was 71-67.
It was March 22, 1949. Yale, under scholarly coach Howard Hobson and featuring all-American Tony Lavelli, was making its first post season tournament appearance in history. On the other side were the Fighting Illini in the opening round of the NCAA Eastern Regionals at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which at that time was on Eighth Avenue. This was just the 11th NCAA basketball tournament and it involved only eight teams. The fact that Yale was one of the chosen few was remarkable.
Going into what is now known as March Madness, the Bulldogs had a won-lost ledger of 22-6. Lavelli had already eclipsed the national scoring record of DePaul’s George Mikan with a four year total of 1,929 points, including 636 that season.
The team that was popularly called the Elis, in honor of their namesake Elihu Yale and before the university went co-ed, was scheduled to play Illinois in the first game of a doubleheader starting at 8 pm. Eventual champion Kentucky was facing Villanova in the nightcap.
A capacity crowd of 18,051, a majority of which was a large contingent of Yale students (including myself), New York area alumni and just college basketball fans, was on hand. Earlier that season Yale helped to attract a slightly greater attendance to the Garden of 18,414 for a game against NYU. Those two gatherings are still the largest number ever to see a Yale basketball game.
Although television coverage of the sport was in its early stages, the twin bill was shown in New York by station CBS-TV and was broadcast on radio by Marty Glickman on WMGM. The Yale-Illinois contest was also heard in New Haven on the student station, WYBC, with a crew of Don Smith, Don Usher, and Howard Eaton, who for several years was to be the Voice of Yale Football on WELI. Somewhere in my distant memory I can recall that the WYBC account was picked up by WELI, which then, as it still is, could be found “in the middle of your dial at 960.”
Yale was the champion of the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League, prior to the formalization of the Ivy League, and got its ticket to the NCAA’s as the representative of District One (largely New England), beating out Holy Cross which it had beaten toward the end of the regular season.
Illinois, coached by its legendary Harry Comes, was the winner of the Western Conference, also known as the Big Nine and before that the Big Ten. This was after the Univ. of Chicago had dropped out and before Michigan State was added to restore the name to Big Ten.
When the teams first hit the MSG floor, and again prior to the second half, they were greeted by the organ music played by Gladys Gooding, who was regularly at the console at Ebbets Field for Brooklyn Dodger fans, and Madison Square Garden for its basketball and hockey spectators. (She is the answer to a well circulated trick question, “Who played for the Dodgers, the Knicks and the Rangers?”).
As the blue clad Yale team appeared, the Garden’s magnificent sounding organ reverberated throughout the building with “Bulldog, Bulldog” to inspire the thousands of Yale students and New York area alumni who were present. When the Illinois team entered, the almost equally familiar “We’re Loyal to You, Illinois” was played for its greatly outnumbered supporters. It was truly an colorful atmosphere.
The game at hand
The game was an exciting, back and forth affair, which was tied eight times. Yale led most of the way, including 35-31 at the half and 41-33 after the intermission. Its lead went down to 64-58 with five minutes to go. Still in front, 66-61, Illinois baskets by Van Anderson and Walt Kersulis cut the difference to one point. The Fighting Illini then tied the score 67-67 with 1:49 left and took the lead, 69-67, with 1:38 remaining on another hoop by Kersulis.
The clincher came at 1:10, when substitute Dick Foley stole the ball and dribbled in for a lay-up and a 71-67 advantage for the mid-westerners, which was to become the final score.
Yale’s defeat was no discredit to Lavelli, who, but for an unmotivated performance with a disappointed Bulldog team in the anticlimactic consolation game the next night, went out in a blaze of glory with 27 points. He reached that total despite being double-teamed throughout the game.
Lavelli, the acknowledged star of the game
“Yale, a nine-point underdog, almost accounted for a major upset, but withered at the end, despite a spectacular scoring exhibition by the sensational Tony Lavelli,” wrote Louis Effrat in The New York Times. “Tony’s unstoppable hook shot from any angle and his perfect free-throw shooting produced 27 points, making him the top man by a wide margin.”
