Thursday, March 15, 2007
Most people can't envision a national collegiate basketball title game with no three-point arc, no shot clock, players in boy-cut shorts, high-top Chuck Taylor-style shoes, only two African-Americans in the action, no national television - and a fairly unheralded 5-11 kid jumping center against a 7-foor All-American. That guard not only was featured in the game's opening play but the very last one.
The little guy's team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, prevailed in three overtimes on March 23, 1957, in Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium to defeat Kansas with the awesome Wilt Chamberlain, 54-53.
Carolina coach Frank McGuire had no hope that any of his players could match Chamberlain for the opening tipoff. So he tried psychology and sent out 5-11 Tommy Kearns, his heady, barrel-chested quarterback, to handle the assignment, seeking to get into the heads of the slightly favored Jayhawks.
As the final seconds of the fierce contest ticked away, it was the gritty Kearns who grabbed a loose ball and launched it skyward. By the time the ball came down, the game was over and Carolina had won the crown, posting a 32-0 record, up to then the longest single-season victory string in college history.
The Tar Heels entered the game rated No. 1 in the country to Kansas's No. 2, but KU was a three-point favorite due to its proximity to home and familiarity with the Kansas City court. Ironically, UNC had won another triple-overtime game just the night before in the national semifinal match with Michigan State.
MSU's John Green had gone to the foul line for two shots with a few seconds left in the first overtime. His team led by two points and all he had to do was hit one charity. He didn't. There was no three-point zone. Carolina's Pete Brennan hit a jumper to tie the score in regulation, then UNC dug out a win in the next 10 minutes of play.
Some were inclined to talk about Carolina's "luck" but Kansas coach Dick Harp, in his first year as head man after eight years as a Phog Allen assistant, said the better team won on March 23. He cited the better shooting and rebounding of the Tar Heels. Teary-eyed and choked, Harp was quick to commend unbeaten UNC.
The Kansas dressing room was as devastated as any where Jayhawks have ever gathered. "We lost. That's all, we lost," was all the disappointed Chamberlain could say. King said that KU's poor free throwing at critical junctures hurt the most, yet Kansas went 23-33 at the foul line while Carolina was only 12-22.
"As the years pass, some of the facts of the game escape me," says King. "But the flavor of that game will always be with me. We had it won and let it get away and nobody on any KU team of any kind ever suffered and agonized more than we did that night."
For the most part, though, it was agreed that Carolina had the better lineup except for one spot.
NCAA basketball has provided innumerable thrillers through the years but none has ever been more spine-tingling and unique for both Kansas partisans and non-aligned fanatics than that one in '57.
Frank DeFord, a Sports Illustrated icon, contends to this day that the KU-UNC matchup was the first true national title game. Some are inclined to think the 1979 Larry Bird-Magic Johnson face-off shot the tournament to the point where many consider it the No. 1 sporting event of any year. But the media focus and the legends created by the 1957 showdown - even though then-infant television was not a huge factor - is still regarded as the big ice-breaker.
North Carolina became the first state from the Old South to win a title in the tournament that began in 1939 with Kansas's Phog Allen and Northwestern's Dutch Lonborg as the driving forces. The game amounted to a melting pot. Carolina started four Irish Catholic kids from New York and a Jewish superstar, Lennie Rosenbluth. He was listed from Greenville, Tenn., where his parents had recently moved, but he had grown up in the New York Metropolitan area.
Kansas featured two African-Americans, Chamberlain from Philadelphia and senior guard Maurice King from Kansas City. Of the seven Jayhawks who did battle, four (Gene Elstun, John Parker, Lew Johnson and Bob Billings) were Kansas high school products. Soph forward Ron Loneski was from Calumet City, Ill.
UNC coach McGuire admitted he used the stocky Kearns as a tipoff weapon to rattle Chamberlain and the Jayhawks and for a while it seemed to work. Further, Carolina with its unbeaten record and collection of New York "street kids" had a definite swagger indicating clearly that intended to win. Kearns pointed out that many of the Tar Heels had played against Chamberlain during summer resort activity in the Catskills. While they appreciated and admired his prowess, they were not intimidated as some team meeting Kansas for the first time might have been.
So let the game begin.
At one point, the Tar Heels led 19-7 and forged a 29-22 halftime lead. Kansas had opened with a box and one defense, in effect a four-man zone with the versatile 6-2 King assigned to the 6-5 Rosenbluth. When UNC spurted, KU shifted to a five-man zone but wound up man-for-man which gave the opponent the most trouble.
Carolina began with a full zone but then went "man" with three men always shadowing Chamberlain. The 6-9 junior Joe Quigg was the key defender but he got a steady help from the forwards. Primed to the hilt, the well-drilled Tar Heels shot 65 percent in the first half to KU's 27 percent. For the game, UNC wound up at 47 percent while KU had a mere 32 percent. In rebounding, UNC had a game advantage of 42-28.
