April 4, 2007

The Little Team That Could

April 4, 2007

By Lou Buttell, Class of 1948
Holy Cross Magazine

It has been 60 years since the magical season when the Holy Cross basketball team captured the NCAA championship. In 1947, as the basketball reporter for the College's student newspaper, The Tomahawk, Lou Buttell witnessed that legendary victory "up close and personal." Six decades later, he recalls the road to glory.

Sixty years ago, the Holy Cross basketball team was only one game over .500 after its first seven contests. Yet, the players managed to reel off 19 straight victories and, improbably, go on to win the NCAA championship, defeating an opponent that seemed bigger and better.

How did they do it?

After the end of World War II, the athletic department at Holy Cross caught the basketball fever that was then sweeping the Northeast. New York-area high schools were producing some of the best players in hoop history, and it was there that Holy Cross athletic director, Gene Flynn, and his newly hired coach, Alvin "Doggie" Julian, went looking for the players that would put a small Jesuit school on the basketball map.

Julian, who had been basketball coach at Muhlenberg College, was a keen student of talent. He sought not only New York City high-schoolers but local Worcester stars -- as well as players from other colleges who had been in the military during the War. Soon his roster of recruits included: George Kaftan, Dermie O'Connell, Joe Mullaney, Bob McMullan, Matt Formon and Frank Oftring from New York City and Charlie Bollinger from New Jersey. Ken Haggerty arrived on the Hill after some starring years at Fordham and Cornell. Then there were Bob Curran and Andy Laska from Worcester. And the World War II vets Jim Riley and Charlie Graver rounded out the 1945-46 group.

When the team assembled in the fall of 1945, Julian wasn't quite sure what he had. It wasn't a tall team -- George Kaftan, the center, was the biggest at only 6 feet, three inches. But it soon became clear that this unseasoned squad was going to be something special. With many of their opponents underestimating them, the Crusaders won 12 games and lost just 3.

With a record like that, Holy Cross was predicted to be a regional power during the 1946-47 season. Expectations were heightened dramatically when Julian recruited one of the top high school stars in the nation, Bob Cousy -- an All-American who had played for Andrew Jackson High School in the New York City area. Cousy had been sought by many prominent schools but chose Holy Cross. He was the final piece in the intricate puzzle that Julian hoped would bring national recognition.

I played a small role in the tale of the 1946-47 season as the basketball reporter for the student newspaper, The Tomahawk, which allowed me to travel to Boston on the team bus for all the games at the old Garden. I remember attending one of the first practices of the season at the campus gym. It looked like an overgrown barn -- long and narrow with hardly any space to throw the ball in from out-of-bounds. But that's where this young team learned the lessons that would take them to national prominence. They specialized in the "give and go," always looking to find the open man who could take it to the basket for an easy layup.

As if the practice setting weren't enough of a trial, the team also had to overcome the hurdle of extensive travel to and from Boston. Worcester did not have a suitable arena, so Holy Cross played all its home games at the Boston Garden, some 40 miles to the east. This involved a long bus ride, a couple of hours of rest in a hotel and then onto the court for a 7:30 p.m. game. After the game, there was the same tiring ride back to Worcester, with an arrival time of about midnight.

With great hopes for success, the team began its quest for national recognition in the 1946-47 season. Coach Julian, who had run up an impressive 129-71 record at Muhlenburg, realized he had a talented group right from the start. The question was how to employ the players in order to achieve the best result. He decided on what some reporters at the time called "a platoon system" that featured one five-man unit for the first quarter and another unit for the second quarter -- with the same units rotated for the third and fourth quarters.

While the unit that started the game -- usually, but not always, Kaftan, Curran, Oftring, Mullaney and O'Connell -- was called the "first team," in the press, Julian insisted that he had 10 starters and that the second group -- Bollinger, McMullan, Haggerty, Cousy and Laska -- could play equally well. He also had other competent players -- Jim Riley, Charlie Graver and Matt Formon -- to fill in when needed.

The system worked well. After a 4-3 start, the Crusaders reeled off 19 victories in a row and gained an NCAA tournament bid.

It was a heady time for the Crusaders. They were going to Madison Square Garden -- then the Mecca of college basketball -- to play in the College's first postseason tournament and the first for a New England school.

Their opponent was a tough Navy team, coached by the respected Ben Carnavale. The Holy Cross team appeared to have the jitters in the opening minutes and continued to struggle until midway through the half. What got them going was the outside shooting of the co-captain, Mullaney. Nominally the team's playmaker, Mullaney was a dead shot when he was "on." And he was this night, pouring in nine field goals -- some with an old fashioned two hand shot -- and leading Holy Cross to a convincing 55-47 victory in the opening round. George Kaftan again ruled the boards and scored a hefty 15 points.

Next up was a run-and-shoot City College of New York team that the New York press touted as a potential tournament champion. CCNY took a 23-14 lead well into the first half. But with Kaftan scoring 19 points and rebounding with his usual skill, Holy Cross sprinted ahead, 27-25 by halftime. Kaftan continued his torrid scoring in the second half, for a total of 30, then the second-best in NCAA tournament history. The Crusaders ran off eight straight points in the final minutes to turn what had been a tight game into a rout, with a final score of 60-45. The Crusaders were in the NCAA Championship game.

