New York City has sent legions of legendary players and coaches into college and professional basketball. When you kick back and watch the Final Four this weekend, however, you might wonder why you hardly ever see New York City teams play deep into March Madness, or see March Madness played in New York City. The answer to both involves the CCNY Beavers, who went on an unprecedented run in 1950, only to have it all come crashing down in 1951.
Back then, the NCAA and NIT were rival national tournaments, both having began shortly before World War II. The NIT (National Invitation Tournament) was considered the more prestigious of the two, mostly because it was held in New York. NYC was the mecca of basketball, producing the best high school and college teams in the country – even the Knicks made the finals three straight seasons in the early 50s. The NCAA tournament increased its prestige considerably when Kansas coach Phog Allen essentially took it over, but it was still more of a Midwestern event, held in Kansas City. The glamor, the fans, and the money were in New York City. So was the NIT host, Madison Square Garden.
The City College of New York (CCNY) wasn’t supposed to dominate the 1950 post-season. The Beavers, coached by Nat Holman, were comprised mostly of black and Jewish sophomores from the city. Junior Marvin Kalb (now a journalist) said the team’s ethnic makeup was a key part of its identity: “[Y]ou were dealing with minorities who had to make it. So there was that kind of psychological as well as physical energy behind everything the team did.” CCNY went 17-5 during the regular season, finishing ranked outside the Top 20, and earned a late invitation to the NIT, held once again at MSG.
CCNY’s run at the NIT is one for the ages. In the first round they beat defending champs San Francisco by 21 points. In the second round they faced #3-ranked Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp, who had won the last two NCAA championships, and would win two more in the 50s. Kentucky’s politics back then were not very enlightened, to say the least. Rupp had previously sworn he would never coach a team with “kikes and blacks”, and several Wildcats refused to shake hands with CCNY before the game. CCNY, on a mission, destroyed Kentucky 89-50, the worst loss of Rupp’s 41-year career. (Kentucky lowered its state flag to half-mast the next day.) Marvin Kalb explained, “It was not a basketball game. It was a cultural war, a religious war. It was City College’s way of saying, ‘Forgive me, but, screw you Adolph Rupp. We are also part of this country. It is not just yours. It is ours, too.’”
The Beavers won the next two games, defeating Bradley in the finals to capture the NIT Championship. Years later, sixth man Norman Mager reflected, “We weren’t the biggest team but we were a smart club that had a cross section of all of the qualities you’d want in a basketball player: speed, jumping, moving without the ball, shooting. We were truly a team.” (Watch a short promo clip).
The subsequent NCAA tournament featured three close calls, as CCNY defeated Ohio State, North Carolina State and Bradley (again) by a combined nine points en route to winning the title. (It’s worth noting that Bradley’s mascot is the Kaboom!) CCNY returned to New York as sports heroes, having become the first and last team ever to win both the NCAA and NIT championships.
The next season the Beavers were expected to dominate again, with most of their championship team back, but they ran into a force more powerful than basketball: Frank “Mr. Integrity” Hogan. Hogan had served as deputy to District Attorney Thomas Dewey, prosecuting corruption and organized crime cases, before taking the helm in 1941. During an epic 32-year run as DA, surpassed only by Robert Morgenthau, Hogan took on everything from police corruption to quiz show cheating, and in 1951 he turned his attention to “point shaving.”
Gamblers had been fixing games across sports, including college basketball. Point shaving meant bribing players to take a few bad shots here, play sloppy defense there, so that even if the favored team won, the gambler would cover the spread. On the evening of February 18, 1951, Hogan arrested three CCNY starters who on their way home from Penn Station after an easy road win for collaborating with game-fixers. The scandal rocked college basketball, and CCNY’s program was never the same.
Players from Long Island University (on its way to becoming a top program), NYU and Manhattan College were also indicted, soon to be joined by Kentucky and several other colleges outside of New York. Ultimately 26 players and gamblers were convicted, including seven CCNY players. All of the CCNY players received suspended sentences (probation, essentially) except for Ed Warner, who had been the MVP of the NIT in 1950. Maury Allen, a CCNY sophomore on the ’51 team, was crushed about his teammates’ actions:
“That was the last time I really believed in pure idealism. For these guys to sell out their school and themselves and their careers for eight hundred dollars, for a thousand dollars, for fifteen hundred dollars was just such an emotional blow. You never really recover from something like that. It is a wound in your psyche that lasts all your life… It is a little bit of a burden for all of us to carry who were in school at the time.”
But Al McGuire, then a St. John’s player and later a Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster, was more circumspect, noting that despite college basketball being awash in money, “You didn’t get anything. You had no scratch, you had no green. Let me tell you, when you got no green, green talks. And green talks loud.” The cause of the scandal – a sense of exploitation among unpaid college athletes, clearly remains a major issue today, recently taken up in epic fashion by Jon Oliver.
For colleges from the boondocks, the point-shaving scandal was one more bit of proof that Gotham was just a corrupting place. The NCAA tournament immediately took the upper hand, and the NIT was soon regarded as a consolation prize for teams that couldn’t make the Big Dance, which is officially its status today. As if to punish New York City, the NCAA didn’t even play a tournament game in the New York metro area until 1982 (in Long Island), and didn’t let MSG host a game until 2014. No New York City team has won the NCAA championship since the 1950 CCNY Beavers.
When you watch the Final Four this weekend, you’ll see players celebrating on the court, fans celebrating in the stands, and all the monied interests celebrating as the dollars pump in. What you’re also watching is a celebration of a tournament built to take down New York City’s influence over the basketball world.