Ivy League basketball is generally a cut below that of any major college conference in the country. Some feel this comes from a relatively casual attitude toward sports, but, more tangibly, it is the result of the absorption of Ivy students in the tougher academic programs which are enforced in their schools.
Yet the League occasionally produces basketball teams which can go with the fastest company. This year Harvard leads all 167 major colleges in team defense and Columbia ranks fourth in offense. There are also individuals who would be in the first five on any team in the country and would automatically attract All-America notices if they played at places like North Carolina and Kansas. They include deadeye Chet Forte of Columbia, tough Defenseman Gene Booth of Dartmouth and Yale's red-haired, freckle-faced Johnny Lee (see cover).
Last year, as a sophomore, Lee set a new single-season League record in scoring (337), eclipsing performances of such college and, later, professional players as Ernie Beck, Bud Palmer and Tony Lavelli. So this season, in practically every game, he finds himself double-teamed or facing a sliding, over-shifted zone defense which keeps two men on him all the time. As he puts it, "There seem to be hands all around me. It's hard to move in any direction without charging."
One result of this obvious flattery is that Lee undoubtedly will come nowhere near his scoring mark of last season. Another, though, is that he is now a far more valuable member of his team. Any player on whom the opposing defense concentrates its attention is useful as a decoy. But in Lee's case that value is vastly increased because, unlike many other college stars (Rosenbluth of Carolina is one), he knows how to play basketball when he does not have personal possession of the ball. He's always moving—feinting, faking, forcing opposing players to commit themselves prematurely. When he does have the ball? "With two men on me," he says, "there has to be a man open somewhere. I look for him. I've been pretty lucky finding him so far." Typical example of this took place the other day in Yale's game with Connecticut, perennial Yankee Conference champion and recent winner of the Orange Bowl tournament. The last two baskets scored—they won the game for Yale—were made on passes from Lee.
January 21, 1957
Lee's biggest fault as a player is lack of real speed afoot. This is partially redeemed by his quick and sure hands. Many of his shots are sailing toward the basket before opposing players are aware he has committed himself. When he passes, he moves, on the instant. But his biggest asset is that indispensable—and indefinable—something called basketball savvy, which enables its lucky possessor to do many things instinctively in the heat of competition which others try, often vainly, to teach themselves through practice. One of these is the ability to pace oneself—the innate ability that keeps a player like Lee from wasting physical energy in useless movement, or nervous energy in castigating himself, during a game, for his own errors. Another is the split-second reflex enabling him to take advantage of an opponent's error before that opponent can recover.
Lee, a green-eyed, 6-foot 2½-inch 200-pounder, probably inherited this savvy. His father, a fine all-round athlete, came to this country as a member of the All-Ireland soccer team in 1919, liked what he saw, and stayed. His mother swam in amateur competition around her native Boston and still teaches the sport in New York City's Abraham Lincoln High School. She planned a swimming career for her son, had him in the water before he was a year old. When Lee was in the fourth grade, he was already beating New York high school champions in his specialty, the butterfly stroke. But other sports (football, basketball) and hobbies (music, photography) soon crowded swimming out of the picture. At Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School Lee played clarinet in the orchestra and basketball for four years. He made the high school All-America in his junior and senior years and was senior class president. Despite these and other extracurricular duties, he maintained a 93 average.
In his senior year at Erasmus, Lee received scholarship offers from 65 colleges—schools in every section of the country and of every degree of academic respectability. He narrowed the choice to 15, visited those campuses and came home to think. Though he'd already decided on a career in chemical engineering, that was not the deciding factor in his choice of Yale. Today he explains it this way, "I didn't want to be just another college athlege with nowhere to go after he graduated.... If I'd gone to some of those other schools, I'd have ended up with nothing to show for it but four years of basketball—and a 4-year-old convertible."
Lee's schedule at Yale, where he's an honor student, might well shock athletes at non-Ivy universities, most of whom are through with classes by noon, relax and do homework in the afternoon, practice either before or after dinner or both, and then have their nights off. Lee's classes and labs keep him busy right through until 4:30 practice time. (Last season, because of a heavy lab schedule, he missed practice for weeks at a stretch, though he played in all games. He's able to start homework about 8, often hits the books on past midnight.
