Manhattan's 1957-1958 Team Featured In Saturday's NY Daily News
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Seven Years After Gambling Scandal Rocked NYC College Hoops, Manhattan Upsets Jerry West & West Virginia In NCAA shocker
The Manhattan Jaspers were supposed to be an afterthought.
For most of the thousands of fans who braved a dusting of snow there was a solitary reason to watch an NCAA tournament triple-header at Madison Square Garden on a mid-March Tuesday in 1958. And it wasn’t the hard-working boys from Riverdale.
It was an uncertain climate for New York City college basketball. The Mecca was still reeling from the gambling scandal of the early 1950s. And since Seton Hall beat St. John’s for the NIT crown in 1953, the locals hadn’t been rewarded with much postseason fanfare.
The basketball-savvy New York crowd came to the Garden that day to see a chisel-chinned country boy named Jerry West from West Virginia who had dazzled the Garden one month earlier with 21 points and 11 rebounds in a win over St. John’s.
In his pre-Logo days, the sophomore was expected to put on another display on the No. 1-ranked Mountaineers’ run to a potential national championship. Folks from Morgantown were already on their way to Charlotte, N.C., bypassing the one-game trip to the Big Apple for the games that mattered in the East Regional.
But Jack Powers, Dick Wilbur, Bob Mealy and the Jaspers had their own agenda.
Players and fans carry coach Kenny Norton off Garden floor following Manhattan’s win over No. 1 West Virginia in 1958 NCAA tournament opener.
“I think it gave the Garden crowd something to cheer on,” Powers, one of the Jaspers’ co-captains, says 59 years later. “It was a very, very good and loud crowd. And of course everybody that came to the Garden wanted to see Jerry West. And Jerry had such a great reputation.”
It was Powers, however, that treated those watching through smoky haze of the old Garden to his own scoring touch. The 6-2 senior poured in 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while his roommate Wilbur held West in check for 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting as Manhattan prevailed in a Garden classic, 89-84.
Still considered one of the great upsets in NCAA tournament history, the Daily News said at the time, “Our town’s all but forgotten reputation as the basketball capital of the nation was revived in the Garden last night. As Manhattan knocked off the country’s top-ranked team, West Virginia, out of the NCAA Eastern regional championships.
“...with a 26-1 record… (West Virginia) were rated as close as you can get to a cinch over a Manhattan club which had been beaten eight times in 23 outings.”
Just eight years earlier, the city’s reputation had hit its peak with City College winning the NCAA and NIT crowns in the same month. Within a year, the city was rocked when seven of the CCNY players and plenty more from schools around the city, including two former Manhattan players, were involved in the scandal.
Hence, the NCAA never would stage a Final Four at the Garden again, in a sense blacklisting the arena for the sins of the schools involved. NCAA opening-round games there were phased out in 1961, and the tournament didn’t return until the East Regional three years ago. The East Regional returned to that Garden again this week and concludes Sunday with Florida and South Carolina squaring off for a spot in the Final Four. And programs like CCNY, NYU and LIU would take years to recover, if at all.
Manhattan’s Junius Kellogg played a major role in breaking the scandal. Kellogg told coach Ken Norton about being approached by former Jaspers Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes and then the 6-8 forward played a role in the sting operation to bring down the gambling ring.
“Kenny Norton was one of the most honest and decent men, a man of complete integrity,” says Wilbur, who had noticed the scandal from afar growing up in upstate New York and would later become a federal judge. “(That kind of stuff) just never came up. It was something you just didn’t do…. And you had the Christian Brothers constantly with you. So you knew right from wrong.”
Seven years after the scandal broke, Wilbur was now Manhattan’s best defender, always assigned to mark the opponent’s top scorer. By chance he happened to see West, the future Hall of Famer whose silhouette is the basis for the NBA logo, play in that St. John’s game.
“I decided I was going to try and keep the ball away from him,” Wilbur says. “Sure enough when the game started, I knew he liked to shoot to his right. I was right in the position I wanted to be when he had the ball, and I went after him and thought I had the shot blocked. I did. No doubt about it. And at the last minute, he twisted his entire body from right to left and dumped it off to (Lloyd) Sharrar, a 6-10 center, in the post and in a split second, (West) is by me and I ran after him while he lays the ball in.
“I said to myself, if he gets the ball, anybody guarding him is in trouble. I overplayed him the rest of the night, took my chances he wouldn’t get behind me and they weren’t able to set him up, and I guess it worked out. He was an incredible athlete.”
