Saturday, October 4, 2008

Division I Basketball back at Seattle U.

This year as every year, a number of teams will be attempting to make the jump up to Division I college basketball and chase the NCAA tournament dream that this blog has focused on. Former My Losing Season blog cinderella Portland State realized the dream for the first time a year ago.

This year, as I researched for the upcoming season, I noted the arrival of Seattle University back on Division I scene. Similar to the University of San Francisco which revitalized its program after a lengthy absence, Seattle University was once a power. In 1958, behind Elgin Baylor, Seattle University reached the NCAA championship game where they lost to Kentucky and Adolph Rupp's "Fiddlin Five" squad on a virtual homecourt for Kentucky in Louisville. During that season Baylor trailed only Oscar Robertson in the national scoring race, averaging 32.5 points per game, even beating Wilt Chamberlain.

Seattle U., a Jesuit school, reached the NCAA tournament in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 doing so as Independent. Between 1953 and 1967 the Chieftains made the tournament 11 times. They did join the West Coast Conference from 1972 to 1980, but dwindling resources and a lack of success throughout the 70's ultimately caused the demise of the once storied program.

Although, the 1958 Championship game was likely Seattle University's most chronicled game and the one fans will recall as they see the name Seattle U. plastered on ESPN's scroll with the volumes of other late night scores it is not Seattle U.'s most legendary game. That came in 1952 when the then Chieftains took on the Harlem Globetrotters.

In 1952, the Globetrotters were the best basketball team in the world. The NBA was still in its formative stages and the Globetrotters paid their two star players "Goose" Tatum and Marques Hayes twenty five thousand dollars each. At the time, they were the highest paid players in the world. Entering the game with Seattle U., the Globetrotters had played 3571 games winning 93 percent of their contests and when they did lose it was more often than not because they suited up a second team or alternative team to meet their excessive scheduling demands. However, that was not the case on January 21, 1952. Tatum and Haynes played in a game designed to raise funds for the United States Olympic efforts.

Jazz great Louis Armstrong played at halftime and actress Joan Caulfield performed a ceremonial opening tip off at the University of Washington's Hec Edmondson Pavillion which was filled to the rafters. Seattle U's Johnny O'Brien was at the time the nation's leading scorer and against the much taller Tatum, O'Brien dominated. The 5'9" O'Brien, who that same season became the first player in the history of college basketball to score 1000 points in a single season, poured in 43 points while playing post against the Trotters. Johnny's brother Eddie played point guard for Chieftians and his half court shot lifted them to a 10 point lead.

Both O'Brien's went on to successful major league baseball careers

After Louis Armstrong's halftime performance, the Trotters got back in the game as Johnny O'Brien was forced to tend to a broken nose and sat out most of the third quarter. Ultimately, with only seconds left and Seattle U. clinging to a two point lead, the Globetrotters called a time out they didn't have resulting in a made free throw by Johnny O'Brien and a possession change - Seattle U. prevailed 84-81.

Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein was so upset that he canceled the rest of the Trotters benefit schedule that year and over the next year, gradually, Saperstein began to ease his team away from competitive games choosing instead to play a staged opponent -- the Washington Generals.

This year Seattle University will not play as the Chieftain's - the school changed its name to Red Hawks in 2000. Once again they won't play in a conference, they will attempt their comeback as an Independent at the Division I level.

Last March, the West Coast Conference of which Seattle U. was once a member voted to not expand its membership and include Seattle U. Besides its past membership in the West Coast Conference, Seattle U. does have several connections to the WCC. Current Seattle U. athletic director Bill Hogan was formerly the Athletic Director at the University of San Francisco. Additionally, WCC Commissioner Mike Gilleran is a Seattle University graduate. Finally, WCC lynchpin Gonzaga is a sister Jesuit school and although Seattle University's admission as a WCC member might hurt recruiting in Seattle for the Zags as a Jesuit school in the same province Gonzaga's support is required by the church.

This year, Seattle University games will be played at the small on campus arena, the Connolly Center, which seats approximately 1600 for basketball, although talks have already begun with Key Arena regarding filling vacancies left by the Sonics abandonment. Ideally, Hogan would like to have a small on campus arena which seats around 4,000 similar to what the University of Portland has.

In 2008-2009, Seattle University will find itself playing against fellow Independent schools that this blog features which are also making the transition to Division I status as Independents -- Utah Valley, NJIT, Cal State Bakersfield, North and South Dakota -- it's unlikely the Globetrotters will come looking for a rematch.