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One would imagine that during the week between decking the halls with boughs of holly and welcoming in the New Year with booze and bowl games, Americans would just relax and watch their Christmas trees turn brown. Maybe glue Barbie's head back on or arrange a Lionel train wreck. But the hoofprints of Comet, Cupid and the others were still fresh on snowy rooftops last week when holiday basketball tournament time arrived in dozens of cities. There were the Blue Water Classic and the Northern New Jersey Kiwanis Tournament, the Sugar Bowl Tournament and the Hurricane Classic, the All-College Tournament and the Gator Bowl Tournament, the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden and—with the best field of all—the Quaker City Tournament in Philadelphia's Palestra. One of the reasons it was the best was the presence of the University of Louisville (U. of L. to its followers), rated second to UCLA and undefeated in its first eight games, all at home. Louisville's Cardinals won the tourney as expected, ran their record to 11-0 and demonstrated they had the talented personnel to maybe, perhaps, generally speaking and possibly, give UCLA a battle for the national championship.
Most of the talent resides in room 312 of Miller Hall on the Louisville campus, the home address of two boys named Westley Unseld and Alfred (Butch) Beard Jr. Unseld is a 6-foot-8, 250-pound junior, and if you want to know how many scholarships he was offered, just count how many schools (a) play basketball, (b) allow Negroes to play or (c) would drop racial barriers if he enrolled. Wes led Seneca High of Louisville to the state championship (beating the team on which Beard was a junior) and decided to go to college in his hometown, where his family could see him play. His older brother, George, had gone off to Kansas to perform and had not been too happy, so Wes did not become a Jayhawk, even though Kansas hired his high school coach as an assistant. Younger brother Isaac, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound high school sophomore, was pushing for Purdue. One day Isaac was thumbing through their mother's polite thanks-but-no-thanks letters to all the losing recruiters and burst into tears when he found one to Purdue. The Purdue coach must have cried, too.
Unseld had a fine sophomore season last year, finishing second in the nation in rebounding despite a knee injury that helped him get overweight. Only once was he beaten on combined scoring-rebound totals, and that was when he got in foul trouble early. "I don't know of any absolute weakness Unseld has," says his coach, Peck Hickman.
Butch Beard is a slender sophomore from Hardinsburg, Ky., where he learned to shoot at an old bucket rim. His high school team won the state title once Unseld went to college, and he was even sought after by Kentucky, where no Negroes have played basketball as yet. His mother was a housekeeper-cook for a Louisville booster, which inclined him toward the school. Besides, Beard wanted to play with Unseld and not against him anymore. He went into the Quaker City with a 22.5 points-a-game average (tops on the team) and 9.5 rebounds a game, second only to Unseld's 22.8. Beard gave the impression it was no trouble at all to play in the Palestra, because there were no wind currents, and "shooting buckets" was just an expression.
There was a nice supporting cast, too. Jerry King, a 6-foot-5 sophomore from Louisville, has such a deadeye jump shot that 70 colleges were after him. Senior Guard Dave Gilbert from Dayton, Ohio averaged 10.5 points a game last year, and 6-foot-3 junior Guard Fred Holden from Youngstown, Ohio averaged 13.8. They are a cocky bunch of boys, who seemed likely to challenge the Philadelphia 76ers to a pickup game as long as they were in the same city. As they assembled in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel for the ride to the Palestra and the first round, one of them said to Peck's wife, " Mrs. Hickman, you go to the ball game and take it easy. No sweat."
Well, Mrs. Hickman may not have perspired, but the Cardinals did, and they should have realized they were going to by looking at the lineup of teams. The Eastern College Athletic Conference even felt it could afford to move Providence out of the Quaker City and into the Holiday Festival in New York (where the Friars won). Niagara had been beaten only once and had a 6-foot-8 center of its own. Michigan State was once-beaten and a favorite in the Big Ten. Villanova was a rebuilding, sophomore team, but Coach Jack Kraft had installed his horror of a zone, which leads the opposing coach to keep counting throughout the game to make sure only five men are playing it. Besides, no Quaker City Tournament had ever been won by a non- Philadelphia team. La-Salle had just been beaten by Louisville at Louisville, but was supposed to be the best of Philadelphia's Big Five. Syracuse, even though Dave Bing was gone to the pros, had been beaten only by tough Boston College. Bowling Green had lost twice, but had the returning Mid-American Conference scoring champ in 6-foot-8 Walt Piatkowski. And there were the Tigers of Princeton, whose coach, Willem Hendrik (Butch) van Breda Kolff is fond of saying, "We're just a small outfit trying to get by."
Princeton, like Louisville, came into the tournament undefeated. It had three seniors left over from the hallowed Bill Bradley era, but one of them, 6-foot-9 Robby Brown, hardly gets in the games anymore, although he started as a sophomore. He has been beaten out by 6-foot-9 sophomore Christopher Thomforde, a skinny, blond would-be Lutheran minister, who plays between 6-foot-7 Forwards Ed Hummer and John Haarlow. All three are elbows-and-knees string beans, who should be named Ichabod, but they shoot long, lovely jump shots that, in the parlance of those who attend holiday tourneys, hit only the bottom of the net. Van Breda Kolff seemed adequately equipped to "get by" all right. He did admit, taking out his cigar and smiling, "It may be the best since Bradley"—the team, not the cigar.
And, too, Louisville's sparkling 8-0 record was a bit of a phony, most of it coming at the expense of schools that may be known in Dogpatch, Ky. but nowhere else. First, there was the annual opener against Georgetown (the Baptist school in Kentucky, not the Catholic university in Washington). "They've never had a big boy," admitted Peck. Easy win. Then South-western Louisiana. Same story. But Southern Illinois was "real tough, lemme tell you; they're not going to lose many." Louisville won by four points. How about Tampa? "Fairly good personnel," said Peck. Louisville won by 52 points. And Bellarmine fell, too. "Our kids were pretty up for it," said Peck. Finally came some competition with the sixth game, but it still was at Louisville's Freedom Hall. The Cardinals showed their stuff by blasting Dayton 96-81 and then got by conference foe St. Louis.
His boys may not have been nervous before the Quaker City opener with Niagara, but Hickman was. He sat with friends before the game, but did not touch his steak dinner. He was quiet and unsmiling. He would have felt better had he seen an incident back at the Sheraton lobby. Niagara's two leading scorers, Manny Leaks and Bill Smith, wandered out of the elevators 15 or 20 minutes after their teammates had left for the Palestra. They looked startled when they saw no familiar faces, and took a cab. They got out on the floor late and probably did not get properly warmed up.
It showed in the game. Leaks, up against Unseld in the pivot, did not make a basket for 31 minutes. After the game Leaks called Unseld the greatest rebounder he had ever faced and said he was "too high" for the game. Too late is what he meant. Niagara opened with a zone, but the Cardinals, led by the gliding, graceful Beard (eight for 11 in the first half), shot the defense to pieces and were ahead by 17 points at half time. During the intermission, Syracuse Coach Fred Lewis compared Beard to Dave Bing for having "that quick step." He also raved about Beard's "perfect body control." Princeton's van Breda Kolff said, "It's a pleasure to watch him run down the floor at three-quarter speed, which is full speed for anybody else." Louisville won in a laugher, 98-73. Unseld tied a tournament record with 26 rebounds, Beard scored 27 points, and every starter hit in double figures. Hickman was much calmer in the locker room. "My '56 ball club was better than this one," he said. "This'll be the best ball club next season." And, he added, "Unseld's a pretty good boy...he wants to be a good basketball player." Niagara Coach Jim Maloney said, "I thought we met two All-Americas in Unseld and Beard."