CHAMPIONSHIP RUN: City's love for Tiger hoops dates to '57 title game
By Zack McMillin
Thursday, March 22, 2001
Editor's note: In 2001, the University of Memphis was headed to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament in John Calipari's first year as coach. It marked the Tigers' first NIT final since 1957, when the Tigers lost to Bradley. Zack McMillin, who covered the Tigers at the time, wrote this account of the 1957 Tiger team.
Jack Butcher remembers worrying over a haircut.
Now the winningest high school basketball coach in Indiana history, Butcher arrived in New York City wondering if he could find a barber good enough to tame his curls and keep his flattop looking sharp.
This was 1957, and Butcher, a scrawny but fiery basketball player, was the point guard for the Memphis State College basketball team. The Tigers were in New York, in March, to play in the oldest postseason basketball tournament in the country, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
They would be underdogs in every game they played, Butcher's Tigers, but the junior from Loogootee, Ind., just wanted to find a good barber. A few blocks from the team's hotel - The Paramount - Butcher found a place. And, well, you might say he got butchered.
"My hair wasn't all that easy to cut, and the guy who cut my hair, I think he just got off the boat," Butcher says. "One side of it was round; the other side of it was flat."
So when Butcher came back to Memphis, one of the first things he did was take a crosstown bus to his barber shop. And the reception he got there tells a small but significant story about the city of Memphis's relationship to the game of basketball and to the campus in East Memphis that, 44 years later, has become so well known for its basketball program.
"Before we went to the NIT," Butcher says, "nobody knew who I was. Well, soon as I got back to town, I went back to the barber to straighten out that mess from New York. Everybody in there knew who I was and that's all they wanted to talk about, the NIT."
On Tuesday in New York, the University of Memphis basketball team makes its first appearance in the NIT semifinals since the 1957 team made a run to the finals and captivated the city. Nearly 30,000 fans came to The Pyramid last week to watch the current bunch of Tigers play.
It took one glorious March week in 1957 to nudge the program onto a national stage.
"That was the first time we really hit the big time," says that team's coach, Bob Vanatta, who is still living and still working in Jupiter, Fla., at age 82. "It really put Memphis on the map."
Captivating a city
Where were you when the city of Memphis fell in love with the game of basketball?
If you lived in Memphis, well, chances are you were in someone's living room, surrounded by a few dozen other people, watching the Tigers. And if you were like Al Brown, your heart was in your gut and your fingernails were shorn clean and the Tigers of Memphis State College were the good guys and the Braves of Bradley were the bad guys.
"The city just closed down while they were playing," says Brown, then a teacher at Central High and now the director of the university's M Club. "It was quiet. Streetcars and buses weren't running. Up until later, it was the biggest (sporting) event the city had seen."
In The Commercial Appeal the day after the "Heartbreaking NIT Final," as the newspaper put it, the page one story ran with two photographs of cheerleader Betty Jean Lauderdale.
In the first frame, she is clapping and jubilant as Memphis takes a lead over Bradley. In the second, she is dejected, with her face in her hands.
That reflected the city's mood on March 23, 1957, when the Tigers lost to the heavily favored Bradley Braves after a controversial final 60 seconds that included a layup and winning free throw by Bradley forward Shelley McMillon.
"Every time I see someone that goes back that far, they say, 'Boy, they cheated you out of that game,' " says Oscar Ammer, a freshman then who recently retired from the Memphis City School system.
Memphis had never played in the NIT before, and, though the NCAA had by then surpassed it in significance, the tournament was still considered very prestigious. The Tigers had never before played on national TV until CBS broadcast the first-round game against Utah. And never before had the program captivated the city the way it would in its one-week run to the championship game.
"Our town should be tremendously proud of these boys," Mayor Edmund Orgill said after watching the final at the old Madison Square Garden. "It is almost as if they won."
The headline in the newspaper the day after the team returned would foreshadow what would become a long love affair: "City Officials, Lusty Crowd Welcome Tigers at Airport."
"The team deserves a reception like this," said City Commissioner Claude Armour, who was on hand, at midnight, to present the team with a key to the city.
You might say the Tigers had locked up Memphis.
"When I came to Memphis the summer before, I went around town and you never saw a basket," Vanatta says. "What we did brought basketball to the forefront. Before, it was just a football town, but the next year, I'll tell you, baskets began to blossom all over town."
