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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Still smarting after all these years

Loss to Tar Heels in '57 title game left a mark on Jayhawks

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On March 23, 1957, when Spike Lee was three days old and Greg Oden supposedly wasn't born yet, a wound opened that to this day festers.

On that day, in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, an undefeated band of toughies from New York City playing for the University of North Carolina defeated sophomore Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas University, 54-53, in three overtimes.

Since then, North Carolina's players have been honored throughout the years, this year joining Michael Jordan's 25th anniversary national championship team in a celebration.

Kansas' players have tried to forget and haven't met with much success.

Next to Wilt, Ron Loneski was Kansas' biggest player. He spent 22 years in the military, another 10 teaching and coaching high school basketball in San Diego, where he cut eventual Super Bowl MVP Terrell Davis. Loneski and his wife recently moved back to Lawrence.

"It's very deflating and very hurtful," said Loneski, who still looks as if he could snap a redwood in half with his massive bare hands. "I think about that game every day. Every time I turn on the TV to watch basketball, that game is in the back of my mind."

A half century later, he has company in his misery.

Jerry Waugh is as upbeat a presence as there is on the Lawrence sports scene, whether he is officiating a golf tournament, practicing his chipping on the range at Alvamar, or watching half a high school basketball game from the bleachers with arms folded and mind trained on the action. It would take a lot to bring such a man down.

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Jerry Waugh, left, an assistant coach in 1957, Monte Johnson, center, a reserve in 1957, and big man Ron Loneski vividly - and somewhat painfully - remember KU's loss to North Carolina in the national championship game

"I haven't gotten over it," said Waugh, an assistant to head coach Dick Harp on the 1957 team. "I think that was the most devastating loss I've ever experienced in my time in basketball. I never thought we would lose that game. ... It was such a disappointment to the players, to the coaches, and certainly to all the fans around Kansas who were just as sure as I was we were going to win the North Carolina game."

Lennie Rosenbluth, the star from the '57 North Carolina team, is retired and living in Fort Myers, Fla. He said he knows where he was on April 27, 1947, one month shy of 10 years before the '57 title game: in the bleachers with his buddies at Yankee Stadium, listening to a gravel-voiced Babe Ruth give his farewell speech. Earlier this year, Rosenbluth received a hug from Michael Jordan, who thanked him and his teammates for "getting it all started for the North Carolina family." Rosenbluth is linked to the Babe, Wilt and Michael. Does it get any bigger than that?

Rosenbluth expressed surprise the men who lost that game remain haunted by the outcome.

"Someone had to win, somebody had to lose," Rosenbluth said. "I can't believe after all these years they are still bothered by it. It's not like a death. It was still just a basketball game. They were playing for Kansas, a great school. They went to the finals, and they did have a chance to play with Wilt. Not many can say that."

Maurice King, recovering from treatments for pancreatic cancer and living with his wife in Kansas City, and Loneski are the only living players among the seven who appeared in that game for Kansas.

The coaches

North Carolina's Frank McGuire, New York to the bone, had lost to Kansas five years earlier in the national title game when coaching St. John's. He knew only one man was capable of causing him to lose to Kansas again.

"Coach McGuire went up and down the line and asked each one of us, 'Are you afraid of Chamberlain?' Each one of us said, 'No, coach, we're not afraid of Chamberlain.' And the key was we weren't afraid of Chamberlain," Rosenbluth said. "A lot of us had played against him in the summer after high school in the Catskill Mountains. Every hotel had a basketball team and instead of hiring a comedian they had basketball games for entertainment."

A Kansas state law requiring retirement at the age of 70 was invoked, which meant Phog Allen could not coach Chamberlain, the dream recruit he enticed to Lawrence from Philadelphia.

"Whoever it was who had it in for (Allen) wouldn't allow the rule to be changed," King said. "He swore he'd never come into the Fieldhouse again after that. He was a great man, a good P.R. man for the university and the program, but he became pretty sour after that situation. I don't think he came to any more Kansas games after that."

Harp was promoted to take his place.

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Photo courtesy of Kansas University Spencer Research Library

A dejected flock of Jayhawks mill about after their triple-overtime loss to North Carolina in the 1957 national championship game.

