A Forgotten Classic and the Complicated Legacy of the 1961 St. Joe's Hawks
One of the greatest college basketball games ever played was the 4-overtime third place contest in the 1961 NCAA tournament between Utah and scandal-ridden St. Joe's.
Jim Lynam is a basketball lifer with an auteur's eye. He believes that his sophomore season, 55 years ago at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is worthy of a feature film. And Lynam understands that although his Hawks' wild 127-120 four-overtime victory over the Utah Redskins in the now-defunct NCAA consolation game was one of the greatest college basketball games of all time, it would have to be secondary to any film's main plotline.
"If I was making that movie, I'd open with a close-up of the trophy," he says. "The coaches agonized over whether we should even have the end-of-the-year basketball banquet—it was an impossible decision. We did. It was a somber affair. When I received the team MVP trophy, the engraving on the plaque ended and a separate narrow rectangular gold strip had my name on it. If Inspector Clouseau looked at it, he'd recognize they altered the trophy. The guy who made it didn't redo the plaque, he cut off Jack Egan's name off the bottom, got another little piece and engraved James F. Lynam on there... That's how I'd start telling the tale."
Jack Egan's name was sliced off the MVP trophy in favor of Lyman's because he didn't attend the post-season banquet, even though, as team captain, he'd just completed one of the best campaigns in St. Joe's history. But Egan and two teammates, forward Frank Majewski and center Vincent Kempton, had recently confessed to shaving points three times that season for a total of $2,750 that was split between the three. Egan wasn't the ringleader—that would have been Majewski—but their actions ended up costing him the most.
The three tight-knit senior starters were swept up in a wide-ranging national game-fixing scandal that first came to light on St. Patrick's Day 1961—eight days before St. Joe's played Utah in that consolation game—when New York County District Attorney Frank Hogan revealed that two players from Seton Hall admitted to taking cash to shave points, and that more schools were involved.
Hogan was dubbed "Mr. Integrity" for a career spanning more than thirty years in which he took on organized crime, police corruption, the crooked quiz shows, and the 1951 City College of New York point shaving scandal. For a solid decade, New York was the epicenter for fixing college basketball games. The fixes didn't die out after CCNY, even though a handful of athletes were sent to jail. In fact, the scandal that engulfed St. Joe's dwarfed that one: 476 players fixed 43 games between 1957-61.
Before all hell broke loose, the St. Joe's Hawks had a superb season led by coach Jack Ramsay. Perhaps the game most emblematic of what the Hawks could do—but didn't—was the one they played against Xavier in Cincinnati on January 14.
After falling behind 87-75, Paul Westhead, a senior reserve guard, recalls the second unit guys coming in and tightening the gap.
"We put on the full-court zone press Coach Ramsay was famous for, cut into the lead, and made a valiant effort to get us back in the game. The starters came in and missed some plays... Who knows what happened..."
What happened, at least on the court, was Majewski, a workmanlike forward, had his worst game of the season against the Musketeers going 1-of-5 for three points. For their game-fixing efforts, the three miscreants would be paid $1,000—but they needed to lose by 11.
The Xavier defeat was just a blip. The Hawks would proceed to reel off fifteen straight victories, including NCAA tournament East Regional wins over Princeton and Wake Forest. They didn't lose again until they were steamrolled 95-69 in the Final Four by the No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek fame.
"Of all the games I ever played in, it's the only one where I remember getting back on defense and it was still like a floodgate coming at you," says Lynam, now a 74-year-old broadcaster with Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia. "We weren't scoring, Lucas would get every rebound, outlet the ball, and they would run it down our throats."
Westhead, 77, says the team left Philadelphia for the NCAA tournament believing they could play with anybody, even though St. Joe's didn't have Ohio State's star power.
"On the flight to the Final Four we all wore Stetson hats, it was Kansas City here we come... As I recall, we didn't play that bad against Ohio State and they still demolished us. It was hard to imagine a college team could be that good. The Buckeyes far surpassed our abilities, but there was no embarrassment about getting clocked. Back then, the consolation game was still a big deal, like winning the bronze and the Olympics, so we regrouped and just said, 'let's get out there and play.'"
And on March 25, boy did they ever. Early in the second half of the thrilling, up-and-down, back-and-forth, unrecognized classic consolation game, St. Joe's had a 12-point lead on the Utah Redskins (they wouldn't become the Utes until 1972), but it didn't hold.
Led by Billy "The Hill" McGill, a 6'9" center who scored 38.8 a game—only three players in NCAA history have eclipsed that average—Utah took the lead late. McGill would go for 34 and 14 boards, with his front-court mate Jim Rhead contributing 28 and 11 of his own.
"Billy had a jump hook that couldn't be blocked and we were dominating on the inside," recalls Rhead, 77. "We couldn't pull away because Jack Egan had the hot hand. This was long before the three-pointer, but he kept pulling up from a few steps behind today's NBA line. His shooting was the difference."
In the consolation game, Egan—the would-be St. Joe's team MVP—dropped 42 points on 17-of-33 field goals, went 8-of-8 from the free throw line, and grabbed 16 rebounds to round it out. Until the final overtime, the Hawks needed every one of Egan's buckets.
