They are known best for what happened afterward, remembered for their infamy rather than their feat, and when you come right down to it, that is probably the way it ought to be.
There were gambling scandals that rocked the nation before — notably the 1919 World Series. There were plenty that came after: Paul Hornung and Alex Karras both lost a prime year of their NFL careers for betting on their teams; college basketball kept getting entwined in point-shaving schemes, notably 1961 and 1979.
But City College of New York is the gold-standard cautionary tale for what happens when the gamblers get too close, the athletes are too vulnerable, the scent of easy money is too overpowering. In the winter of 1951, CCNY shouldered most of the burden when a massive game-fixing plague was exposed. Other schools — Bradley, Kentucky, LIU — also took hits.
CCNY is the one treated like a skell.
“We did what we did, and we got in trouble, and we should’ve gotten in trouble because what we did was wrong, it was illegal, it dishonored who we all were and who our families were, and it did a lot of damage to the sports of basketball which had been nothing but good to all of us.”
That was Al Roth, one of the stars of both CCNY and the legal dramas that entangled the school, who like his teammates was immediately banned from the NBA and forced to prematurely discover life beyond the gymnasium and the playgrounds. This was 20 years ago, March 2000, in his office at ArZee Supply in Mahwah, N.J., the building-supplies company that had made him a wealthy man.
“The shame, of course, is that because of that, nobody ever talks about how good a basketball team we were. And let me tell you something, son: We were as good a basketball team as anyone has ever seen. People who saw us knew. People who played us knew. People talk about us, they talk about the fixers. OK, that’s fair. But, damn, we could play.”
Seventy years ago this week, in fact, the Beavers did something that no other New York school has ever done: They won the NCAA Tournament. St. John’s has come close two other times, finishing as runner-up to Kansas in 1952, losing a Final Four semifinal to Georgetown in 1985.
Satch Sanders and NYU made the 1960 Final Four, losing in the semis to Ohio State. The great Fordham team of 1971, coached by Digger Phelps and powered by Charlie Yelverton, won 26 games, but couldn’t get past Villanova in the East Region.
Only CCNY won the NCAA Tournament. Yes, there was a time when the NIT was every bit as prestigious, but even in those years, it was the NCAA winner that earned the title of “national champions.” St. John’s won three of its five NITs in that era. LIU, under Clair Bee, won twice.
In 1950 CCNY also won the NIT. That was the warm-up, the first leg of that epic tour through March. On March 14, the Beavers slaughtered Kentucky 89-50, an eye-opener of a victory that Wildcats coach Adolph Rupp admitted he never quite recovered from, but one that shook Madison Square Garden to its very core. Four nights later, CCNY beat top-ranked Bradley 69-61 to win the NIT.
That also earned the Beavers the last spot in the East Region of the NCAA, which was only an eight-team event. As with the NIT, CCNY would never have to depart the cozy confines of the 18,496-seat Old Garden, sandwiched between 49th and 50th Streets on the west side of Eighth Avenue.
Every member of the CCNY starting five was a New York kid, drawn to the school by the dual promises of a top-flight education and top-flight coaching from Nat Holman, himself a CCNY alum who gained fame as an Original Celtic. Roth was from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Ed Roman and Irwin Dambrot were from The Bronx and Taft High School; so was Ed Warner, who played at DeWitt Clinton High. Floyd Layne was from Harlem, Benjamin Franklin High.
They were the quintessential 1950s team: lots of motion, lots of passing, big men clogging the lane, the guards all terrific shooters and ball-handlers. They squeaked by Ohio State in their first NCAA game, 56-55. They outlasted North Carolina State in the semifinals, 78-73. And in the finals, facing Bradley in a rematch, the Beavers survived a wild Braves finish and a game-winning shot attempt from Bradley All-American Gene Melchiorre to win 71-68.
The Beavers were proclaimed “Grand Slam” champs. Nobody had ever pulled off the NIT-NCAA parlay before (and after the NCAA big-footed the NIT in 1953, no one ever would). They were feted back on campus. They were revered in the city. The Post’s Jimmy Cannon declared them “more popular than the Yankees and the Dodgers combined right now.”
“And then,” Al Roth said, half a century later, “we blew all of it. For a couple of bucks.”
Let history recall what it wants. In New York, where basketball counts as a vital organ inside many of us, we ought to also remember what those Beavers did 70 years ago this week. As much as we believe we are the capital city of basketball, we have only had five championships to savor: two in the NBA by the Knicks, two in the ABA by the Nets.
And CCNY, your 1950 national champions. Let their fabled old cheer echo across the decades this week: “Allagaroo-garoo-gara, allagaroo-garoo-gara!”
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