"Dick was tighter than a two-dollar banjo before the game, as any coach would be playing for the national championship," Waugh said. "Frank McGuire was an eastern, very cocky, arrogant person and a very successful coach. ... We had the instructions as to what end of the court our bench was to use and what basket we would use. We took the floor first and went to our assigned positions. Carolina managers came out shortly after that and put their equipment on our bench and informed our coach that this was Carolina's bench because they always started at this end of the floor. Dick went ballistic over that."

The tournament chairman initially told Harp to show the guests from the East some Midwestern hospitality, but Harp stood his ground and did not move.

"All of this was gamesmanship," Waugh said. "The city slickers coming into Kansas City to show the Kansas bumpkins how to play the game, and Dick fell into that very, very well. Dick was real upset."

In other words, McGuire played him like a harp and it was just the beginning of his mind games.

The center jump

McGuire sent Tommy Kearns, a sub-6-footer and his smallest starter, to the circle to jump center against Chamberlain.

"The four of us stood waiting for Chamberlain to come down the middle," Rosenbluth said. "That's why coach did that. The last thing he wanted, with the whole crowd being for Kansas, was for Chamberlain to start the game with a dunk. He didn't want the crowd getting into it."

Kearns: "That had nothing to do with it. It was a mind game. That's all it was."

King: "During the course of that game, I didn't have a lot to say to those guys. They tried to make a circus out of it, jumping Kearns against Wilt. I wasn't happy about that."

Kearns, a longtime investment banker who counts great American writers David Halberstam and Frank Deford among his close friends, also grew close to Chamberlain over the years, handling many of his investments. They bumped into each other at a basketball game, Kearns slipped Wilt his card and told him he could help him make his money grow. Wilt took him up on the offer.

"The sad part about it was Wilt wasn't about scoring 100 points or 20,000 women, but that's unfortunately what he's going to be remembered by," Kearns said. "Paul Arizin was a teammate of Wilt's with the Philadelphia Warriors. Wilt found out his granddaughter Stephanie had cancer. The next year-and-a-half he called her every Friday and talked to her for an hour and a half. That's the Wilt that I knew, a very sensitive guy. He did a lot of things people didn't know about and kept a low profile."

The game

Kansas opened in a box-and-one with King chasing around the much taller Rosenbluth. North Carolina, which preferred a slower pace and exploited the absence of a shot clock, played a zone that collapsed on Chamberlain and dared the others to take outside shots that they for the most part wouldn't take.

North Carolina shot better than Kansas, opened an early lead, but eventually fell behind. Well into the second half, Harp tried to pull North Carolina out of its zone and had two players play catch with the basketball. It didn't work. North Carolina began to commit fouls and Kansas shot poorly from the line.

Each team scored two points in the first overtime. The second OT was scoreless. The final chance for Kansas flew out of bounds in the final seconds of the third overtime when Loneski's pass to Chamberlain was too low.

"The plan was to get the ball to me at the top of the key and to pass the ball into Wilt and the ball went astray and went through his hands and that was the end of the game," Loneski said. "If I could relive that, I think I would have hoped we knew what the alley-oop was back then, which we didn't."

By all accounts, afterward the Kansas locker room was so quiet you could hear a national title drop.

"Like a morgue," Loneski said. "Very quiet, very deflating, lot of pain, anguish, frustration."

The aftermath

Monte Johnson, who in later years would become the athletic director at Kansas, was a reserve for the 1957 team. He remembered fondly playing the spoons while Chamberlain played the bongos on his radio show, "Flip 'Er With Dipper."

"The only thing that helped a bit when we went back to Lawrence for what would be the postgame welcome, we were able to go by the Kansas Union and attend a concert by Louis Armstrong," Johnson said. "They were playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' We walked up and stood next to him when he was entertaining, and that might have taken a little bit of the sting out of that defeat. ... He didn't ask me to play the spoons and I was very disappointed."

The next year, Kansas did not go to the NCAA Tournament because Iowa State won the Big 8. After that disappointment, Chamberlain left school to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters.