In his first year as Yale's basketball coach, after nine in the Big Ten, Joe Vancisin has had to adapt to many new situations. ("Here everything is smaller—the field houses, the attendance, even the players.") In Johnny Lee, whose skill, field generalship and both-feet-on-the-ground solidity would warm the heart of any coach, Vancisin has found a player to help him through a first-season adjustment. Last week Vancisin had this to say: "Johnny's not only a student of basketball, but a real student in school—exactly what he's supposed to be."
An alternating current of victory and defeat for favorites appears to be the persistent theme of conference play as races gather momentum around the country. In the Big Ten, Minnesota started the merry-go-round by beating preseason choice Illinois 91-88. Two nights later Illinois turned on defending champion Iowa 81-70, and Iowa then completed the circle by overwhelming Minnesota 89-66. Undoubtedly no coincidence, all three games were won by the home team, as were nine of the first 13 Big Ten contests. Indiana and Northwestern also suffered first conference losses. Purdue, with former National Collegiate Golf Champion Joe Campbell leading a last-half surge, beat the Hoosiers 70-64. And Michigan, using only six men, upset Northwestern 64-63 despite Joe Ruklick's 27 points.
In the Big Seven, a Missouri team largely dependent on Sophomores Sonny Siebert and Bill Ross knocked Iowa State out of its national ranking (seventh) with seeming ease, 77-59. But State maintained the pattern by coming back later in the week to swamp Drake 97-71, with little (5 feet 9) Gary Thompson passing the 1,000-point mark in his career by hitting for 27. More pattern in the Missouri Valley: Wichita 69, St. Louis 64; St. Louis 84, Detroit 75.
Kansas (now 12-0) and North Carolina (14-0) continued as the major exceptions to the national in-and-out theme. And a new source of concern to future Kansas opponents (as if they didn't have enough worries) appeared when Wilt Chamberlain began showing results of practice aimed at correcting his weakness from the free-throw line. He hit on eight out of 10 in Kansas' 59-51 victory over Oklahoma. In a later game he kept his national scoring leadership by accounting for 30 of his team's 51 points (to Kansas State's 45). For Carolina, Len Rosenbluth continued hot and cold—hot with 30 against Virginia, cold with 10 against William and Mary, hot again with 34 against Clemson. Carolina, of course, won all three and found itself alone on top of the Atlantic Coast Conference as Maryland (the home team, again) beat Duke 62-51. The Terrapins' Johnny Nacincik took charge of this one by scoring 16 of his 17 points (high for the game) in the second half.
The unquestioned superiority of Southern Methodist (in conference play, that is, since they've lost to Kentucky) has put the Southwest race in the ho-hum stage after just two weeks of play. Last season SMU led the country in free-throw accuracy at 76.4%. In making TCU their latest victim, 79-63, the Mustangs hit at an 82% pace. Earlier they penetrated a tight Texas Aggie zone defense for a 62-53 victory. The only team with a reasonable chance of challenging SMU may be fast-improving Rice, 76-66 conquerors of Texas. After that game, pennies, paper and orange peeling showered down on the floor at Austin as home team partisans expressed their opinion of officials who had called 33 fouls against Texas to 13 against Rice. When the demonstration threatened to get out of hand, police were called in to escort the officials to safety. Longhorn supporters, however, got final release for their feelings the next day by hanging officials Bo McAllister and Harry Covin in effigy from an apartment house near the Texas campus. The effigy was dubbed "ref" and had one eye.
Wyoming, favored in the Skyline race, appears to be suffering an acute case of "sophomoritis." They lost two out of three for the week to make it a three-way title fight among the Cowboys, Utah and Brigham Young.
California now has a 5-0 record in Pacific Coast Conference play. This alone would make the Bears the team to beat for the title. But they've also received unexpected help. The NCAA has refused to approve the PCC's lifting of penalties against Washington, UCLA and USC—which establishes California as a virtual cinch to represent the conference in the western regional playoffs. Earl Robinson and Larry Friend, as usual, were the big guns in California's two victories over Oregon and one over Stanford.
National Champion San Francisco lost its first California Association game (after 31 wins) to Santa Clara 51-47. More important, the Dons also lost senior Forward Carl Boldt. Coach Phil Woolpert suspended Boldt indefinitely for breaking training rules and said he did not expect to reinstate him for the remainder of the season. Boldt was a regular on the Russell-Jones team last year.
The week's individual accolade, finally, goes to Columbia's Chet Forte. This slight, 5-foot-9 sharpshooter broke Columbia's scoring record of 42, and a local gym record of 41, with 44 points as his team beat Rutgers 93-82.