Miracle on Eighth Avenue

On October 4, 1951, the New York Herald Tribune published the greatest lede ever written. It lay at the top of Red Smith’s dispatch from the Polo Grounds, where a one-game playoff for the National League pennant had been decided by Bobby Thomson’s iconic “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.”

The walk-off home run had capped off the New York Giants’ furious charge to capture the National League pennant from the crosstown Dodgers. Smith’s lede read, immortally: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.”

That same year, in a courtroom in that same borough, another story about another sport was crashing to a sad ending. Perhaps even more than Thomson’s homer, this one proved fiction was no match for reality. It’s a story of all the pure, true things we love about sports, and all the ugliness that lurks around the edges of them. It’s our beloved style of Cinderella story, and it’s also a classic tragedy. It’s the story of the greatest postseason a small college’s basketball team has ever had. There’s no way to tell it, but we can try.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

The oldest part of the City College of New York’s venerable Gothic campus sits on a hill near the northern edge of Manhattan. We haven’t talked much about City College in this space, because, even as a decent-sized public university in the country’s biggest city, the Beavers’ athletic department plays in Division III.

That wasn’t always so, though. Once, before the idea of a “mid-major” existed, the compact campus was home to the greatest basketball team in the greatest basketball town in America. 100 blocks from their hill in Manhattanville, down on Eighth Avenue, the Beavers packed the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. And the man that made it all happen was no less of a New York institution: coach Nat Holman.

Born in 1896 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Holman used sports and school to avoid the meaner fates of the New York streets, and developed into a star. He played soccer and baseball; as a pitcher, he was good enough to draw interest from the Cincinnati Reds. But it was in basketball, a sport just five years older than he was, that Nat Holman truly excelled. In photos, he has the self-possessed confidence of a great point guard — and he was, first for two undefeated junior college years, and then for nearly a decade on the greatest barnstorming team of them all, the Original Celtics.

The Celtics featured the nation’s finest pros. Holman was the best of the best. An innovative ballhandler, sharp-eyed shooter and tenacious defensive presence, he was the team’s highest-paid superstar, making $12,000 per year while the Celtics drew huge crowds wherever they went. The Original Celtics toured the country constantly, putting up more than 1,000 victories against 100 or so losses.

They disbanded in 1928. They couldn’t find anyone to play anymore.

The demise of the Celtics didn’t mean any downtime for Holman, though. He’d caught on with City College in 1917, coaching soccer and freshman basketball; clearly overqualified, he’d been promoted to varsity hoops coach before leaving the Celtics. As a coach, the star was demanding and imperious, but he earned respect and results, thanks largely to a concept more redolent of Rucker Park in the ’70s than Madison Square Garden in the ’40s: the City Game.

To modern eyes, of course, the City Game looks a lot more square than New York’s famous playground ball. Made for the pre-shot-clock era, it’s designed to maximize the talents of all five players on the floor, and to minimize the potential for wasted possessions. Players are in constant rotation; passes only go to the open man, no matter where; no shot is forced, or taken before its time; foot speed and defense are paramount.

Looked at through another lens, in fact, it’s shockingly modern: grainy film and short shorts aside, Holman’s ball-hawking defense is a study in athleticism, and the offense’s obsessive focus on efficiency could come from a tempo-free textbook.

Even though they predated the idea of “mid-majors” by quite a few decades, the Beavers’ City Game actually looked a lot like the template that the best of our schools would adopt; in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2000, former CCNY star Irwin Dambrot compared it to Pete Carril’s Princeton offense: “Constant ball movement, screens, backdoors, pick-and-rolls. We got a lot of easy shots.” It won games by forcing mistakes on the defensive end and obliterating them on the offensive end.

And, in the 1940s, it won a lot of games.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

By the time the 1949-’50 season rolled around, Holman’s teams were known around the city but hadn’t quite made the leap to being a national power. That year, though, their local appeal let the coach recruit and construct a team that couldn’t have been more absolutely, perfectly New York if it had been crammed onto a crowded subway car with a bag of Carnegie Deli sandwiches.