The game was a physical battle and turned chippy. A total of 61 personal fouls were called, four players from each side fouled out, two technical fouls were called and Powers, who scored 11 points from the charity stripe (on 15 attempts) took a hard bounce off the Garden floor on one particular drive.
“I went up for a layup, and in basketball, the thing that you dread the most is when you go up for a layup and someone undercuts you and takes your legs out,” says Powers, who grew up on the Riverdale side of Kingsbridge in the Bronx and attended Manhattan Prep. “I went up for a layup and ended up on my back on the floor without being able to break the fall. That’s not the worst thing. I grew up on the playgrounds in New York City, so that’s not the worst thing or the worst fall on the floor of Madison Square Garden.”
Powers is referring to the quirks of the old Garden. Like when the court runs out of room and the ice underneath would be exposed. “There were days where someone would go up for an uncontested layup and go right off the court and slip on their tail. And it was cold. If you weren't playing and you were on the bench it was cold.”
Still, Powers took perhaps his worst Garden beating from an opponent who would be known in the city for his exploits in another sport – 6-6 Frank Howard, the former Met manager — who averaged 20.1 points per game as a basketball player at Ohio State in the 1956-57 season before going on to hit 382 home runs playing for the Dodgers, Rangers and Tigers over 15-plus seasons. During the 1956 Holiday Festival, in which Manhattan would eventually beat Notre Dame in the final, Howard hit Powers so hard during a game, that Powers needed to stop the bleeding.
“Dr. Sweeney, who was also the team doctor for the New York Giants, got me stitched up and I played the second half,” says Powers, who received nine stitches for his trouble. “Frank Howard was a monster.”
After leading 56-49 at the half in the NCAA game a year later, Manhattan’s lead grew to 11 before West Virginia mounted a rally to tie it at 84 with 4:09 left. Then West fouled out 13 seconds later — with Powers the beneficiary scoring two free throws — and the Jaspers froze the ball the rest of the way, before a raucous celebration culminated in Norton being carried off the floor by players and fans alike.
Wilbur finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out. Mealy had 14 points and four rebounds before fouling out himself. Mickey Burkowski had 10 points prior to reaching “an over-quota of infractions,” as the Daily News put it.
The Jaspers then flew to Charlotte, much to the surprise of the West Virginia faithful who had assumed West and the Mountaineers would meet them there.
“There were a lot of fans from West Virginia down in North Carolina who had reserved hotels down there because they didn't think it would be too hard for them to get out of New York,” Powers says. “There were great expectations for that West Virginia group.”
The trip, however, got off to a horrific start during the plane ride down and deteriorated from there.
“We were in terrible weather the whole way down,” says Wilbur. “One of the worst flights I’ve ever had. Everybody got sick. One guard, Dan McGourty, he was eating, he says, ‘You can’t eat and throw up at the same time.’ But the rest of us did.
“When we got there, the arena was full waiting for everybody to practice, and we couldn’t really take the floor, so we went back to the hotel. We finally did (practice). But we were so exhausted. Kenny (Norton) and the Dartmouth coach went to talk to the press, and I just sat in the stands because I was so tired. We were just a little behind all weekend, or I think we could’ve beaten any of them.”
Manhattan fell to Dartmouth, 79-62, in the first game, with Powers and McGorty each scoring 12. They then lost the next day to Maryland, 59-55, in the consolation with Powers again going for 12 points as did Peter Brunone.
Powers’ contributions to the game never stopped after that storied senior season as he became one of college basketball’s greatest ambassadors, still revered in the halls of Riverdale and the Garden. He would coach the Jaspers from 1969-78, compiling a 142-114 record before taking over as athletic director for the next 10 years. He then became the executive director of the NIT, continuing to serve on the committee as recently as 2016. Just two years ago, Powers became the first athlete at Manhattan to have his jersey retired.
Wilbur went on to get a law degree from Notre Dame. He served as counsel to House of Representatives Ways and Means committee where he worked closely with future President Gerald Ford. It was Ford who recommended Wilbur to President Richard Nixon for a seat on the federal bench. He was one of Nixon’s last appointees before the President resigned in 1974.
Major contributions that began with an amazing feat at the World’s Most Famous Arena 59 years earlier.
“A lot of people I think came to see Jerry West,” Powers says. “I think (we ended up) giving a shout to metropolitan basketball.”