I did not have a prominent place in coach Tom Blackburn’s thinking as practice began for the 1961-62 season. For the team picture, Tom placed the players destined to be benchwarmers in the back row.
I’m near the middle of the back row.
Four players had locks on starting positions, the Hatton brothers (Gordie and Tommy) at guard, forward Garry Roggenburk and center
Bill Chmielewski. In early-season games, Blackburn tried a big lineup with 6-10 Bill Westerkamp as the fifth starter. Westerkamp played center, and Chim moved to a forward spot. So one of them had to guard a forward, and neither was used to guarding a man who was facing the basket. But we won our first six games.
Our first loss was to a good Wisconsin team. Two more wins were followed by an unexpected 10-point loss to Canisius and then a devastating 20-point loss to 8th-ranked Duquesne. After the Duquesne game, UD students hung Tom in effigy. He was quoted as saying, “We are just not a very good team.”
During this stretch, Tom tried Stan Greenberg and Ron Anello as starters while I continued to warm the bench. After a close win over Louisville at home, we were trounced by 1961 (and soon to be 1962) NCAA champion Cincinnati.
Tommy Hatton, who was our team’s co-captain with Garry, told me later that after the Cincinnati loss Tom asked him, “Well, what do we do now?” And Tommy replied, “Try Schoen.” He did.
Tom told me I would start against Eastern Kentucky and guard their top scorer. Don Donoher, Tom’s top scout, worked with me on how to defend my man. Rather than follow the usual rule at the time that a defensive man should always stay between his man and the basket, I was to stay between my man and the ball. The man I was guarding was a good shot but did not move quickly without the ball. Don’s work with me was right on target. My man scored just six points while I scored 14 and had 10 rebounds. We won, 97-66.
I started and played well in two close wins against tough DePaul and Drake teams, but then we had a one-point loss at Xavier.
The season’s low point for me was the next game, when Detroit came to Dayton with its first-team All-American, 6-6 Dave DeBusschere. I prepared to fight him hard for position inside. On Detroit’s first possession DeBusschere came down court, pulled up and swished a 25-foot jump shot. The next time, the same, then a fake and a drive in for a lay-up. Then more long jump shots, hardly ever missing. Tom took me out and tried two or three of my
teammates on him and then me again later. DeBusschere scored 44 points, the most by a visiting player in the history of the UD Fieldhouse. We lost by 22.
After the game, our furious coach put us through practice, including very punishing running drills.
About that time Tom told me, “Don’t worry about scoring. These other guys can score. You just concentrate on stopping the man you’re guarding.” I became pretty good at overplaying players so they had a hard time getting the ball. Based on Don Donoher’s scouting reports, I would prepare for where the player I was to guard was likely to go on the court to get the ball so I could beat him to the spot. On offense, I mainly tried to get the ball to our center.
The team really began to click then, winning our last seven season games, the last six by an average margin of 16 points.
At 20-6, we were one of 12 teams in the NIT.
Wins over Wichita, Houston and Loyola of Chicago by an average of 14 points took us to the finals against St. John’s. The game was on national television, the first game of a college basketball doubleheader. The second game was the 1962 NCAA Tournament finals in which Cincinnati beat Ohio State
for the second-straight year.
The day before the final game, I wrote my brother Jim trying to tell him of the contrast between basketball in the barn where he and I had practiced together in my high school years and in Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s had beaten Duquesne by 10 points in their semifinal game to bring their record to 23-5. They had three NIT championships in 13 appearances. The Garden was almost like their home court.
But we won the game, 73-67.
With a little under a minute left, St. John’s coach Joe Lapchick walked over and shook Tom’s hand, congratulating him on his first NIT win after five second-place finishes.
Chim was MVP, and Gordie was on the all-NIT team.
Tom grinned from ear to ear when he accepted the championship trophy, saying, “It’s been a long time coming, and I’m going to hang onto it and enjoy it as long as I can.”
In the media, Tom was very complimentary of all his players including me. He said that I had played great defense during the tournament. In Sports Illustrated’s April 2, 1962, issue, he is quoted as saying we were “The best team I’ve ever had” — a complete reversal of his early January assessment, “We are just not a very good team.”
The above is an abridgment of a chapter from Schoen’s memoir, Growing Up, available from Amazon as a paperback or an e-book.