SI Vault
Richard J. Schaap
February 04, 1957
A little-known but active group off talent scouts has reversed a famed escape route. They 'liberate' Bronx and Brooklyn stars and channel them south
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February 04, 1957

Basketball's Underground Railroad

A little-known but active group off talent scouts has reversed a famed escape route. They 'liberate' Bronx and Brooklyn stars and channel them south

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This week, as the 1956-57 college basketball season passed the halfway point, the only major unbeaten team left, North Carolina, was ranked first in the nation. Led by Brooklynites Lennie Rosenbluth, Pete Brennan and Joe Quigg, nine of the 12 varsity players were from metropolitan New York. Here is the hitherto untold story of a group of New York athletic "consultants" and the methods they employ to channel many of the best prospects south to Coach Frank McGuire's North Carolina Tarheels .

In a cramped Bronx apartment not far from the Yankee Stadium, a short, balding gentleman in his 70s dipped a thin hand into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a neat business card. In the center of it was printed his name, William F. Kenney, and in the lower left corner appeared the legend, "Consultant on Outstanding Athletes; Baseball, Basketball, Football, Track and Swimming."

Surrounded by a clutter of college and prep-school catalogs, the loquacious William F. Kenney was unaccountably reticent when it was suggested that he pose for his picture. He was by no means as shy with his tongue, however.

"I been at this business longer than anyone else," he said. "Over 30 years, and personally I'm responsible for over a couple hundred boys in college." Among those Kenney claims as satisfied clients: Villanova, Fordham, Manhattan, St. Anselm's of New Hampshire, St. John's of Brooklyn, St. Michael's of Vermont, the U.S. Naval Academy and, more recently, North Carolina. When challenged about his reference to the academy, Kenney bragged that Basketball Coach Ben Carnevale "is one of my closest friends."

Only a week earlier a special-delivery letter from Kenney, delivered in the fresh hours of the morning at a two-story white frame house about 25 miles outside of New York, had dragged a high school basketball coach from bed.

"I just received an urgent request from my good friend Head Coach John W. Bach, Fordham University, for a man over six feet four inches for immediate delivery," Kenney wrote. "He could enter on a full athletic scholarship this Feb. term. He is desperate and has not got a good scouting staff.

"You mentioned in a recent conversation that I had with you during the Xmas holiday about a good ballplayer getting out [of high school] this semester ending Jan. 30th 1956. I will recommend him to Coach Bach on your full approval..."

The coach carefully reread the letter, shrugged and staggered back to his bed. By that time he was used to receiving odd requests at all hours from curious men who described themselves as "basketball talent hunters."

With the midseason examination period behind the players, New York's free-lance scouts now are girding for their crucial season of the year. By Kansas standards, where an entire community combined forces to bring Wilt Chamberlain to the Lawrence campus, their free-enterprise methods seem quaintly old-fashioned. An All-State Texas high school football player, used to broken-field running among the blandishments of civic leaders, oil and cattle men, might consider New York's scouts low-pressure and slightly ineffectual. But they are a colorful, fast-speaking and independent lot who enjoy the intimacy of the big talk that surrounds big-time athletics. Generally, they are lone wolves who hang around bandbox high school gymnasiums, looking, and no doubt feeling, like movie versions of swift operators. This is their distinctive New York way, neither better nor worse than recruiting elsewhere in the country and, judging by the results, just as effective. Above all else, they take themselves seriously. The cynics who think that all there is to spotting a basketball player is a yardstick are fair game for their most withering contempt.

"You should use only a yardstick!" Harry Gotkin, a New York garment manufacturer, counters. "You'll get murdered. It takes good judgment to scout basketball players. The whole business is a rat race."

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