Dambrot, the senior captain from Taft High in the South Bronx, anchored the team. Around him, Holman started a cast of raw, talented sophomores: fellow Taft alum Ed Roman at center; point guard Al “Fats” Roth from Brooklyn; sharpshooter Floyd Layne from Manhattan; and scoring machine Ed Warner, from DeWitt Clinton, the Bronx high school that would go on to produce stars like Butch Lee and Nate “Tiny” Archibald. Layne and Warner were black; Dambrot, Roman and Roth were Jewish. In America’s most diverse, progressive city, the Beavers were a central-casting vision of hometown heroes before they even took the floor.

Holman’s rigid structure kept the young team’s erratic tendencies in check, and Dambrot and fellow senior Norm Mager provided a steadying influence. The Beavers acquitted themselves well against a good Oklahoma team; they knocked off top-ranked conference foe St. John’s; they lost inexplicably to Niagara, in that way good but maddeningly young teams do. In the end, their 24-5 record squeaked them into the last spot of the NIT — the nation’s most prestigious tournament, and the one that, conveniently, was played on their very own home court. Said Holman, laconic, “I hope we can justify the invitation.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

They quickly proved that wouldn’t be a problem. Their opponents were the defending tournament champions from the University of San Francisco, but the West Coast interlopers had to contend with a packed, hostile arena and a focused Beavers team. Buoyed by the deafening support of their hometown, CCNY executed their game to perfection and dispatched the Dons by 19 points.

It was a satisfying upset, and made for great copy in the New York papers, but the conventional wisdom was that the run’s end was nigh. The second-round opponent would be mighty Kentucky: a perennial top-five team and two-time defending NCAA Tournament champion, led by seven-foot All-SEC center Bill Spivey and coach Adolph Rupp, already a legend. Few expected the Beavers to hang with Kentucky, and fewer expected them to win.

It is safe to say that no one expected CCNY to hand Rupp the single worst loss he’d ever suffer as Kentucky’s coach — an 89-50 stomping that had the Kentucky state legislature voting to fly the Capitol’s flag in Frankfort at half-mast. According to the legends that have built up around the game, Holman’s team of African-American and Jewish New Yorkers were more than usually fired up to beat the all-white Wildcats; whatever the reason, Layne recalled in Stuart Miller’s 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports that “We were sky-high for Kentucky.”

Continuing the high, the Beavers knocked off sixth-ranked Duquesne (who were coming off a slugfest win over La Salle), earning a spot in the final against Bradley, the nation’s top-ranked team. By now, CCNY had the aura of destiny around them: despite the Braves’ pair of All-Americans, despite a flu-struck Holman and despite an erratic start, the Beavers rode the home crowd’s cheers one more time, pulling away for a 69-61 win and an NIT title.

They were the toast of the town. And they had a second championship to pursue.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

In 1950, the NCAA Tournament wasn’t the juggernaut it is now; the eight-team bracket took a significant backseat to the glitz of the NIT, and plenty of teams who’d played in New York didn’t even bother. But an emboldened CCNY and a still-hungry Bradley joined the field on opposite sides of the bracket. Neither team was at its freshest. The Beavers barely survived a game Ohio State team in the first round, and went back-and-forth with N.C. State in the second before winning. The Braves made the second round easily, but had to sweat a 68-66 nailbiter against Baylor to earn a return trip to New York.

This time around, Bradley put up an even fiercer fight in front of the Garden faithful. All-American center Paul Unruh used his size to wreak havoc inside; future All-American guard Gene Melchiorre stayed poised against the relentless CCNY defense. Norm Mager needed six stitches at halftime.

Through a seesaw game, the Beavers clung to a 69-68 lead and held the ball with a handful of seconds to go. The City Game’s offense ran like always, until the pesky Melchiorre managed to step in, pick off a pass, and start a break. At the other end, though, lanky Irwin Dambrot caught him; the pair collided, the whistle stayed silent, the captain picked up the loose ball and lobbed it to his sewn-up fellow senior for the icing layup.

