At St. John's University, located where Union Turnpike crosses Utopia Parkway in the New York City borough of Queens, there is no stately fraternity row, no Observatory Hill, no Old Ox Road and no Cayuga's waters to be far above. A commuter school, St. John's has just a cluster of drab yellow-brick buildings and a beautiful basketball tradition. Since starting the sport in 1907 the Redmen have won more than a thousand games with lineups that have always featured kids off the New York playgrounds, kids with names like McGuire, Satalino and Garfinkel—courtwise kids who knew at age 10 that going backdoor was a basketball maneuver as well as a way to sneak out of the apartment.
It is the same today. Coach Frank Mulzoff, who was co-captain in 1951, and eight of his top 10 players are from Queens or neighboring Long Island towns. Leading scorer Billy Schaeffer was born just 10 blocks away from Alumni Hall, the campus gymnasium. To snare ace rebounder Ed Searcy, however, the school stretched its recruiting budget and reached all the way to Manhattan.
This was not supposed to be a vintage St. John's year. Six-foot-seven Forward Mel Davis, the nation's fourth leading rebounder two seasons in a row and a fine scorer as well, underwent knee surgery in August and decided to sit out the season. Making matters worse, Searcy became scholastically ineligible. So by Christmas time the team was struggling along with a 3-2 record, a pace not likely to attract postseason tournament bids. Then suddenly the picture brightened. Searcy regained his eligibility just before the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden and the Redmen won four games in five days to take the championship. Schaeffer pulled them through in the last seconds at Davidson and they ended Villanova's six-year home-court win streak. After two victories over Niagara and Fordham last week, St. John's owned a 17-2 record, had the longest winning streak in the school's modern-day history (14) and seemed eminently capable of challenging Providence as the best team in the East.
The 14 wins in a row are satisfying to Mulzoff not only because he is the coach, but also because he played on the team that had the old record of 12. He grew up in Queens, in the same neighborhood and at the same time as Bob Cousy, but he went to a Catholic high school in Brooklyn and played for St. John's when St. John's was still located in that borough. "I got my education riding the subways," he says. In college his most important duty was to be a steadying influence on a hotheaded, zany teammate named Al McGuire, who is now coach at Marquette. Coach Frank McGuire (no relation) would always send Mulzoff out to talk to the referees because he figured Al would forget his manners and start swinging.
It was naturally a thrill when, in the championship game of the Holiday Festival, St. John's beat South Carolina, loaded with New York kids recruited and coached by, yes, Frank McGuire—still around and going strong. Mulzoff called it "proof that those who stayed can beat those who went away."
Of those who stayed and went to St. John's, 6'5" Forward Billy Schaeffer is the best. The son of a retired New York cop, he is a shy, well-mannered senior who still dares in this hip age to wear a letterman's sweater. He did pretty well carrying the rebounding load until Searcy came back, and after last week's games he was one of the top five percentage shooters in the country with a .636 average, a figure usually reached only by giant centers who never wander more than three feet from the basket.
For all Schaeffer's proficiency, the Redmen had a scary time getting through their two games last week. Against Niagara they reverted to pre-Christmas form. Here were the poor, downtrodden Purple Eagles venturing into an unfriendly gym with a 7-11 record and two freshmen and a sophomore in their starting lineup. They might as well be trying to sprint across Union Turnpike at the rush hour. But that night Schaeffer would have had trouble dropping a golf ball into the Grand Canyon. He missed layups and jump shots. He blew free throws and finished with nine points, his season low. In the end, St. John's won because Searcy played almost the whole game with his head at hoop level, snatching 21 rebounds, and sophomore Mel Utley played as smoothly and calmly as any senior around. Niagara's full-court press at the end very nearly worked, but the final was 74-69.
Next day Mulzoff was terse with his team: "Our game is not bouncy, bouncy bailey. Run and shoot is our game."
Run and shoot they did Saturday afternoon in the Garden, but although Schaeffer located his shooting touch, other problems popped up. Like a sometimes porous defense and Searcy sitting out the second half with a sore back and city rival Fordham aching to score an upset. The Rams jumped out to an early lead, kept it most of the game, and when Center Tony Prince fouled out things looked rather grim. Since Searcy was also on the bench, all the rebounding was up to Schaeffer and freshman William (Beaver) Smith.
St. John's didn't grab the lead for good until, with 52 seconds left, freshman Guard Frank Alagia hit two free throws to make the score 74-73. With about 20 seconds left Beaver Smith stole the ball and started a fast break that ended with Mel Utley making the lay-up and getting fouled intentionally. He made both free throws and St. John's ran off, lucky to have a 78-73 win.
"Just a city game, a typical city battle." said Mulzoff. "A great New York City basketball game."
St. John's players, more than anybody, understand how to play that kind.