The first overtime got off to an amazing start, which Lynam rehashed with a laugh he didn't have that night. Right off the tip, Hawks guard Billy Hoy snatched the ball, pulled up and drilled a 15-footer—
"In the wrong basket! It's mass confusion, the refs are trying to figure out what happened, I'm not sure Hoy realized what he did, and I'm on the sideline going ballistic. Coach Ramsay was trying to calm me down saying it's going to be fine, and I'm screaming, 'No it's not, He scored in the other hoop!"
The Hawks would tie it at 97. In the second OT, Egan would hit two late free throws to knot it at 101.
Free throws would also play a crucial role in the third OT. The rotation was shortened, but Westhead, who had broken his wrist in a freshmen-varsity pre-season game and never got a ton of minutes, came off the bench and made a key play.
"A couple of guys fouled out, so coach was running out of players. I [checked in], and well I had a suspect jumper, so I put my head down, drove the lane, and got clobbered. While I was on the ground, Coach Ramsay asked how I felt. I said my ankle hurt, but he didn't let me say whether I could continue playing. He made an injury substitution, brought in Harry Booth to shoot my free throws. Coach knew I was fifty-percent from the line. He was ever clever. That was my contribution, getting carried off-the-court for another shooter in my last game ever."
Utah did make a stand at the end of that period, blocking a potential St. Joe's game-winner to keep it even at 112. Egan started off the fourth overtime with a basket and two free throws. Then Lynam took over from there, scoring seven of his 31 on the night as St. Joe's prevailed.
"I felt bad that we lost, but McGill fouled out, and it's tough when you're short your best player," says Rhead. "But it was a fun hard-fought game and my last one in college. I didn't care if we went all night."
One team that wasn't happy they went so long was the reigning national champs, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who were facing Cincinnati in the finals. The "locker room" facility in Kansas City was cramped and hot. It was so tight, St. Joe's changed at the hotel before leaving for the arena. Multiple times, Lynam noticed the Buckeyes standing under the basket trying to get loose for the title game that never seemed to come. Rhead later got an earful of Buckeye whinging.
"I stuck around to play in the college all-star game and the guys from Ohio State said between trying to warm up four different times and sitting down for an hour, they lost their edge."
The 27-0 Buckeyes sent the championship game into overtime on a layup by Bobby Knight, but they fell to the Cincinnati Bearcats 70-65.
The effect it had on Ohio State is just one of many small aspects of the game's multi-pronged legacy. McGill, who was the first black player at the University of Utah, would go on to become the NBA's top pick in 1962, selected by the Chicago Zephyrs. He would be out of the league after three seasons, hang on for two more in the ABA, and end up homeless and sleeping in bus stations and laundromats a decade after his jump hook bulldozed the NCAA.
At least "The Hill" made it to the big leagues. Jack Egan never played again.
Two days after the monumental consolation game, Jim Lynam was sleeping in his dorm room. The dorms of the time were private mansions that the school had purchased just off campus. The pay phone was in a closet right outside Lynam's room.
"First few times I ignored it, but the phone wouldn't stop ringing, so I finally got up and answered it," he says. "A teammate, a dear friend of mine from high school who was sitting out that year, was in a rant, screaming, really emotional. 'Did you hear what happened to those guys?' As I was coming to my senses, my first thought was that those guys were in an automobile accident."
Those guys—Egan, Kempton, and Majewski—had crashed and burned, but not in a car. All three had taken money to fix games, receiving $2,750 for shaving points in three games, including the loss to Xavier.
Majewski was the on-campus point man, the one who brought Kempton and Egan into a national gambling operation that stretched from New York City to North Carolina, and would lead to the arrests of 37 players from 22 colleges in 1961. Ensnared among the regular Joe College ballers was future Hall-of-Famer and playground legend Connie Hawkins. He was mainly guilty by association—there's no evidence he participated in fixing games—but the whispers kept him out of the pros for seven years.
The mastermind fixer was Jack Molinas, a former All-American at Columbia who received an indefinite suspension from the NBA two months into his career for betting on games. Molinas, who was connected to big-time mobsters such as Genovese Family Capo Vincent "The Chin" Gigante and the real-life guy Joe Pesci played in Casino, was the point shaving kingpin. But he didn't do much of the street-level dirty work. That was left to lower-level gamblers like Aaron Wagman, who was arrested on March 17 and indicted on 38 counts of corruption and conspiracy a few days later.
Wagman, a former pool hustler and Yankee Stadium peanut vendor who talked a big game, was already out on $20,000 bail for trying to bribe University of Florida fullback Jon McBeth into keeping the Gators under the 13-point spread. Wagman, presumably not a criminal mastermind, didn't slow down after his arrest. Investigators followed him from state-to-state as he fixed games, which is why so many college kids eventually ended up in the presence of District Attorney Frank Hogan.
"Someone with firsthand knowledge told me the D.A.'s office looked like Ft. Lauderdale on spring break," says Lynam.
