Saturday, April 02, 2011

March Madness Cinderellas

In 1950, an underrated team won both the NCAA and NIT basketball tournaments, a feat never accomplished before or since. They played for tuition-free City College of New York, which had no scholarships or country-club campus to attract the best high-school talent.

For those city kids, basketball was like life--threading through tight spaces under pressure, seeing openings and seizing them, making moves while keeping track of where others are, using every second and every inch to score in a game where bodies and brains are always in motion.

At City College, from which I had graduated and was then working in publicity, the game was a religion. We prayed for grace over the hardwood floor of Madison Square Garden and, that year, it came. Our undersized five, sons of Jewish immigrants and black kids whose ancestors had been slaves, won it all.

They were immediately hailed as the "Cinderella Team," but in less than a year, the fairy tale was over. Six of them were indicted for taking bribes from gamblers.

In our office, we had to deal with the uproar. Columnists and commentators who had spread the myth rushed to tear it down. Politicians viewed with alarm. Clergymen sermonized over Moral Decay. Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, dean of the coaches whose teams we had beaten, remarked that such corruption was only to be expected of niggers and kikes-- shortly before his pure Aryan players were arrested on similar charges as were those from other colleges.

Athletes were royalty when they brought in money and prestige, then denounced when they took something for themselves. Unlike those who played for the rah-rah universities, at City College there were no rich alumni to slip them spending money and/or keys to sports cars, only courtside gamblers to pay for going over or under the expected margin of victory.

Coaches and administrators were blind and deaf until prosecutors stepped in, then "shocked, shocked" that there was gambling in the casino. What those kids did was stupid and wrong, but their naivete was painful. None spent any of the money, its value was symbolic. One had stashed his in a shoebox in his mother's closet, and a week before they were caught, another had borrowed ten dollars from me. Now their sports lives were over.

Six decades later, that issue is still unresolved. As colleges and coaches with multi-million dollar contracts are enriched by "amateur" sport, the debate goes on at higher volume than ever before, and even the NCAA's (paid) president agrees that paying students should be "a subject we explore."

In this Final Four, as always, my sympathies will be with the underdogs as they strive only for the glory of it all.

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