Once again, they were considered the underdogs, facing a powerful Oklahoma Sooner team with its All-American center, 6-foot, 6-inch Gerald Tucker. The Sooners came to Madison Square Garden after beating Oregon State and Texas in the Western Regionals and looked to be too strong for the comparatively diminutive team from Worcester.

By the end of the first half, Tucker was scoring consistently, and the Sooners led by 31-28. During the halftime break, Julian made the decision that was to lead to victory for the Crusaders. He put bulky Bob Curran, the 6-foot 2-inch forward from Worcester, on the Sooners' star. Curran responded by following Tucker all over the court and putting the clamps on him. Tucker scored only one field goal in the second half. Meanwhile, Kaftan and O'Connell ramped up the offense. They went on a 9-2 run to open the second half and never trailed after that -- with Kaftan rebounding and scoring inside while O'Connell directed the offense with slick passing and outside shooting.

With their main scoring threat muffled, the Sooners couldn't keep pace with the quicker Crusaders who finally ran out the clock and carried off the national championship, 58-47. Kaftan again led the Holy Cross scorers with 18 points. O'Connell had his best game of the tournament, with 16 points. Hard working forward Frank Oftring also scored in double figures with 14. And lanky forward Bob McMullan chipped in with eight while supporting Kaftan off the boards. Kaftan's 63 points over three games for a 21-point average earned him the tournament's "Most Valuable Player" award.

I was there at the Garden along with a large contingent of Holy Cross students, cheering and jumping to my feet as the Crusaders closed in on victory. When the final horn sounded, most of us rushed the floor to be in on the presentation of the championship trophy. I never made it to the floor, but we did have a victory party at my mother's apartment in Queens, with most of the team showing up. I did, however, pay a stiff price for my participation in the victory in New York. A week earlier, I had been restricted to campus for being out of my dormitory after the regular 7 p.m. curfew. I asked tough Rev. John Deevy, S.J., dean of discipline, for a postponement of the penalty -- citing the fact that I was the basketball reporter for the school paper and should be in on the NCAA tournament doings. He refused on the grounds that I had a record of previous infractions. I went anyway. And, on my return, I was summoned to "Blackjack" Deevey's office, threatened with expulsion for my wrongdoing, and slapped with a two week restriction to my room -- allowed out only for meals and classes. The expulsion threat was later rescinded following the intercession of the sympathetic Jesuit, "Big Jim" FitzGerald, an enthusiastic sports fan who could recite the records of just about any important Crusader victory. And fortunately for me, he liked my reporting in The Tomahawk.

After the heady triumph of 1946-47, there were great expectations for the National Champion Crusaders. They had basically the same team, but with the significant plus of Cousy, who, with a year of experience under his belt, was ready to take charge.

The 1947-48 team racked up a record of 26-4, including 20 straight before charging into Madison Square Garden in March 1948 as the defending NCAA Champions. But in their path was an impending dynasty -- the Kentucky Wildcats, coached by the legendary Adoph Rupp.

The Crusaders, with Cousy driving the lanes and Mullaney shooting from outside, took care of their first opponent, Michigan, 63-45, then stood face to face with mighty Kentucky, which held a significant height advantage. It turned out to be an epic struggle. Despite its height disadvantage, Holy Cross stayed in the game until late in the fourth quarter when 6-foot-7-inch Alex Groza overpowered his gallant, but much shorter counterpart, the 6-foot-3-inch Kaftan. Kentucky pulled out a 60-52 victory. The Crusaders gained some solace by finishing in third place in the tournament. Looking back, it was a marvelous run for a small college team. A national championship and a third-place finish, with victories against some of the top teams in the nation over a two-year period.

The years rushed by, but there was one more moment of glory. Holy Cross invited its national champions to return for a 50th-anniversary celebration in 1997. The New York Times covered the event and quoted Bollinger about the return to Worcester after the 1947 Championship game:

"There was a parade with 20,000 people to greet us," he recalled. "Later, there was a reception for the team during which we received $200 gift certificates and other gifts. They could do that in those days. But then, the next day, everyone was back in class. After all, Holy Cross was a very strict Jesuit school."

I had the honor of being there to celebrate with my heroes of 1946-47. I wrote the following in a memoir published in the newsletter of the Class of 1948: In the hotel lobby after the game, were Kaftan and Mullaney. Doing what? Talking basketball just as they did 50 years ago. I joined them and the years fell away as we talked about the trips and the games and victories and the defeats, and the same thread kept winding through all of it -- we were young, we were having fun, we loved the game and we were good at it. We were the best.

The boys of 1946-47 are old and gray now and many of them -- Mullaney, Oftring, McMullan, Curran, Riley and Graver -- have gone on to a better place. But they have left memories that will never die. Memories of a bygone day when young men engaged in a game they loved and, for one magical season, played it better than anyone else.

So, a salute and a "high five" to: Joe, George, Dermie, Ken, Cooz, Bob, Bobby, Frank, Andy, Matt, Charlie, Charlie and Jim.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.