The City College of New York had won the NCAA and NIT titles in the same year. It was, by some measure, the greatest run any college basketball team had ever had. Now the story was done.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

But, of course, it wasn’t.

The next season’s CCNY squad, without the steadying influence of Dambrot — who’d been picked in the draft by the Knicks but opted for dental school instead — was good but not great. Across town, Manhattan College was putting together a decent season as well, led by 6’8 center Junius Kellogg. Kellogg, an Army vet, was the school’s first black player. In January 1951, just as conference play was getting into full swing, Kellogg was approached by Hank Poppe, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Poppe, along with another former teammate and a trio of bookmakers, offered him $1,000 if he could ensure that the Jaspers failed to cover the spread in their next game.

Instead of taking the money, Kellogg told coach Ken Norton; soon, the New York District Attorney’s office turned Kellogg’s information into a sting operation against Poppe and the bookmakers, and, eventually, into indictments and arrests of 32 active players and scores of former players, referees, fixers, bookies and moneymen. The charges all centered on a point-shaving scheme; strategies differed but, for the most part, gamblers paid players $250 to $2,000 per game to come up shy of the set point spreads.

The biggest active name to fall was Long Island’s Sherman White, the best player on a Blackbirds team that was 20-4 with visions of their own titles. But, even more sensational and devastating were the arrests of not one, or two, but seven members of that glorious CCNY squad: Dambrot, Warner, Roth, Layne and Roman — the entire starting five from the double-winners — plus Mager and reserve Herb Cohen. The team had been New York to its core; unfortunately, those packed, smoky nights at the Garden put them not only at the center of basketball, but at the center of the easy promises and easier money that lived there too.

The men were found guilty of accepting bribes for three games. Layne, according to a wire story, led police to his house and turned in $3,000 in bribe money. He hadn’t spent a dime of it.

Six of the CCNY players received suspended sentences. Eventually, they’d be joined in infamy by a number of the opponents with whom they’d sparred so valiantly. Gene Melchiorre and two other Bradley Braves would be indicted, and Kentucky would see its basketball program suspended for the entire 1952 season.

Still, the ripples were felt most on the hill in Manhattanville. Ed Warner, who the presiding judge thought “incorrigible,” was sent to Rikers Island Prison for six months. Nat Holman was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the program wouldn’t survive long. Suddenly, those erratic losses seemed a lot more suspicious. Suddenly, the basketball careers of the entire, loaded CCNY roster were over, their suspensions extending even to lifetime NBA bans. Suddenly, Madison Square Garden was no longer the capital of American basketball. Suddenly, the little school whose basketball team had captured the hearts of a city and a nation didn’t even have a basketball team anymore.

Reality had strangled invention. The greatest story in college basketball’s history was now, inextricably, part of its worst.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

As sports fans in This Modern Age, it’s tempting to think of our circumstances as unique. In some ways, of course, they are. But in many others, the rollercoaster 1950 of CCNY basketball is a foundational story of our current sports landscape.

Athletes now seem ever more accessible thanks to Twitter — but the heroes of 1950 were there too, commuting from second-floor walkups and playing pickup games with the very people that cheered them on. Our media is saturated with wall-to-wall sports, but no more so than a basketball-mad New York in those years. And, while ever-vaster sums of money keep changing the games we love, it’s possible that a sport has never come as close to legitimate destruction as college basketball did on the heels of this and 1961’s point shaving probes.

From then until now, sports have always been surrounded by outside ugliness, and sometimes it didn’t stop at the white lines.

But that story has another side, too, and that’s the one I like to take away from the story of the CCNY Beavers of 1950. No matter how human our athletes are, they can perform superhuman, indelible feats, as Warner and Dambrot and the rest of that team did. And no matter how much money and spotlights and greed and attention threaten the game; no matter how bad things can get, there are teams capable of unlikely transcendence. It doesn’t happen often, nor should it.

But it’s what makes it all worth it.

