It is not possible to get a definitive read on the commercial climate of 1954 from the program sold at the NCAA basketball tournament in Kansas City, but this is interesting: The ad inside the front cover featured "Mr. Basketball," Minneapolis Lakers star center George Mikan, wearing the Sureshot made by U.S. Keds (team-color laces available). Competing inside the back cover was the omnipresent Converse All Star, the sport's dominant footwear, featuring the signed ankle patch of the rather mysterious Chuck Taylor.
Before this season, of course, most of college basketball's commerce had been under the table, as far as the general fan was concerned. Interest in an already quaint and regional pastime had been crippled by point-shaving scandals in 1951, and confidence in this innocent little playground game was now shattered. Attendance from 1950 to 1954 was halved. There was no TV coverage of the NCAA tournament, never had been, of course, but now there was scarcely any print presence either. Perhaps eight scribes littered press row, leafing through that program and wishing they were anywhere else.
Only outlaws, up to this point, had figured a way to make this game pay. College basketball was otherwise innocent of economic opportunity, and the chance to participate in what ought to have been a sporting bonanza was largely unrecognized. (Did we say there was no TV?) The game was, except for an eager booster here and there, fairly pure, which is to say, without sponsorship. Maybe a shoemaker could exploit what little interest there was, sell a few sneakers. Good for them.
Removed from their sphere of fame, even the players found the proceedings uninviting and, almost to a man, wished—like the reporters at courtside—that they were somewhere else. The NIT, which at least guaranteed the focus of New York's media, was the place to be. La Salle had been at Madison Square Garden each of the last four years, winning the tournament two years before, in 1952, behind the play of freshman sensation Tom Gola. The NIT was big. When the Explorers won, Gola was invited to be on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town show. Didn't get to say a word, but there was old Ed, on national TV, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Gola!" and Gola walking out in his new suit.
But the NCAA's recent rule mandating that league champions play in its "East-West" tournament did not give players a choice. When La Salle got its automatic entry as champion of the Middle Atlantic States Athletic conference, Gola looked around the locker room and said, "Sorry, guys, we're going to Kansas City." Kansas City's Municipal Stadium, you need hardly be told, was not the Garden, the Mecca of basketball. There were no showers, no locker rooms even; players dressed in their hotel rooms. If your parents wanted to watch you play, they'd have to drive—a long way.
Gola, of course, could hardly have complained, wouldn't have anyway. He was the son of a Philly cop with a pretty good shooting percentage of his own ("Poppa's all right," Mom told the kids one night, dinner having been interrupted by a phone call. "He hit the robber three times with five shots") and did not have great expectations to begin with. And, besides, he could have easily ended up at Kentucky, where the team was spending its one-year probation playing unofficial games (albeit to packed houses). Before the Wildcats were punished by the NCAA, he had gone to visit the school on a recruiting trip in 1950. The great Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp took him out to see his tobacco barns and look at his Angus cows. Oddly Rupp never said a word about basketball.
He also could have ended up at North Carolina State. During his visit there a booster had sidled up to him and promised him $250 a month. Gola, after all, was 6'7" and growing, and he could play three positions.
It was a heady time, that prescandal era, and deals could be made, were expected to be made. (Wait—was Rupp offering him a cow, was that what that was about?) College basketball, briefly anyway, was the best game money could buy, and players knew it. But Gola, maybe because he was a cop's son, wasn't particularly on the take. Here's how hometown La Salle countered Gola's other offers: scholarships for him and his two brothers, plus a job in the library, cataloging and gold-leafing books, $15 a week. Deal. Gola, his head full of Dewey decimal numbers instead of point spreads, was lucky to be where he was when it all came crashing down, feds crawling over campuses, programs being shuttered.
Gola was having a terrific season and was the toast of the game, averaging 23 points and making everybody's All-America team, not that the world was paying much attention. The game had been badly damaged, and promotion of the sport had grown difficult. The only business that seemed untouched by scandal in 1954 was the sale of athletic shoes. Witness that tournament program: The rivalry between Keds and Converse was growing contentious, with the U.S. Rubber Company trying to muscle in on the Converse Rubber Company with its U.S. Sureshot ("The Shoes of Champions—They Wash"). It was tough going because kids thought they needed that Chuck Taylor ankle patch to certify their seriousness about the sport.
Not that many kids had any clue who Taylor was. He was a rather distant figure by 1954, having made his name back in the Depression, playing for teams like the New York Celtics, the Buffalo Germans and the Akron Firestones. Taylor joined Converse in 1918 and became famous in the shoe industry. By 1954 virtually all the players, with the exception of Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers, were wearing shoes—had to have those shoes—peddled by somebody they couldn't have identified in a million years. "The sole reason, but not the only reason, why All Stars dominate," read the back page of the program. And there, on the page, was Chuck Taylor's signature.