Hogan wanted to blow up the betting ring to pieces; he wanted Molinas. Wagman cut a deal to testify against him. Molina was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison. He would serve, five, mainly at Attica, where, according to a 2003 ESPN article, he became the inspiration for Burt Reynolds character in The Longest Yard. After prison, he moved to Los Angeles where he got into fur importing and pornography, producing filth gems like Lord Farthingay's Holiday before a mob hit rubbed him out—he took a bullet to the back of the head in his Hollywood Hills backyard.
Hogan's two-year investigation never would have come together if he hadn't heard from the likes of Egan, Kempton, and Majewski.
In the May 8, 1961 Sports Illustrated expose "Portrait of a Fixer," writer Ray Cave describes how crushed Frank Majewski was after missing a shot at the end of regulation against Utah. Even though the Hawks went on to win, and the senior forward had a solid game with a double-double, "It was almost as if he owed a debt to St. Joseph's and had tried to pay it off in his last game."
The celebratory Schmidt's beers from after the Utah game probably hadn't even worn off when the news broke about the fix. Majewski played the tournament knowing the walls were closing in and the jig would soon be up.
The scandal was devastating to the small Catholic school of 1,450 students, but at times, to hoops fans, it looked more like bad slapstick comedy. Tom Lees, a columnist for the Times Herald of Montgomery County, Penn. had the misfortune of catching a St. Joe's game against Seton Hall at the famed Palestra that season. Fifty-five years later, he could still remember the putrid action:
It was absolutely the worst college basketball game I have ever seen. Guys were throwing lousy passes, walking with the ball, double dribbling, discontinuing, etc. It was a joke. When we found out later that two Seton Hall players, Art Hicks and Seth Gunther, were also shaving points in that game, it explained why. Five players from two teams deliberately making mistakes makes for a bad game to view, I can assure you.
Wagman's marching orders were followed in that game, as St. Joe's kept it under ten, beating Seton Hall 72-71. For their efforts, the three Hawks in on the shenanigans got $1,000. No word on what the split was, but the money was received by Majewski. Of the three, Kempton is the only one who didn't go along with the scheme, at least in part, out of necessity. As he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1990, "It was pure, unmitigated selfishness, greed, immaturity, call it what you want."
The other two young men had a much rougher go of it. Majewski seemed to be an easy mark for Wagman. He came from a working class Jersey City background. His father, a printer, died when he was a sophomore. His mother had a heart attack when he was senior. Majewski told Cave he couldn't wait to get to work and that game-in and game-out, his heart wasn't in basketball.
Jack Egan, on the other hand, was a tremendous ballplayer who loved the game. His future seemed awfully bright. On March 27 1961, two days after his shooting clinic against Utah, he was selected by the Philadelphia Warriors in the third round. The following spring, Egan should've teamed with Wilt Chamberlain in reaching the Eastern Conference Finals against Bill Russell and the Celtics.
"The money NBA players make today is astronomically larger, but it's all relative. Guys coveted the pros every bit as much back then as they do today," says Lynam, a former head coach of St. Joe's and the 76ers. "I have no doubt Jack Egan would've had a great basketball career. He threw it all away."
Nobody was more hurt by the scandal than Coach Jack Ramsay. Initially, all three players denied the allegations, stonewalling past the point of credulity. Years later, in varied accounts, all would apologize profusely to Ramsay, who said little about it over the years. In the book Jack McKinney's Tales From St. Joe's Hardwood, however, Ramsay took a lot of blame for his star player's demise saying, "When I look back, I wasn't caring enough. I let Jack Egan down."
Ramsay's later-in-life consternation stems from the fact that he had forced Egan to quit a $40 a week bartending gig, which he only took when St. Joe's didn't come through on a promised campus job. Egan didn't need the money for college hi-jinx either. He had two children and a pregnant wife. He was broke and hearing about it at home. His wife would miscarry before the season got underway.
Ramsay told Egan if he quit, he'd lose his scholarship, so he reluctantly went along with Majewski, although he had point shaving stipulations: No Big Five games, no Middle Atlantic Conference games. Egan admitted to taking money, but apparently nobody told his shooting hand he was skimming. He drained a still-standing (since tied) record 47 against Gettysburg, and then of course, there was the Utah game...
"When we first heard about it, we wondered if our game was part of it. But I thought if Egan was shaving points against us he was either really terrible at it, or he could've gone for sixty," says Rhead.
All three seniors were expelled, but they were allowed back to St. Joe's a few years later to earn their degrees. According to McKinney, Egan, Kempton, and Majewski all had successful business careers.
For the guys on the team who weren't on the take, the 1960-61 campaign and its culmination in the 127-120 win is what matters. It may have been technically vacated by the powers-that-be, but that doesn't change the fact that St. Joe's owned the record for most points by an NCAA tournament game-winner. The Hawks record wasn't broken until 1990 when alum Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount team shattered it in their 149-115 win over Michigan, a game that lives on in ways the 4-OT shootout never will. But they still remember it.
"All of these years I've been around basketball, I was never was one to keep memorabilia," Lynam said. "The only thing I kept and display is that makeshift MVP trophy."