For much more than I can cover about this story, the ripples felt and the people involved, Charley Rosen’s Scandals of ’51 is an invaluable read. On October 4, 1951, the New York Herald Tribune published the greatest lede ever written. It lay at the top of Red Smith’s dispatch from the Polo Grounds, where a one-game playoff for the National League pennant had been decided by Bobby Thomson’s iconic “Shot Heard ‘Round The World.”

The walk-off home run had capped off the New York Giants’ furious charge to capture the National League pennant from the crosstown Dodgers. Smith’s lede read, immortally: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.”

That same year, in a courtroom in that same borough, another story about another sport was crashing to a sad ending. Perhaps even more than Thomson’s homer, this one proved fiction was no match for reality. It’s a story of all the pure, true things we love about sports, and all the ugliness that lurks around the edges of them. It’s our beloved style of Cinderella story, and it’s also a classic tragedy. It’s the story of the greatest postseason a small college’s basketball team has ever had. There’s no way to tell it, but we can try.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

The oldest part of the City College of New York’s venerable Gothic campus sits on a hill near the northern edge of Manhattan. We haven’t talked much about City College in this space, because, even as a decent-sized public university in the country’s biggest city, the Beavers’ athletic department plays in Division III.

That wasn’t always so, though. Once, before the idea of a “mid-major” existed, the compact campus was home to the greatest basketball team in the greatest basketball town in America. 100 blocks from their hill in Manhattanville, down on Eighth Avenue, the Beavers packed the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. And the man that made it all happen was no less of a New York institution: coach Nat Holman.

Born in 1896 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Holman used sports and school to avoid the meaner fates of the New York streets, and developed into a star. He played soccer and baseball; as a pitcher, he was good enough to draw interest from the Cincinnati Reds. But it was in basketball, a sport just five years older than he was, that Nat Holman truly excelled. In photos, he has the self-possessed confidence of a great point guard — and he was, first for two undefeated junior college years, and then for nearly a decade on the greatest barnstorming team of them all, the Original Celtics.

The Celtics featured the nation’s finest pros. Holman was the best of the best. An innovative ballhandler, sharp-eyed shooter and tenacious defensive presence, he was the team’s highest-paid superstar, making $12,000 per year while the Celtics drew huge crowds wherever they went. The Original Celtics toured the country constantly, putting up more than 1,000 victories against 100 or so losses.

They disbanded in 1928. They couldn’t find anyone to play anymore.

The demise of the Celtics didn’t mean any downtime for Holman, though. He’d caught on with City College in 1917, coaching soccer and freshman basketball; clearly overqualified, he’d been promoted to varsity hoops coach before leaving the Celtics. As a coach, the star was demanding and imperious, but he earned respect and results, thanks largely to a concept more redolent of Rucker Park in the ’70s than Madison Square Garden in the ’40s: the City Game.

To modern eyes, of course, the City Game looks a lot more square than New York’s famous playground ball. Made for the pre-shot-clock era, it’s designed to maximize the talents of all five players on the floor, and to minimize the potential for wasted possessions. Players are in constant rotation; passes only go to the open man, no matter where; no shot is forced, or taken before its time; foot speed and defense are paramount.

Looked at through another lens, in fact, it’s shockingly modern: grainy film and short shorts aside, Holman’s ball-hawking defense is a study in athleticism, and the offense’s obsessive focus on efficiency could come from a tempo-free textbook.

Even though they predated the idea of “mid-majors” by quite a few decades, the Beavers’ City Game actually looked a lot like the template that the best of our schools would adopt; in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2000, former CCNY star Irwin Dambrot compared it to Pete Carril’s Princeton offense: “Constant ball movement, screens, backdoors, pick-and-rolls. We got a lot of easy shots.” It won games by forcing mistakes on the defensive end and obliterating them on the offensive end.

And, in the 1940s, it won a lot of games.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

By the time the 1949-’50 season rolled around, Holman’s teams were known around the city but hadn’t quite made the leap to being a national power. That year, though, their local appeal let the coach recruit and construct a team that couldn’t have been more absolutely, perfectly New York if it had been crammed onto a crowded subway car with a bag of Carnegie Deli sandwiches.

