ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. --- Harvard may not have had the biggest fan contingent here at The Pit for its NCAA game against Vanderbilt, but it surely had the most distinguished.
Flown here at the behest of Friends of Harvard Basketball -- the legwork undertaken by Vince Lackner ’72 and Marty Healey, ’77 -- were three former Harvard basketball players from years past. They were Don Swegan, a member of the 1946 team that played in the tournament, as well as Cliff Crosby ’50 and Ed Krinsky ’54.
Stories? They’ve got a million of ‘em.
Take Floyd Stahl, coach of that 1946 squad. Globe columnist Harold Kaese described him at the time as being “as exciting as a slide rule,” and Krinsky, who would encounter him a few years later, basically seconds the motion.
“They used to say that when Floyd Stahl entered the room it was as if somebody just left,” Krinsky laughs.
Krinsky also recalled how Harvard lost out on someone who could have been the greatest player in Harvard history --- if only he hadn’t gone to Dartmouth.
I must preface this by saying that there is nothing about basketball in the last 60 years pertaining to New York City that Ed Krinsky doesn ‘t know. Now then …
The long and short of it is that Rudy Larusso came out of James Madison High School not at all adverse to attending an Ivy League school. In fact, Harvard was high on his list.
“But Norm Shephard had been the coach at Harvard, and he had a team full of New Yorkers,” Krinsky explains. “The alumni office was persuaded that there were too many New Yorkers on the team, so Rudy was rejected.”
Aw, Harvard really didn’t need those two Ivy League championship teams Rudy provided the Big Green, did they?
Swegan, a very fit late octogenarian, pointed out that among the many interesting things about that flung-together 1945-46 squad was that it contained no fewer than six players who had captained their previous institutions. In case you’re unaware, the team was largely, but not exclusively, contained of transfers from a Navy program.
Leading the list was Jack Clark, the returning Harvard captain. He was joined by Wyndol Gray (Bowling Green), Swegan (Baldwin-Wallace), Paul Champion (Denison), Lou Decsi (Bucknell) and Saul Mariaschin (Millersburg).
Crosby had the misfortune to attend Harvard when the basketball program was particularly unstable. He went through three coaches in his four years. He found Norm Shephard’s approach rather direct.
“He started off by saying, ‘Gentlemen, this is a basketball, and here is how you stand.’ And our team needed that.”
But the coach who remains uppermost in his mind was not one of his hoop mentors. It was his baseball coach, former A’s and Red Sox great Stuffy McIniss.
“He was fun,” Crosby maintains. “I loved his coaching style. He lived in 1918 while he coached. You could really see it in his eyes. He built confidence in the individual. He’d say, ‘It’s left up to you,’ and that meant a lot, coming from a great player.”
What struck me as I spoke with these men was the casual manner in which they cross-referenced their all-around sports experience, even at a collegiate level. The three-sport athlete in most areas of the country has become as rare as a transistor radio. Even finding someone proficient at two sports is now a big deal, whereas once it was a given. But that was before each sports began demanding specialization and 12 months a year training, and before this AAU business hijacked the apprenticeship from the high schools.
Swegan played varsity football and baseball, as did Crosby. Krinsky settled for two, baseball and basketball. Swegan, in fact, held the distinction of being a 10-letter man at three different schools (Baldwin-Wallace, Wooster, Harvard) during those war years.
Time for another story from Krinsky. This one involves the Harvard team of the early seventies.
“Bob Harrison was the new coach,” Krinsky says. “In those days, coaches in the Ivies were not allowed to engage in any direct off-campus recruiting. It was all done by alumni, and friends of the program. Well, Harrison made it known that he was very interested in this player from DeMatha down in Washington by the name of James Brown."
Krinsky got involved. He recruited two of his classmates, Ted Kennedy and Iowa representative John Culver to recruit Brown. Thus did James Brown become a Cantabridgian, and with him came Floyd Lewis, Jean Wilkinson and Marshall Sanders, who comprised the core of the best team Harvard has had between the ’46 squad and the current one.
“We just never had that big man,” laments Krinsky. There was also the matter of Top 10 Penn and Princeton teams to contend with.
As far as the 2011-12 Crimson team is concerned, all three men are very impressed with the job Tommy Amaker has done. They were all brought down by the loss to Princeton in the playoff game last year (“Devastating,” says Krinsky), but they love the way Harvard has bounced back.
“It’s maturity, and going through steps,” says Crosby. “They’re in a program. It takes time to grow. There are no one and gone players. They’re here for four years.”
Krinsky lauds their depth. “He plays nine or ten,” he says. “It’s a very team-oriented group.”
Swegan has gotten to know Amaker over the years. “This whole experience has been very fulfilling,” he says.
Asked what he remembers most about that 1946 NCAA defeat at the hands of Ohio State, Swegan smiles.
“The point spread,” he says. “I scored a basket late in the game that beat the point spread, and the place erupted.”
So there you have it : every 66 years or so, Harvard makes to the tournament.
“I must confess I didn’t think it would take that long,” says Swegan.