Kansas had beaten Frank McGuire's St. John's team for the national title in Seattle in 1952 and McGuire said at the time he had not been well enough prepared for Clyde Lovellette and Co. This time, he seemed to have an answer for just about anything KU threw at him and was able to control Chamberlain at the proper times.
Rosenbluth fouled out with 1:45 left in regulation play after scoring 20 points and providing excellent leadership along with Kearns, who added 11 points. Pete Brennan had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Quigg registered 10 points and nine boards.
Chamberlain's game totals were 23 points and 14 rebounds while Elstun and King each had 11 points for Kansas.
The second half, the Jayhawks shook off whatever distractions they had embraced and roared back, taking a 36-35 lead with nine minutes to go.
With 1:45 left and KU ahead 44-41, Elstun drew Rosenbluth's fifth foul. At that point, Chamberlain is said to have spotted a friend in the stands and smiled as if to say "piece of cake."
Elstun missed both free throws, the Jayhawk momentum faded and the poised, methodical Tar Heels managed to gain a 46-all tie by the end of 40 minutes, even without the stellar Rosenbluth. KU led 46-43 with 1:15 to go. UNC hero Quigg, whose two free throws finally settled the 55-minute ordeal, got a basket at 1:05 and Kearns hit a free throw with 20 seconds to go. Carolina missed two shots that would have won in regulation.
After each team scored a basket in the first overtime, both went scoreless in the second five-minute extension.
Chamberlain managed a three-point play (basket, foul shot) and Elstun got two free throws to put KU ahead 53-52 lead in the third overtime. But with 10 seconds left, Quigg was fouled by KU's King and calmly made both free throws. KU had six seconds left to make the winning basket and even the Dalai Lama could have told you what was planned after a timeout.
A Chamberlain dunk seemed a certainty, but it never came. Loneski's pass to Wilt near the basket was just low enough for the 6-9 Quigg to bat it away. The ever-present Kearns, the winning quarterback, snatched the loose ball, shot it toward the rafters and by the time the sphere descended, KU heartbreak was assured.
It was on the same Kansas City court where Kansas had suffered another one-point defeat, 69-68, due to a Bob Leonard free throw for Indiana in the title game of 1953. And KU had been done in by another Indiana team in the 1940 final, on the same court. Three chances, 0-3.
The heat and intensity of the draining '57 game led to frayed tempers that created several "incidents" of note.
In the second overtime, Chamberlain and Quigg got into a hassle for a loose ball and when UNC's Bob Cunningham dashed in to help, he fouled Wilt. The weary Chamberlain exchanged words with Tar Heel players and KU coach Harp took to the court to respond to Cunningham. Carolina coach McGuire rushed to the Kansas bench to confront Harp and was restrained. He later claimed he was hit in the stomach by KU assistant Jack Eskridge but nobody could verify that. Eskridge insisted that while he was available to help Harp, he never got closer than six feet to McGuire. Jerry Waugh was the other KU assistant.
But things were dicey and police had to be called in by officials to take charge and restore order.
Then players from both benches surged onto the court in the third overtime when Kearns was called for an intentional foul of Elstun. Words again were exchanged but no blows were struck.
Kansas had wrung out a 53-52 lead with 31 seconds left. Kearns drove to the basket but Chamberlain blocked his shot. Quigg recovered the ball at the top of the keyhole and drove to the hoop. Chamberlain had him covered but King came over to help and was called for a foul.
Six seconds left, the game on the line and Quigg, a 74 percent free thrower, at the gift stripe.
"As I passed the bench, Buck Freeman (UNC assistant) told me to relax and remember to let the ball go while on my toes," Quigg recalls. "Once the first one went in, it was really easy and the only time I ever got nervous was later, thinking about it."
KU called timeout, a lob pass to Chamberlain for a dunk was a given. But Loneski's inbounds toss was too flat and Quigg again was the man of the hour, knocking away the ball that allowed Kearns to launch his space shot.
After Kansas shooting had finally begun to improve in the second half, the Jayhawks kept pushing harder and faster and got the ball to Chamberlain more often. Many think KU made a big mistake to go into a delay game after it took a 40-37 lead.
Kearns has said that delay allowed the Tar Heels to regroup because they were getting weary from the Kansas upsurge. They not only benefitted from the slowdown style of Kansas but began to foul often to get the ball, gambling on not getting killed at the foul stripe while also catching their breath. And in all the fouling, Kansas kept failing to hit key free throws, something Maurice King felt was the Achilles Heel of doom.
Of his decision to send out Kearns for the opening tip, McGuire chuckled and said, "We knew we weren't going to get the tip anyway, so maybe we could surprise them and get some kind of psychological life. He said that as Chamberlain walked out to the jump circle, he looked at McGuire and grinned, in effect saying, "What? Are you crazy?"
That was as much space as Chamberlain had the rest of the night as the Carolinians constantly draped themselves around and on him en route to victory.