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Dan Shaughnessy

Holy Cross honors some of its classiest

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 16, 2008
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They are champions from the old days. They won their national titles long before anyone ever heard of Dick Vitale, McDonald's All-Americans, March Madness, or NCAA office pools.

"We played in a barn," Bob Cousy remembers. "Doggie Julian was the Holy Cross football coach, and they gave him 500 bucks to coach basketball after the school had given up the sport for five years.

"He wrote me a letter when I was in high school: 'Hey, kid. I hear you're a hotshot. If you want to come to Holy Cross to play basketball on scholarship, fill out this form.'

"That's how they recruited me. Eleven other guys walked on campus under the same circumstances, and two years later, we won the NCAA."

Now, 61 years later, the school is honoring the stars of that team, and the NIT winners from 1954. At halftime of today's Holy Cross-St. Joseph's game, the jerseys of Cousy, George Kaftan, Tommy Heinsohn, and Togo Palazzi will be raised to the rafters at the Hart Center. Cousy and Kaftan were part of the 1947 NCAA championship team, while Heinsohn and Palazzi played for the NIT champs (back when the NIT really meant something). All four were two-time, first-team All-Americans, and all of them played for the Celtics.

The recognition seems a little, shall we say, overdue. Cousy and Kaftan are 80 years old. Palazzi is 76, Heinsohn 74. So this feels a little like president-elect Barack Obama honoring John Glenn and Scott Carpenter for their work in the Mercury space program.

"It's something we've been talking about for years," says Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan. "But at Holy Cross, we tend to be a little understated."

That's putting it mildly. I mean, the World War II Navajo code talkers got recognized before these gentlemen, and their deeds weren't declassified until more than 20 years after the war.

The Cross has always been low key when it comes to sports. Academics is the focus. That's why the Crusaders no longer play Division 1 football. That's why former school president the Rev. John Brooks rejected an opportunity to have the school join the Big East when the league was formed in 1979.

The Hart Center was built in 1975 and until this year, there was no recognition of men's and women's Patriot League crowns - or anything else other than the two biggies.

"John Feinstein wrote about that in his book ["The Last Amateurs"]," says Regan. "He had a line about how some schools put up a banner every time a player gets a hat trick, but at Holy Cross, we just have the two national championship banners."

"For years the only display was an old armoire with some rusted trophies inside," says Cousy. "It was really pathetic. It's better now - there's a wall of fame - but if you're a recruit coming in from North Carolina, there's not much there to get your attention."

Cousy was rightfully recognized with a statue in front of the Hart Center last spring. The statue dedication, like today's ceremony, allowed him to bring attention to Holy Cross sports.

"In my opinion, there's not another school in the country with this kind of sports legacy," he says. "Given the logistics, the size of the school, the recruiting budget, the lack of television market - we're hidden away in a little town.

"And despite all that, you have an NCAA basketball championship, an NIT championship, the only school in New England to win the college baseball World Series, an Orange Bowl, multiple All-Americans . . . it's quite a legacy.

"The school has focused on academic life and reputation and integrity - as it should - but they have not exploited their rich sports history, which is unique and singular."

And ancient. The Cross's Orange Bowl team played in 1946 (13-6 loss to Miami). The baseball champions played in 1952. The vaunted men's basketball program last won an NCAA Tournament game in 1953.

Which is why it's important to raise these jerseys to the rafters. It will give top-shelf coach Ralph Willard something to brag about. And it will honor men who have remained loyal to the mission of the college.

"It's a wonderful thing to have this happen," says Palazzi, a rugged frontcourt man who looks like he could still give Doc Rivers 20 minutes a night. "Holy Cross represents four of the most productive and happy years of my life. I'm so happy that my mother wanted me to go there. It's great that they're doing this, and thank God we're all still around.

"We all know that the philosophy of the college is that academics comes first, but this gives Ralph Willard another way to promote the basketball history and tradition of the school."

It's difficult for young folks to grasp the magnitude of the deeds of these ballplayers. Cousy was merely the face of the Celtics - and the NBA - in all the years before Red Auerbach starting winning championships with help from Bill Russell. Speaking as an HC alum, I'm comfortable saying that Cousy for almost 60 years has been the most renowned graduate of Holy Cross (sorry, Clarence Thomas). And Heinsohn is right there behind the Cooz. Both are Basketball Hall of Famers. Both have had their numbers retired by the Celtics. Finally, they will be in the rafters on their own campus.

There weren't many hoops in driveways around here before the days of Cousy, Kaftan, Palazzi, and Heinsohn. Holy Cross made basketball an important sport in New England, and these are the men who made Holy Cross basketball.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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