"The first game Wilt played (as a sophomore) he had 52 points and 30 rebounds and teams made up their minds he wasn't going to get 52 and 30 on them," King said. "They came out with zone defenses and stall tactics. If we had a shot clock, it would have been a different ballgame. Wilt would come out of games and he'd have scratches up and down his arms and on his hands and he didn't shoot near as many free throws as he should have for all the beating he took. I think he got tired of all that and the zone defenses and figured he might just as well take his game to somewhere he can get paid. A lot of people in Kansas were very unhappy with Wilt when he did that. Our alumni were families of substance. They in many respects took their economic security for granted, but Wilt came from a poor family. Hey, it was time to go, especially for that kind of money. There were a lot of things said by alumni. I heard it all and never took any of it to him and we remained friends until the day he died."

Said Kearns: "Wilt unfairly got the loser label attached to him after that game. He was supposed to go to Kansas, win three national championships, and move on. Ten years later, (Lew) Alcindor went to UCLA and did it. ... And now we're being honored like we're some sort of legends or something for a one-point win in triple overtime. The difference between losing and winning is extraordinary. It really is."

Comments

Chris Shaw 13 years, 8 months ago

Everyone should watch this week's HBO show "Costas NOW". Bob Costas does an hour long show about the NCAA tournament and a 20 minute segment about this game. It's very good!

sevenyearhawk 13 years, 8 months ago

I overheard during ESPN coverage of the ACC tourney that they had honored the UNC 1957 champs, and all I could think of was Wilt & how this affected him and the rest of the players from that Kansas era ...

This one should have been ours, as well as a close loss to Indiana around this time, add those to the title games losses to Duke in 1991 and Syracuse in 2003 ...

Kansas should have at least five, if not six titles ...

I hate playing the what-if game, but if just gets to you - you know?


Beak 'em, Hawks!!

GIHAWK 13 years, 8 months ago

You young pups have no clue if the 2003 game is your fondest memory....I saw the '66 game against TW. Now that was a tough, tough loss....

Jacobpaul81 13 years, 8 months ago

Don't forget 1986 my friend. That was perhaps the worse loss of them all, and arguably the best KU team of all time.

The 1986 Jayhawks started 3 senior guards (Kellog, Thompson and Hunter) along with sophmores Archie Marshall and Danny Manning. Archie got hurt, and Cedric got called for several "bogus" fouls against Duke early in the second half. It left KU point guard-less, and power forward-less. Thompson and Kellog laid into Duke from outside. Those were the greatest 2 shooters in KU history. Sadly, that was in the days before the 3. Had the 3 been in play, Kansas would have walloped Duke (we only lost by 4 pts), and moved onto the Championship game against Louisville.

Mike Gammill 13 years, 8 months ago

Can you imagine how great the '86 team would have been with the 3 point shot around back then? Those guys could shoot!

sevenyearhawk 13 years, 8 months ago

I guess I was only looking at title game losses, not the bigger picture of Final Four losses, or the tourney in general ...

Someday I'll put together a listing of:

programs that won their first national title versus us (UNC [1957], Duke, Maryland & Syracuse)

and tourney losses to eventual champ (Arizona, Duke, UNC [1993])

seattlehawk_78 13 years, 8 months ago

I know what you mean sevenyearhawk. As enjoyable as it is being such a great team, it is not without its painful moments. We have a great history but we don't have the titles to back it up. I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the2003 title game.

Michael Stanclift 13 years, 8 months ago

I'd have UNC v Kansas for the championship in my bracket, before I even knew of this 50th anniversary.

How sweet it would be... avenge the loss 50 years ago... kick Roy's ass... all in one swoop. ;)

Richard Heckler 13 years, 8 months ago

Forget the past and concentrate our energies on NOW!

Let us move forward with postive thinking.

omicktn 13 years, 8 months ago

KU vs UNC this year would of been great, too bad it didn't happen. Maybe next year.

smitty33 12 years, 11 months ago

Arrrg.... painful losses. My most painful is Arizona in '97. I'm 34 and that's the most hurt I've been.

On to happier times, not just in the tourney either... Let's talk about our greatest wins. I'll start it: How about BOTH wins last year against Durant? How about beating Florida last year in Las Vegas.... Ahhh, I feel better already.

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