Hurrying across the campus tundra, bundled up in layers of Eskimo over-wear, the men of Columbia University looked a bit cheerier than usual last week, as if they had just signed up for Intermediate Japanese and found out the professor gave only A's. But the real reason was basketball. Columbia has a team to be cheerful about, which is on the far side of phenomenal. Possibly because it is buried in the concrete of Manhattan, Columbia's soil is far less encouraging to the flowering of athletic excellence than even that of its fellow Ivy League establishments. And for most of its students, the pursuit of scholarship is unrelieved by intimations of glory in the games undergraduates play. So it is a pleasure as well as a surprise on Morningside Heights that the Lions, having won the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden, threaten Princeton's Ivy supremacy and are considered to be one of the 10 best in the nation.
Few schools needed the boost more. Last summer a man named Robert L. Strickman gave Columbia licensing and royalty rights to a cigarette filter he invented but, instead of the anticipated influx of gold, there has been nothing but bad publicity and a request from the donor to end the agreement. Oh, well, it's hard to rally around a filter. How about football? No chance. The coach recently resigned, the athletic director is leaving and the team's best hope is that next fall it won't have to practice on an unsodded parking lot.
For a while this year, basketball was a failure, also. Before the season, the small band of genuine enthusiasts had been hopeful. There was Dave Newmark, more than a millimeter bigger than king-size at 7'¼", who had played well as a sophomore and then stayed out a year because of illness. There was Roger Walaszek, who led in scoring and made All-Ivy last season. And there were two sophomores, Heyward Dotson and Jim McMillian, who were supposed to make the sweetest music at the Heights since Rodgers and Hart, two Columbia alumni.
Sure enough, the Lions battered their first four opponents. McMillian scored 39 points against NYU and got a congratulatory note from the guys on the seventh floor at John Jay Hall, BLUE POWER and ROAR LIONS, roar buttons began to appear on campus. Then Columbia traveled to Cornell, Georgetown and Fordham and lost three in a row.
From that low point, the Lions went into the Garden's Christmas tournament and did a complete turnaround. They beat favored West Virginia, and Louisville and St. John's, both nationally ranked, to take the title, and McMillian won the MVP award. During the course of the week, Columbia alumni everywhere became basketball fans, not to mention the students, one of whom came back a week early from Christmas vacation in Florida to see the final game. That might not be unusual behavior at Ohio State, but it is nearly unthinkable on the Heights. The Garden was full of Old Pale Blues and when de-icers on the aerial at Columbia's FM station, WKCR, failed to work during the Louisville game, alumni demanded and got a taped replay before the final game.
The Lions have followed up the festival heroics with convincing victories over a good Yale team (Newmark scored 40 points), Brown and Colgate, and they have done it with one of the strongest defenses in the East and a patient, intelligent offense that somehow manages to get McMillian free right under the basket time and again (not that he needs to be that close to score). What happened to change things between the third loss and the start of the festival?
For one thing, Coach Jack Rohan persuaded his men to play a deliberate style, which suits their talents. For another, according to Heyward Dotson, there was an "airing out; we leveled with each other." Apparently, the Lions did a little roaring among themselves.
Where they usually do their roaring is not Madison Square Garden but 69 blocks north in a dismal little building called University Hall Gymnasium, put up in 1896 as a temporary structure. Today it would be barely fitting for a church-basement league. Only 1,756 spectators can squeeze in, and their view of the court depends on where they sit in relation to 10 fat pillars. When it is 70° outdoors, it is 90° in Coach Rohan's office, which is above the gym and across the running track.
There is some hope for a more cheerful, if not much bigger, field house. Columbia has a long lease on two acres in Morningside Park, which is a sort of buffer zone between the campus and the slums of West Harlem, and plans to build a $9.5 million gymnasium that will include a 4,400-seat basketball arena. An exercise room, swimming pool, basketball court and locker room would be for neighborhood kids, since the school would be using public land, but some politicians and local militants want much more. H. Rap Brown told a rally last month that if the gym is built, Negroes should "blow it up" or "burn it down" or "take it over."
Anyway, it was in the old dump that Newmark scored his 40 against Yale and the Lions stomped Brown and Colgate. Newmark and McMillian, both Brooklyn boys, have generally been the heroes, but the team would be considerably less successful without Dotson, a 6'4" guard from Staten Island who played center in high school. His quickness helps him play excellent defense (he did a superb job on Louisville's Butch Beard), and he has a good chance to break the Columbia record for assists. Although Dotson lived on Staten Island, he attended an advanced-curriculum high school in Manhattan—getting up every morning at 6, taking a bus to the ferry, riding the ferry to Manhattan, taking another bus to school in time for his first class and not getting home again until 8:30 p.m.
Virtually every member of this talented, team is as motivated as Dotson. They seem to be more interested in where to go to graduate school than in which pro team will draft them. Typical are Senior Guard Bill Ames, who will do graduate work in international affairs at Columbia or Stanford, and Ken Brown, who is going to medical school. Newmark rates with the others intellectually, but he has a sort of hang-loose, take-your-sweet-time manner that makes him stand out, apart from his height and his cowboy sideburns. He was going to be a lawyer, a reasonable ambition for a boy from Brighton Beach, but he worked as an understudy in a Broadway show and for a Columbia alumnus at ABC-TV sports during his year away, and it now looks as if the legal profession has lost him to more glamorous pursuits. Wherever he ends up, he'll still be loose. "Gee, you must be a basketball player," said an awestruck uniformed policeman recently.
"And you must be a cop," said Dave.
Rohan, a Columbia man himself, finds it a pleasure to work with such players, but it does have its unusual aspects. The other day he spent all afternoon writing recommendations to go along with Bill Ames' graduate-school applications, which is at least a switch from the more normal coaching duty of keeping players from flunking out. And he does his job with a combination of gentility and wit. About his rambunctious 14-month-old son, Chris, he says, "The scouting report on him is that he goes both ways—often."
Recently a student entered his office and announced he would like to come out for basketball. It was the middle of the season, and the young man's sole explanation was, "I did play high school ball." Jack did not embarrass the boy but told him he could come out next year. "I didn't want to hurt his feelings," he said. "I'll let him come out, cut him after a while, and he can tell his friends that I'm an idiot."
Rohan does mighty well in the pure coaching department, too. While his Lions were beating Colgate last Saturday night 94-68 and McMillian was scoring 30, the determined defense and slick-passing offense he teaches (glimpsed around a pillar) was marvelously entertaining.
Between the Strickman filter and the basketball team, it has been one of the most exciting school years for Columbia men since all-girl Barnard College moved across the street in 1897 (Barnard is legally separate but uses Columbia's switchboard, steam heat and supply of eligible males). The university actually owns the property on which Rockefeller Center stands and, after beating CCNY, NYU and St. John's, Lion partisans feel the rest of the city is theirs, too. One little boy, the son of an alumnus, left the Garden the night of the festival finale, looked up at the Manhattan skyline and said, "Gee, this is a big town to own, huh, Dad?"