Dambrot, the senior captain from Taft High in the South Bronx, anchored the team. Around him, Holman started a cast of raw, talented sophomores: fellow Taft alum Ed Roman at center; point guard Al “Fats” Roth from Brooklyn; sharpshooter Floyd Layne from Manhattan; and scoring machine Ed Warner, from DeWitt Clinton, the Bronx high school that would go on to produce stars like Butch Lee and Nate “Tiny” Archibald. Layne and Warner were black; Dambrot, Roman and Roth were Jewish. In America’s most diverse, progressive city, the Beavers were a central-casting vision of hometown heroes before they even took the floor.

Holman’s rigid structure kept the young team’s erratic tendencies in check, and Dambrot and fellow senior Norm Mager provided a steadying influence. The Beavers acquitted themselves well against a good Oklahoma team; they knocked off top-ranked conference foe St. John’s; they lost inexplicably to Niagara, in that way good but maddeningly young teams do. In the end, their 24-5 record squeaked them into the last spot of the NIT — the nation’s most prestigious tournament, and the one that, conveniently, was played on their very own home court. Said Holman, laconic, “I hope we can justify the invitation.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

They quickly proved that wouldn’t be a problem. Their opponents were the defending tournament champions from the University of San Francisco, but the West Coast interlopers had to contend with a packed, hostile arena and a focused Beavers team. Buoyed by the deafening support of their hometown, CCNY executed their game to perfection and dispatched the Dons by 19 points.

It was a satisfying upset, and made for great copy in the New York papers, but the conventional wisdom was that the run’s end was nigh. The second-round opponent would be mighty Kentucky: a perennial top-five team and two-time defending NCAA Tournament champion, led by seven-foot All-SEC center Bill Spivey and coach Adolph Rupp, already a legend. Few expected the Beavers to hang with Kentucky, and fewer expected them to win.

It is safe to say that no one expected CCNY to hand Rupp the single worst loss he’d ever suffer as Kentucky’s coach — an 89-50 stomping that had the Kentucky state legislature voting to fly the Capitol’s flag in Frankfort at half-mast. According to the legends that have built up around the game, Holman’s team of African-American and Jewish New Yorkers were more than usually fired up to beat the all-white Wildcats; whatever the reason, Layne recalled in Stuart Miller’s 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports that “We were sky-high for Kentucky.”

Continuing the high, the Beavers knocked off sixth-ranked Duquesne (who were coming off a slugfest win over La Salle), earning a spot in the final against Bradley, the nation’s top-ranked team. By now, CCNY had the aura of destiny around them: despite the Braves’ pair of All-Americans, despite a flu-struck Holman and despite an erratic start, the Beavers rode the home crowd’s cheers one more time, pulling away for a 69-61 win and an NIT title.

They were the toast of the town. And they had a second championship to pursue.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

In 1950, the NCAA Tournament wasn’t the juggernaut it is now; the eight-team bracket took a significant backseat to the glitz of the NIT, and plenty of teams who’d played in New York didn’t even bother. But an emboldened CCNY and a still-hungry Bradley joined the field on opposite sides of the bracket. Neither team was at its freshest. The Beavers barely survived a game Ohio State team in the first round, and went back-and-forth with N.C. State in the second before winning. The Braves made the second round easily, but had to sweat a 68-66 nailbiter against Baylor to earn a return trip to New York.

This time around, Bradley put up an even fiercer fight in front of the Garden faithful. All-American center Paul Unruh used his size to wreak havoc inside; future All-American guard Gene Melchiorre stayed poised against the relentless CCNY defense. Norm Mager needed six stitches at halftime.

Through a seesaw game, the Beavers clung to a 69-68 lead and held the ball with a handful of seconds to go. The City Game’s offense ran like always, until the pesky Melchiorre managed to step in, pick off a pass, and start a break. At the other end, though, lanky Irwin Dambrot caught him; the pair collided, the whistle stayed silent, the captain picked up the loose ball and lobbed it to his sewn-up fellow senior for the icing layup.

