One of the staples of winter sports news on TV is the previous night's most spectacular basket in a high school, college or professional game. Usually it's a desperate one-hander flung from beyond midcourt just before the halftime or game-ending buzzer. But there was one virtually no-chance shot that, 50 years after it was taken, remains one of the most dramatic baskets ever made in a pressure situation—even more thrilling than Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater for Duke to beat Kentucky in the East Regional final of the 1992 NCAA tournament.
In the late 1930s Rhode Island State was a little-known school of barely 1,000 students located in the town of Kingston. Its basketball coach was a colorful chemistry professor named Frank Keaney. Keaney's locker-room orations often included quotes from Socrates, Virgil, Sophocles and Shakespeare. The coach was as flamboyant and innovative in the chemistry lab as he was on the basketball court, and he concocted a light-blue dye that became the school color. Known as Keaney Blue, it's still used on team uniforms at the college, which changed its name to the University of Rhode Island in 1951.
Keaney's greatest legacy, though, is the fast break, which he created in the '30s, when basketball was played at a slow, deliberate pace. Keaney's teams raced up and down the court with abandon, scoring baskets in quantities unheard of in college basketball. Indeed, by the 1942-43 season Rhode Island State was averaging nearly 81 points a game, about 30 points above the national average.
The Rams made their debut at Madison Square Garden, then the mecca of college basketball, on Jan. 29, 1941, setting a Garden record of 42 points in the first half of a victory over St. Francis of Brooklyn. The crowd of almost 16,000 roared its approval of Rhode Island State's wide-open style of play, in contrast to the more conservative passing game that was the norm. After the game, Ned Irish, the man who brought college hoops to the Garden, called the Rams "the most sensational team ever to appear in the Garden."
By 1943, a year after Ernie Calverley enrolled at Rhode Island State, the school had fewer than 450 students and, because of World War II, only about 100 of them were male. Calverley was a scrawny 5'10", 130-pound guard from Pawtucket, but he was among the nation's best players. A dazzling ball handler whose trademark shot was a running one-hander, he was the swift playmaker and high scorer in Keaney's run-and-gun offense.
"We ran up and down the floor and got off our shots as soon as we could," recalls Calverley, now 72 and living in Wakefield, R.I. "There were no set plays, and when we got the ball the objective was to get it upcourt as fast as possible, usually with a long one-handed pass."
Crowds delighted in watching this fast-paced new offense, but skeptics, mostly sportswriters and basketball coaches, scoffed. "Fire-engine" basketball, "no strategy" and "no defense" were the most common criticisms, even though Keaney used a full-court press as well.
With its success in competition and its immense popularity, Rhode Island State earned four bids in the 1940s to the eight-team National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden. At the time the NIT was the country's most prestigious basketball tournament, and the Rams team that Calverley led into the '46 tournament was regarded as Keaney's best. But even with a 19-2 record, it was given little chance against a field that included powerhouses Kentucky and Bowling Green. And Rhode Island State drew Bowling Green in the opening round.
As had become the custom when the Rams played in the Garden, nearly a thousand New Englanders, including hundreds of students, traveled to New York aboard a Garden Special train to watch their beloved team. At the opening tip-off Bowling Green's 6'11" All-America center, Don Otten, towered over Rhode Island State's biggest player, 6'2" Bob Shea. But the running, gunning Rams stayed even with the heavily favored Falcons, and with a minute to go Rhode Island State trailed by only 72-70. With 45 seconds left Calverley swished a two-handed set shot from 35 feet to tie the game. Then Bowling Green responded with a layup to take a two-point lead with 10 seconds remaining.
The Rams called a timeout—the rules at the time forbade players to go to their bench, so they huddled out on the floor—and co-captains Calverley and Shea decided that Shea would inbound the ball to Calverley from the three-quarter mark opposite their own foul line, and Calverley would attempt to take a desperation shot.