Basketball was a slower game half a century ago, in those less frenzied days before hang time, Showtime and shot clocks. It was slower but certainly not immobile, especially when Purdue's fast-breaking Boilermakers took the floor. That's why 8,500 fans in West Lafayette, Ind., gaped in wonder on Feb. 7, 1938, when Purdue's Pat Malaska sat on the basketball and ate an Eskimo Pie.
"There was nothing else to do," says Malaska, now 74. "They wouldn't come near me, and I was getting hungry."
Malaska was called Poosh 'Em Up Pat because he moved the ball up the floor so quickly (that spelling of push is thought to be an attempt to capture an Indiana accent). He had starred as a basketball guard and football halfback at Crawfordsville ( Ind.) High. At Purdue he made All-Big Ten as a sophomore in 1936 and as a senior in '38. "One of the most unusual dribblers I've ever gazed upon," wrote Jack Leddon in the South Bend Tribune. "His head bobs as he pounds the ball and he looks like a mechanical toy doing the Charleston as he drives down the court. Johnny Wooden never moved the ball any faster, and that's saying something."
While at Purdue, Malaska pestered his football-hating hoops coach, Ward (Piggy) Lambert, to let him try out for the football team. Lambert at last acquiesced in the fall of '36. "Go on, kill yourself," said Lambert.
"And I durn near did," says Malaska.
In those days a potbellied stove heated the water for the football players' showers, and gasoline was used to remove the tape from their ankles and wrists. After a preseason practice, one of the players opened the stove door. The shower room went up in flames. "I tried to run, but I fell and couldn't get up," recalls Malaska, who was standing just outside the shower room when the fire started. "I remember thinking, What a horrible way to die."
Two players did die. Wearing only his jockstrap, Malaska escaped with the help of teammate Lowell Decker. Collapsing outside on the grass, Malaska watched the blackened bottoms of his feet drop off. His midsection was so seared that for 10 years he carried the imprint of a jockstrap around his waist.
After two months in the hospital, he started the first game of the 1936-37 basketball season, against Western State. Wearing support socks to protect the tender skin of his lower legs and wringing blood from the socks during timeouts, he scored 11 points.
"Pat was tough, very aggressive," says Lou Boudreau, the baseball Hall of Earner who played guard and forward for Illinois at the time. "And quick—when we guarded each other it was speed against speed."
With Malaska playing tough defense, scoring six points a game and dishing off to All-America forward Jewell Young, the Boilermakers finished fourth in the Big Ten in 1936-37. They fared considerably better the next season. PURDUE'S GREAT CAGE QUINTET RATED AS BEST SCORING MACHINE IN AMERICA, read a headline in The Indianapolis Star. On Feb. 7, 1938, the Boilermakers were 4-1 in Big Ten play and needed a victory to tie Northwestern for the lead. Their only loss had been to Illinois by eight points.