Earning a bid
They were underdogs in every game: By three points to Utah in the opener, by 2 1/2 in the quarterfinals to Manhattan, by six to St. Bonaventure in the semifinals, by 10 to Bradley.
There was Win Wilfong, a future pro and one of the best four or five players to ever wear blue-and-gray, averaging 20 points per game on his way to being named a Converse All-American.
There was Butcher, the point guard and one of the best high school coaches in the history of the basketball-mad state of Indiana.
There was Bob Swander, who dropped in the game-winner against St. Bonaventure and wrote his doctoral thesis on the mechanics of shooting a basketball.
There was Ron Regan, the forward everyone credits for providing toughness, and Jim Hockaday, the Selmer, Tenn., forward whose physical toughness provided the difference in the quarterfinals.
It was a diverse team.
Wilfong and Butcher were both married and had served in the military. There were players from Indiana and Missouri, from West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee, from city and from country.
And there was the coach, Vanatta, who had actually left Bradley to coach at Memphis the year before.
"He was a tremendous encourager," says Swander, 65, a semi-retired real estate developer in Sun City, Ariz. "If you made a mistake, he would always encourage you: 'That's OK. Now, make up for it.' "
In many ways, Vanatta was not unlike the Tigers' current coach, John Calipari. He was an accomplished coach at a young age, had worked his way to the top by making all the right connections and knew how to sell himself and his program. Vanatta wrote Calipari a letter after he was hired at Memphis last year, and the two spoke for more than an hour on the phone.
"My philosophy in coaching was always about, you know, going downtown and having coffee with the guys and talking to them," says Vanatta . "People like to know you, and I think John does some of the same things. I used to do television commercials. We sold a lot of hot dogs, but we also became a part of the people."
In his first season as coach, with the Tigers carried by Wilfong's all-round brilliance as a player, Vanatta was able to sell the program to the city.
The Tigers started the season with eight straight wins before losing to Seattle and Elgin Baylor in the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City.
The game Vanatta says earned Memphis its NIT spot was a showdown at Ellis Auditorium against Louisville, ranked third in the country.
The Tigers won, 81-78, earned a ranking of 16th in the country and then defeated 20th-ranked Western Kentucky at the Field House. And when the NIT came calling, Memphis accepted.
"The NIT in those days was considered THE tournament," Vanatta says. "The first three years I was there, we went to the NIT over the NCAA."
Making a run
Going into the NIT, the Tigers had played seven games decided by four points or less, and had won all of them.
The trend would continue at Madison Square Garden, an arena with an old parquet floor and, as Swander remembers, "lots of dead spots out there."
First up: Utah, on Saturday, March 16. Wilfong fouled out with nearly 14 minutes remaining, but the Tigers won, thanks to late free throws from Butcher and Swander.
Then came Manhattan, with a squad composed entirely of players from New York City, and Memphis took the only lopsided game it played in New York, 85-73.
On Thursday, Memphis earned a trip to the finals to play Vanatta's old team, Bradley, by outlasting St. Bonaventure in overtime. Swander became the game's hero when he saved a possession by throwing a ball off an opponent's shins and saved the game by throwing in the game-winning shot.
"I thought my heart was about to go in the goal, too," Swander said afterward.
Bradley came into Saturday's nationally televised championship game fresh off blowout victories over Xavier and Temple. The Braves were considered bigger, faster and deeper than the Tigers.
"Bradley rated cinch to win NIT crown," it said in the New York Post, in big, bold headlines.
The Braves took a 15-point lead, but Memphis cut it to 51-43 by half. With Wilfong, the tourney MVP, on his way to 31 points, the Tigers scored the first 15 points of the second half to take a 58-51 lead.
With four minutes left and Memphis ahead, 81-75, Wilfong fouled out. With 40 seconds left, the lead was down to two, when Bradley made a steal that may or may not have involved a foul. The Braves missed, but McMillon was there to clean things up.
He scored, earned a foul and hit the ensuing free throw.
Even if, as one newspaper pointed out, Bradley seemed to be using "football tactics" in the deciding sequence, the ride was over for the Tigers.
But the love affair had begun. A crowd of 2,000 people - including one Elvis Presley - greeted the team at the airport around midnight.
"That had to be one of the great highlights of a coach's career," Vanatta says. "That was just a special deal. A lot of people indicated that was the beginning of intercollegiate athletics at Memphis."