The City College of New York had won the NCAA and NIT titles in the same year. It was, by some measure, the greatest run any college basketball team had ever had. Now the story was done.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

But, of course, it wasn’t.

The next season’s CCNY squad, without the steadying influence of Dambrot — who’d been picked in the draft by the Knicks but opted for dental school instead — was good but not great. Across town, Manhattan College was putting together a decent season as well, led by 6’8 center Junius Kellogg. Kellogg, an Army vet, was the school’s first black player. In January 1951, just as conference play was getting into full swing, Kellogg was approached by Hank Poppe, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Poppe, along with another former teammate and a trio of bookmakers, offered him $1,000 if he could ensure that the Jaspers failed to cover the spread in their next game.

Instead of taking the money, Kellogg told coach Ken Norton; soon, the New York District Attorney’s office turned Kellogg’s information into a sting operation against Poppe and the bookmakers, and, eventually, into indictments and arrests of 32 active players and scores of former players, referees, fixers, bookies and moneymen. The charges all centered on a point-shaving scheme; strategies differed but, for the most part, gamblers paid players $250 to $2,000 per game to come up shy of the set point spreads.

The biggest active name to fall was Long Island’s Sherman White, the best player on a Blackbirds team that was 20-4 with visions of their own titles. But, even more sensational and devastating were the arrests of not one, or two, but seven members of that glorious CCNY squad: Dambrot, Warner, Roth, Layne and Roman — the entire starting five from the double-winners — plus Mager and reserve Herb Cohen. The team had been New York to its core; unfortunately, those packed, smoky nights at the Garden put them not only at the center of basketball, but at the center of the easy promises and easier money that lived there too.

The men were found guilty of accepting bribes for three games. Layne, according to a wire story, led police to his house and turned in $3,000 in bribe money. He hadn’t spent a dime of it.

Six of the CCNY players received suspended sentences. Eventually, they’d be joined in infamy by a number of the opponents with whom they’d sparred so valiantly. Gene Melchiorre and two other Bradley Braves would be indicted, and Kentucky would see its basketball program suspended for the entire 1952 season.

Still, the ripples were felt most on the hill in Manhattanville. Ed Warner, who the presiding judge thought “incorrigible,” was sent to Rikers Island Prison for six months. Nat Holman was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the program wouldn’t survive long. Suddenly, those erratic losses seemed a lot more suspicious. Suddenly, the basketball careers of the entire, loaded CCNY roster were over, their suspensions extending even to lifetime NBA bans. Suddenly, Madison Square Garden was no longer the capital of American basketball. Suddenly, the little school whose basketball team had captured the hearts of a city and a nation didn’t even have a basketball team anymore.

Reality had strangled invention. The greatest story in college basketball’s history was now, inextricably, part of its worst.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

As sports fans in This Modern Age, it’s tempting to think of our circumstances as unique. In some ways, of course, they are. But in many others, the rollercoaster 1950 of CCNY basketball is a foundational story of our current sports landscape.

Athletes now seem ever more accessible thanks to Twitter — but the heroes of 1950 were there too, commuting from second-floor walkups and playing pickup games with the very people that cheered them on. Our media is saturated with wall-to-wall sports, but no more so than a basketball-mad New York in those years. And, while ever-vaster sums of money keep changing the games we love, it’s possible that a sport has never come as close to legitimate destruction as college basketball did on the heels of this and 1961’s point shaving probes.

From then until now, sports have always been surrounded by outside ugliness, and sometimes it didn’t stop at the white lines.

But that story has another side, too, and that’s the one I like to take away from the story of the CCNY Beavers of 1950. No matter how human our athletes are, they can perform superhuman, indelible feats, as Warner and Dambrot and the rest of that team did. And no matter how much money and spotlights and greed and attention threaten the game; no matter how bad things can get, there are teams capable of unlikely transcendence. It doesn’t happen often, nor should it.

But it’s what makes it all worth it.

For much more than I can cover about this story, the ripples felt and the people involved, Charley Rosen’s Scandals of ’51 is an invaluable read.