The Kansas basketball program has a soft spot in its heart for La Salle, the Philadelphia school whose team confronts the Jayhawks on Saturday. In 1952, the Explorers helped open the door for KU to send seven men and an assistant coach to the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
When NCAA champion KU met NIT titlist La Salle in Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1952, it was a winner-take-all showdown for seven berths on the Olympic squad. KU’s Phog Allen, instrumental in getting basketball on the Olympic slate in 1936, had arranged to put the NCAA winner in the driver’s seat — seven collegians and seven from the then-powerful AAU ranks. No pros allowed.
This helped Phog keep a recruiting promise to four of his stars that he’d guide them to the college title, then take them to Helsinki.
The Explorers had a tremendous collection of East Coast talent topped by 6-foot-6 Philadelphia freshman Tom Gola, who today might be labeled “the next Michael Jordan.” He scored 15 points against KU while Clyde Lovellette poured in 40 in a harrowing 70-65 victory.
The incomparable Lovellette ripped off 15 straight points in the last quarter after KU had trailed by eight — and the Helsinki trip seemed to be going down the drain.
La Salle was a top 10 team in the ’50s under coach Ken Loeffler, with whom the feisty Phog almost had a hotel lobby fist fight the afternoon of the game. Media-wise, Loeffler was caustic, harsh and demeaning toward KU. Doc wasn’t buying the arrogance when Ken unleashed a barb about KU’s “hicks.” Some tense moments.
The second night with the score at 60-all, Lovellette proved he was only human when he blew a winning layup with 16 seconds left. Peoria’s Howie Williams forked in a prayer shot and the Caterpillar-Diesels were playoff champs.
Few tears around here. KU still got Lovellette, Bill Lienhard, Bob Kenney, Bill Hougland, Dean Kelley, Charlie Hoag and John Keller on the Olympic roster and Phog was the assistant to Peoria’s Warren Womble. The other seven Yanks in Helsinki were Peoria’s Williiams (Purdue), Frank McCabe (Marquette), Dan Pippin (Missouri), Ron Bontemps (Beloit) and Marc Freiberger (Oklahoma). The Phillips 66ers supplied Bob Kurland (Oklahoma A&M) and Wayne Glasgow (Oklahoma).
Back to Gola. As a junior in 1954, he led La Salle to the NCAA title in Kansas City against Bradley. In ’55, Gola and Co. encountered the unheralded Bill Russell-K.C. Jones San Franciscans, again in K.C., and Russell was brilliant with 23 points and innumerable boards and blocks.
Yet the 6-1 K.C. Jones led USF with 24 points, held the taller Gola to 16 and punctuated the dominance by driving the baseline with a two-handed reverse dunk as the clock wound down. Gola then had a non-Jordanesque pro career and at one point played on the same Philly club as KU’s Wilt Chamberlain.
Not many east of California had ever seen the kind of special excellence Russell and Jones offered and the college game from then on was due for countless dramatic changes.
The guys playing for KU on Saturday probably never heard of Lovellette or Gola, maybe even Russell or Jones.
They’d be better off if they had.