Holy Cross 1947 The school was small. The program was an afterthought. The gymnasium was non-existent. That a team from the College of the Holy Cross should find itself in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament was a preposterous notion. But there was Holy Cross, the product of a happy accident rather than a well-conceived plan, preparing to meet Oklahoma for the national title in New York.
In March 1947, the team without a home court had appropriated Madison Square Garden. The mecca of basketball rocked to the Crusaders’ locomotive cheer: Choo-choo-rah-rah! Although basketball traced its origins to New England, the region had been left behind in the development of the game. 0l’ Doc Naismith would have been thoroughly familiar with the facilities, provided the institutions he visited had bothered to build any. The success of Holy Cross was a triumph of spirit and an act of fantasy. Instead of rising to basketball prominence, the Crusaders fell into it. Start with Alvin Doggie Julian, who was hired from Muhlenberg as an assistant football coach and told that among his duties was the supervision of the school’s basketball team. There was no gym on the Worcester, Mass., campus, only an old barn that had been converted for practice use.
Nor was there money in the budget for extensive recruiting. Remarkably, the first class to report to Julian in that barn in the fall of 1945 included several outstanding players from the New York metropolitan area. Gerry Clark, a Holy Cross alumnus and an assistant district attorney in the nation’s largest city, took it upon himself to scout Catholic high school players and direct them to Worcester. Among those who accepted an invitation to join the 1,200-member student body was George Kaftan, a 6-foot-3 center with extraordinary leaping ability. It never dawned on me that Holy Cross didn’t have a gymnasium, Kaftan said. I just liked the school.
The team’s first game that season was at Madison Square Garden, against City College of New York. The Beavers had a renowned coach in Nat Holman, years of basketball tradition and the loud support of a Garden crowd. Lo and behold, Kaftan said, we won. In fact, the Crusaders won 12 of 15 games that season and were in contention for a postseason tournament bid that never came. The presence the next year of service veterans Joe Mullaney and Frank Oftring and the enrollment of another New York schoolboy star, Bob Cousy, built on that foundation.
The team still was uncommonly short, but everyone could run and handle the ball. The 1947 Crusaders played a slick brand of give-and-go. Newspapers, in a playful reference to the athletic-club teams of that era, referred to them as the Fancy Pants A.C. Without its own gym, Holy Cross scheduled games at the Boston Garden, where the collegians soon outdrew the professional Celtics of the fledgling Basketball Association of America (later the NBA). A caravan of cars followed the Crusaders from Worcester, 40 miles away, and all New England rallied behind the team as it defeated one national power after another. After early-season losses to North Carolina State, Duquesne and Wyoming, the Crusaders embarked on a long winning streak, highlighted by a narrow victory over an outstanding Seton Hall team, led by Bobby Wanzer. In only its second year of top-level competition, Holy Cross was selected to the field of the Eastern playoffs in New York.
Other entrants were Big Ten Conference champion Wisconsin, Navy and hometown favorite City College. It marked the first appearance in the NCAA Tournament for all the schools except Wisconsin, which had captured the national championship six years earlier. On opening night, Mullaney had 18 points (all on field goals) and Kaftan added 15 as the Crusaders handed Navy only its second defeat of the season, 55-47. CCNY struggled for a while against Wisconsin, but the Beavers rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to win, 70-56. Now it would be Holy Cross vs.
CCNY at the Garden, and this was where Julian and the Kaftan-led New York brigade — six of the Crusaders’ top seven scorers were from the big city and its environs — figured to have special impact. Natives or not, though, the boys in purple were a distant second in the popular vote on the following night. The vast majority of the 18,000-plus fans roared approval as the Beavers opened fast, rushing to a 10-3 lead. It was nearly eight minutes before the Crusaders made their first field goal but, instead of panicking, they steadily worked their way back into the game and managed to edge in front by halftime. The second half belonged to Holy Cross in general and to Kaftan in particular.
The sophomore finished with 11 field goals and 30 points and dominated the backboards as the Crusaders scored a 60-45 triumph, their 22nd victory in succession. The Crusaders were one step from the top, and New York was prepared to take out adoption papers. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Oklahoma had survived the Western playoffs in perhaps the most thrilling action in tournament history. First, the Sooners subdued favored Oregon State, 56-54. They followed that with a melodramatic 55-54 victory over a Texas team that had lost only once previously.
A last-second basket by Ken Pryor — his lone field goal of the game — enabled Oklahoma to prevail over the Longhorns, who had defeated Wyoming in the first round. The outstanding player in the West had been Gerry Tucker, the Sooners’ center. He had returned from the service to lead Oklahoma to the Big Six Conference title and a record of 24-6 entering the NCAA championship game. Basketball fans eagerly awaited his confrontation with Kaftan, the Holy Cross star. Julian, an excitable type, didn’t make much sense as he announced the starting lineup in the dressing room before the final.
George is going to start, he said. And Dermie (O’Connell) is going to start. And the Creek (another reference to Kaftan). And Joe Mullaney. And Kaftan.
As nearly as Kaftan and his teammates could figure it, that meant one man was expected to play three positions at once. The Crusaders rolled their eyes as they headed for the floor. The usual starting five went out for the opening tip. So you’re the young hotshot I’ve heard so much about, the 25-year-old Tucker said to Kaftan. Hang it up, Gerry, Kaftan, 19, replied with a smile.
It’s a young man’s game. The two players and teams proceeded to stage a sensational first half. There were eight lead changes and 10 ties as the Sooners and Crusaders battled over every basket. Tucker was particularly formidable, his hook shots accounting for five baskets. It was he who led a seven-point surge in the final minutes of the half for a 31-28 Oklahoma lead.
Holy Cross made two notable changes in the second half. Reserve Bob Curran was assigned the task of guarding Tucker, and the Crusaders began to step up the pace of the game. With an edge in speed and depth, the New Englanders soon took the lead and maintained it. Tucker’s only field goal of the half, a hook shot, cut the deficit to four points with three minutes remaining and Pryor’s free throw chopped it to 48-45. But that was as close as the Sooners would come. Holy Cross scored 10 of the last 12 points in the game for a 58-47 conquest.
The team without a campus gymnasium reigned over college basketball. Tucker was the game’s high scorer with 22 points, but no other Oklahoma player was in double figures. Kaftan finished with 18 points and was Holy Cross’ rebounding tar, while O’Connell added 16 points and Oftring 14 for the Crusaders. Cousy, the freshman substitute who would become the most famous player in school history and a great professional, contributed two free throws. The implausible championship stimulated college basketball interest throughout New England, And it even resulted in the construction of a practice gym on the Holy Cross campus. Sports and Games.