Monday, October 31, 2011

The Purple Eagles

I feel fortunate in life to have been blessed with parents that attended the quin essential historical basketball school.  What I mean by this is that before ESPN took over college basketball and before coaches were receiving shoe contracts, college basketball was being played and it was being played by schools that often don't seem to have a prayer in the modern game.  (Yes, Butler is diffusing some of this argument).  But in the 1940's, 1950's, and into the 1960's  even before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's showdown there were great games.  Games where small college campus field houses felt the same electricity of the Las Vegas Strip on a Saturday night.  Games that went a long way toward determining national championships.  Games involving bitter rivals.  The coaches weren't making more than the governors of the state's they lived in, but the games mattered more. 

Small colleges had great teams, none moreso than Niagara University, where both of my parents attended school. 

Niagara's alums include inch for inch the greatest basketball player to ever play -- Calvin Murphy.  Amazingly, if you look in the record books in 1968 you will find Murphy's name sandwiched between Pete Maravich (43.8 ppg) and Elvin Hayes (36.8 ppg) as the nation's second leading scorer.  Murphy, at only 5'9" tall AVERAGED 38.2 points per game that season.   Against Syracuse, Murphy poored in 68 points -- still one of the most dazzling scoring displays in college basketball history.  Remember, he was only 5'9" and there was not a three point line.  Had there been one most experts believe Murphy would have had 80 that night.  Murphy also was a world class baton twirler, and in eighth grade Murphy won a national championship at the event and even appeared at the World's Fair as a baton twirler.  Murphy admits it is  a skill he credits with helping his ball handling and uncanning shooting.  A year later, Murphy finished third in the scoring race behind Maravich (who was almost a foot taller than Calvin) and iconic Indiana figure Rick Mount -- The three M's.  

During his senior season, Murphy finished fifth in the scoring race while the Eagles were being coached by future NBA coach Frank Layden (see below for more on Layden).  The duo led the Purple Eagles to the second round of the NCAA tournament before bowing out to Villanova.   Interestingly, Villanova was eliminated by fellow "Little 3" member St. Bonaventure and Bob Lanier which had previously been handed it's only loss of the season by the Wildcats.   (Lanier was injured in the NCAA tournament rematch and forced to sit out the Bonnies Final Four contest against Jacksonville.  St. Bonaventure lost this game, it was only the Bonnies' second loss of the season.)   Had Lanier remained healthy could the Bonnies have knocked off eventual champion UCLA in the final?   In spite of St. Bonaventure's performance, the 1970 team was arguably Niagara's best.
Niagara's alum's also include legendary coaches Frank Layden, Larry Costello, Hubie Brown and "Taps" Gallagher.  Center "Boo" Ellis led the school in scoring for most of the 1950's.  Brown and Layden roomed together while teammates at Niagara.  Brown went on to coach three NBA teams as a head coach and still acts as a commentator for NBA games.  Costello also played for the Purple Eagles, averaged 15 points per game as a collegian and in 1954 was a second round draft choice of the Philadelphia Warriors.

A 1953 game between Niagara and Sienna College went a then record six overtimes.   Ed Fleming of the Purple Eagles played all 70 minutes and Costello played 69 minutes.  Each player's numbers were subsequently changed -- Fleming's to 70 and Costello's to 69. 

Niagara shared it's history as a member of the "Little Three", which includes St. Bonaventure and Canisius in its triumvirate.   Growing up I heard much about their most memorable game, a legendary battle played on February 25th, 1961, when the Purple Eagles went into Olean Armory -- St. Bonaventure's home court and stopped the Bonnie's from winning their 100th straight home game by a score of 88-78.  Al Butler, an eventual second round pick of the Boston Celtics,  led the Purple Eagles over the Bonnies that night and  averaged almost 30 points per game both his junior and senior seasons.

Growing up in a somewhat distant suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, Frank Layden became an iconic figure in my life.   What television we eventually got in Pinedale, Wyoming came from Salt Lake City, Utah.   On almost the identical date that the Utah Jazz moved to Salt Lake City in 1979, we began receiving cable television in Pinedale, Wyoming, Layden was the team's President and coach and a few games were televised on KSL Channel 5.   His personality won over the city.  

Early in his career with the Jazz, Layden tells the story of how the franchise struggled for attendance.  One afternoon he received a call from a fan inquiring as to when the game started that night.   Layden, quipped back, "What time can you make it?"    Additionally, at one point, Layden attempted to start a fan for the second half of a game after the fan hit a half-court shot during halftime. 

Layden drafted John Stockton and Karl Malone who would go on to Hall of Fame Careers while leading the Utah Jazz to back to back finals appearances.  They became pillars of the franchise.  Eventually, Layden, recalls his best move was stepping down as coach of my beloved franchise and allowing his assistant Jerry Sloan to take over.    Layden wasn't so much a coach as he was a ringmaster.  He played up matchups with the Los Angeles Lakers and Pat Riley.

As a general manager, Layden, would shoot hoops on his own before going to his office at the Delta Center.   Coworkers or Delta Center staffers would walk by and ask, "Who are you playing today?"  Frank would quip back "Pete Maravich" or "Larry Bird" holding on to his youth and the imagined matchups he played out as a teenager. 

Later in life, after Layden had retired, yet had remained in Salt Lake City, I lived in downtown Salt Lake City.  One of Salt Lake's best qualities is it is a small city and it gives residents an opportunity to see each other.   Layden and I shared many of life's same tastes and we would frequent many of the same establishments,  Franklin Covey Field where the Salt Lake Bees play and he would lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to The Ballgame," the E Center where the Utah Grizzlies Hockey team plays (Layden himself told me he enjoyed minor league baseball and hockey more than basketball--saying the basketball players were "too big"),  I also saw Frank on more than one occasion at a small independent bookstore in Sugar House, and Fiddler's Elbow Restaurant and Bar also in Sugar House as well as  Salt Lake Community College's workout facilities.   I would say "hello" with such conviction that I think he actually began to recognize me. 

In 2005, the Niagara Purple Eagles, led by Juan Mendez, made one more run to the NCAA Tournament, winning the MAAC Championship.   Magically, they were assigned to play in Tucson, Arizona, a mere two hours from where my parents make their winter home.   There is now a picture of my mom with Calvin Murphy attending this game that sits prominently in our cabin in Pinedale and the wall of my apartment. 

It must be great to be a Purple Eagle.