Had Yale won, its next opponent would have been Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, who would later win the big prize, and which entered the tournament with a 29-1 record. They featured such greats as Ralph Beard, and Alex Groza, who were later disgraced after being implicated in a point-shaving gambling scandal. Illinois, after beating Yale, was blown-out the next night by Kentucky, 76-47.
Many of the players and the two coaches in the Yale-Illinois game, all now deceased, had illustrious careers. Following are some of their highlights.
Dwight “Dike” Eddleman, Illinois (Dec. 27, 1922 – Aug. 1, 2010)
Played with the NBA’s Tri-Cities Blackhawks/Milwaukee Hawks in 1949-1952 and the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1952-1953; and was a league All-Star (1951-1952). In college, he was also a track star, winning an NCAA high jump title, and a punter on the Illinois football team that played in the 1947 Rose Bowl. He participated in the high jump in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
Eddleman earned 11 varsity letters and is regarded as the greatest athlete in the university’s history. Since 1993, its Athlete of Year awards for both men and women are given in his name.
Raymond “Wally” Osterkorn, Illinois (July 6, 1928 – January 11, 2012)
Played four seasons (1951-1955) with the Syracuse Nationals of the NBA, including the championship team in 1955.
Richard “Dick” Foley, Illinois (October 18, 1925 – July 6, 2013)
A returning army veteran, he became a civil engineer, leaving his imprint on several campus buildings.
Don Sunderlage, Illinois (December 20, 1929 – July 15, 1961)
Played in the National Basketball Association from 1953 to 1955 with the Milwaukee Hawks and Minneapolis Lakers. He averaged 7.7 points per game in his brief pro career and was a participant in the 1954 NBA All-Star game.
Anthony “Tony” Lavelli, Yale (July 11, 1926 – January 8, 1998)
A consensus all-American in 1949, and a first round pick by Boston, due in part by being coming from Somerville, Mass. Tony averaged 8.8 points per game with the Celtics in the 1949-50 season. He then signed with the New York Knicks (1950-51), specifically so he could be close to the Juilliard School of Music to pursue his musical education. He averaged 3.3 points a game with the Knicks, who advanced to the NBA Finals but lost to the Rochester Royals. He then quit the NBA to continue his studies at Juilliard, and eventually became a full time professional musician (accordionist).
Art Fitzgerald, Yale ( November 23, 1926 – Oct. 11, 1992)
Art Fitzgerald came to Yale as a Navy transfer from Notre Dame and became a three-sport star for the Bulldogs. He succeeded future U.S. President George H. W. Bush as captain of the baseball team. His last two seasons, he batted .325. He was a backfield star in football and in 1945 scored three touchdowns against Harvard. His burial site is only about ten miles from the Yale campus at All Saints’ Cemetery in North Haven, CT.
Harry Combes, Illinois (March 3, 1915 – November 13, 1977)
Combes was the Illinois coach between 1947 and 1967, where his teams won conference titles in 1949, 1951 and 1952. They had three third-place finishes in NCAA tournaments from 1949-1952. Until Lou Henson broke the record in 1990, Combes’ 316 victories were the most ever by an Illinois head basketball coach.
Howard Hobson, Yale (July 4, 1903 – June 9, 1991)
Coached Oregon to the first NCAA basketball championship in 1939. From 1947 to 1956 “Hobby” coached at Yale, where his teams won or shared five Big Three (Yale-Harvard-Princeton) crowns in 1948, 1949, 1951, 1953, and 1956. In 1949, his second season in New Haven, Yale won the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League, forerunner of the Ivy League, for the first time in 16 years.
The teams of the present
Now, Yale and Illinois will be meeting once again on the basketball court for only the second time since that 1949 game in MSG. Who knows what the future will bring for those involved? Will the players and coaches in 2015 go on to careers and prominence as noted as those of their predecessors, who competed against each other in the NCAA Tournament in Madison Square Garden in 1949?
It’s a big order. I wish I could be around to find out. Unfortunately, that would be an even bigger order for this senior-senior citizen.