CHUCK STARK: Seattle U Was a Force in the '50s

When Seattle University and the University of Kentucky step on the floor for a men's basketball exhibition at Rupp Arena on Saturday at Lexington, Ky., it'll be more than a celebration of the 1958 NCAA men's basketball game played between those two schools.

It'll serve as an unofficial kickoff of Seattle U's return to big-time college basketball. This will be the school's final year competing in Division II, as the Redhawks plan to return to Division I for the 2008-09 season, playing an independent schedule.

"Everybody's excited to see Seattle U resurrecting themselves up to Division I status," said Jim Harney, a longtime Poulsbo resident, and former basketball coach at North Kitsap who will be part of Seattle's traveling party that leaves for Kentucky today.

Suffice to say, it'll be a little slower climb for the Jesuit school this time around.

"The first rise was meteoric," said Harney, a captain and starting guard on the Seattle U team that lost to Kentucky 84-72 in that 1958 championship game in Louisville. Ky.

The Chieftains owned the 1950s in Seattle, appearing in postseason play in eight of 10 seasons with just one losing record. Their record for the decade: 239-70.

An 84-81 victory over the Harlem Globetrotters in 1953 earned the team national attention. The O'Brien twins - Johnny and Eddie - were named All-Americans that year - the same year Harney graduated from Seattle Prep, and the same year Seattle U lost to a Bob Houbregs-led University of Washington team in the NCAA western regionals.

"I idolized the O'Briens," said Harney.

He said Seattle coach Al Brightman was the kind of guy you'd run through a wall for.

And Elgin Baylor, originally recruited to play football and basketball at the College of Idaho, was the kind of player you dream about playing with. The acrobatic forward is regarded as one of the all-time greats in basketball history.

Baylor wound up at Seattle after the Idaho junior college folded its athletic program. He sat out a season, playing for Westside Ford in the Seattle-area AAU league. Harney played for the Buchan Bakers during a sophomore redshirt year at Seattle U, and got a glimpse of the kind of talent he'd be playing with during his final two years.

"I always felt he was further ahead of the game than anybody else has ever been ahead of the game," Harney said. "Michael Jordan was the leader of the game when he played, but he always had somebody nipping at his heels."

Baylor would swoop and soar and do all those things that players like Jordan and Julius Erving were doing years later. He wasn't a one-man show, but Harney quickly figured out what he should do with the ball when he got past halfcourt.

The term point guard hadn't been invented, but in essence, that's the role Harney played. "I was left guard," said Harney, who said the best advice he ever got came from Georgia Tech coach John "Whacker" Hyde. He told him to keep feeding Baylor the ball.

"That became a goal of mine, try to get him the ball," he said. "It just kind of became my secret to staying in the lineup. He was so phenomenal.

"... He came down on a break one night and wanted to throw a behind-the-back pass on the right side of the lane," Harney said. "The guy (defender) guessed where it was going to go, so Elgin caught the ball in his left hand, shifted it to the right hand and made a hook shot."

The Chieftains took on the best teams in the country during that era, and usually came out on top. Bradley, a national powerhouse at the time, had its 66-game winning streak snapped by the visiting Chieftains.

Seattle U toyed with No. 1-ranked and tournament favorite Kansas State in the semifinals at the '58 Final Four, pulling off a stunning 73-51 upset.

Kansas State, coached by Tex Winters, had beat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas and Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati.

Seattle U beat Wyoming on a 30-foot jumper by Baylor and Charlie Brown, a star in his own right, hit a late shot in regulation and another in overtime to beat California on its way to the Final Four.

Baylor injured his ribs in the semifinal victory over K-State, reportedly after taking an elbow from Bob Boozer. Baylor was effective against Kentucky in the championship game (25 points, 19 rebounds). but not 100 percent.

The Chieftains broke to an 11-point lead and coach John Castellani, who replaced Brightman, opted to go into a delay game and switched to a zone after Baylor, perhaps a step slow, got in foul trouble.

"When that occurred, we quit running and lost all our momentum and eventually the game," Harney said. "We were extremely upset after the game. We felt they were the weakest of any of the teams we faced."

Harney was the only senior on the team, but after the team was hit with recruiting violations and ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Baylor elected to turn pro, announcing it on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Brown became an All-American the next year when the Chieftains won 29 games, and could have probably followed Baylor to the NBA.

"Charlie had ankle problems and the pro pay was not big back then," Harney said. "He was also an outstanding bowler and he could make more money bowling."

Seattle U remained competitive, producing such standout players as Tom Workman, Plummer Lott and Frank Oleynick - all future NBA players - but attendance and interest started to decline. The arrival of the Sonics in the late 1960s along with a successful program at Washington that was headed by Marv Harshman hurt Seattle U.

"There were only so many basketball dollars in town," Harney said. "A new president came in and it just went kerplunk."

Now, the possibility of the Sonics leaving town could help Seattle U, which has changed its nickname to the Redhawks.

The commitment from people on campus seems to be there. They see the revenue and national attention a strong basketball program can bring to a school.

"One of them is across the state," Harney said, alluding to Gonzaga. "And there's a lot of good players in our state now."

In the old days, Seattle U recruited nationally. Harney was one two in-state players on the '58 team. Six of those players are expected to be in Lexington, Ky., this weekend for the reunion.

Harney's looking forward to talking to the 1958 Kentucky players this weekend.

He also looking forward to getting back on the court.

Harney, who said he averaged about eight points and probably seven or eight assists his senior year at Seattle U, started playing basketball again a couple years ago. He was the point guard on a Seattle 70-and-over team that won a senior national tournament in Florida.

 

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