It's a blustery March afternoon in central Harlem, just a few minutes walk from the campus of the City College of New York, and Ed Warner is sitting in a wheelchair in his tiny apartment watching the NCAA basketball tournament. "Sometimes I'll be watching a game on TV, like today, and I'll have a little flashback," says Warner, a star forward on the 1949-50 CCNY basketball team. "I'll think back to the way we played and how good we really were."
Not long ago Warner would not have admitted—at least publicly—to any fond memory of his CCNY playing days. He didn't want to talk about how his '49-50 Beavers shocked the sports world by becoming the only team to win both the NIT and NCAA championships in the same year. He didn't want to discuss how they struck a blow for civil rights by beating Adolph Rupp's vaunted all-white Kentucky team or how they stole New York City's heart with their poised, unselfish play and diverse roster of homegrown talent. "Nobody in the media ever wanted to talk about the positives," says Warner, who suffered spinal cord damage in an '84 automobile accident and still has difficulty walking. "All they cared about was the scandal."
In early '51, with CCNY's grand season still fresh in the city's memory, seven Beavers—Herb Cohen, Irwin Dambrot, Floyd Layne, Norman Mager, Ed Roman, Al Roth and Warner—were arrested and charged with conspiring to fix games. The CCNY players were hardly alone. Some 30 players from six schools around the country, including powerhouses Kentucky and Bradley, would also be snared in the web. In some ways, however, the guys from CCNY were hit the hardest. The scandal ended their NBA hopes, prompted the suspension of the CCNY program and forever tarnished the '49-50 team's legacy.
Fifty years later the crime for Warner and his former teammates, each of whom went on to a productive career, might be that so few fans remember how special they were. Coach Nat Holman's Beavers not only made history in sweeping the NIT and NCAA crowns but also lit up New York City as no college team before them had. In those days the city featured some of the top programs in college basketball, including CCNY, Fordham, Long Island University, Manhattan, NYU, and St. John's, and crowds of 18,000 packed Madison Square Garden for doubleheaders. CCNY, with a starting five that comprised two black and three Jewish players, all of them hometown boys, rivaled the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers in local popularity. Students at CCNY, dubbed the poor man's Harvard because of its lofty academic standards, lived and died with every game, raising arena roofs with their unique school cheer:
Allagaroo garoo gara,
Allagaroo garoo gara,
Sis boom bah,
Team! Team! Team!
In the years leading up to the '49-50 season CCNY had fielded competitive teams but none that could challenge for the national title. After the '47-48 season, however, Holman's assistant, Harold (Bobby) Sand, helped boost the program to the next level by recruiting five of the city's top high school players-Cohen, Layne, Roman, Roth and Warner. After the scandal broke, it was alleged that some of the players had "back-doored" the admissions process with forged entrance papers, while others had been offered summer jobs and other inducements to attend CCNY. (The players disputed this.) The college, wishing to stay competitive in what was becoming an increasingly important arena, apparently looked the other way.
By the time the '49-50 season rolled around, CCNY's sophomore class had joined with holdovers Dambrot and Mager to form the nucleus of a championship team. The starting five featured the 6'2" Roth and the 6'4" Layne at guard, the 6'3�" Warner and the 6'4" Dambrot at forward, with the 6'6" Roman at center. Mager, a 6'4" outside shooter, was the sixth man, and the 5'11" Cohen also provided support off the bench.
On offense the Beavers played intelligently and unselfishly, moving the ball to the open man and hitting cutters for wide-open layups. On defense they employed a switching man-to-man defense that often left opponents tied in knots. It was New York City basketball, and the Garden crowds loved it.
"It was sort of like the way Princeton plays today," recalls Dambrot, a retired dentist living in New Jersey. "Constant ball movement, screens, backdoors, pick-and-rolls. We got a lot of easy shots." The Beavers ran clinics against most of the teams they played.
Unfortunately, gambling was common at the time, and the invention of the point spread in the late '40s had made college basketball players easy targets for local wise guys. According to some accounts, including Scandals of '51, a book published in 1978 by Charles Rosen, unbeknownst to their coach, Cohen, Dambrot, Mager, Roman and Roth were in cahoots with gamblers during the season and some or all of them agreed to shave points in three games, including one they lost. CCNY put together a 17-5 record, earning the last spot in the 12-team NIT field. The gamblers approached some of the CCNY players about rigging the postseason, but the Beavers refused.