Wednesday, August 11, 2004

 

A Champion and a Longshot

POP CULTURE INTERVIEWS FORMER NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMP JERRY HARKNESS

Can you name the seven Catholic universities that have won the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship? If you attempt to guess without looking it up, you'll probably forget a school or two. Jerry Harkness was captain of Loyola University's 1963 championship team, the one that upset the Cincinnati Bearcats in a thriller of an NCAA final. I spoke with him for Pop Culture.

BAYNE: You were a track star in high school, how did you get into high school basketball?

HARKNESS: I ran cross country at DeWitt Clinton High for three years. I didn't go out for basketball until my senior year. I've always thought there should be a movie about our (college) team. I played on a team in the projects called The Clowns, that I enjoyed so much, and I enjoyed track so much, I never went out for basketball. One day I was shooting around in the Harlem "Y" and a guy was watching me. He said "You're not that bad, if you keep that up, you might be able to get a scholarship". I had never thought about the idea of going to school on a scholarship, so my mouth flew open. You know the guy's name who said that to me?

BAYNE: No, who?

HARKNESS: Jackie Robinson. I just stood there. He used to come and talk to the guys, I think he knew the director of the Harlem "Y" at the time. For him (who I just adored during that period, he was so articulate, and so knowledgable about baseball) to say that to me, just blew my mind. Well, I went out for the team.

BAYNE: How many students at DeWitt Clinton back then?

HARKNESS: About 3,500-4,000, all boys. I made the top five, in fact I was tied for the top scorer. We beat Boys High, and we won everything. Cross country helped, I was in better shape than any kid.

BAYNE: Who was playing for Boys High then?

HARKNESS: Jackie Jackson, Hugh Evans, Billy Burwell, Jerry Powell. Connie Hawkins was on the bench, he was gonna play the next year. Billy Burwell was about 6'9", and he would dunk twice. During warmups, he'd take two basketballs and dunk them. I'd say (laughs) don't look!

BAYNE: Where does Walter November come in?

HARKNESS: November comes in, guys would sponsor teams during the summer. I still wasn't well-known. There was so much talent in New York- you had Roger Brown, Connie, Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, Willie Hall, Kevin Loughery, the Stith brothers, although they're a little later, and you could almost see Alcindor, you'd see him standing around, you could almost see Nate (Archibald). You had Ray Peprocky, Tony Jackson, Leroy Ellis, Satch Sanders, it was unbelievable- Donnie Walsh, Artie Heyman. It's no longer that way, but I don't think there's any doubt we were the haven of basketball. Freddie Crawford, Miles Aiken, my gosh, there was so much talent! Well guys would put together summer league teams. Walter November had one. I wasn't put on the big ones. He asked if I would play. He had watched me at Clinton, and I had played in other tournaments. I also played for Garfinckel.

BAYNE: Howie Garfinckel?

HARKNESS: Yes. We had a group of guys, we played against Larry Brown, Billy Burwell and Roger Brown. We had an awesome game against them, took them down to the wire. (Coach) Lou Rossini of NYU came over and offered me a summer job.

BAYNE: Who was your game similar to that plays today, or played recently.

HARKNESS: Really nobody's. I was all left-hand. I was all into Lenny Wilkens. Nate comes close, but he was so much better in every aspect. I was quicker. We're all left-handers. Guy Rodgers was out there, but there weren't too many.

BAYNE: He was the ultimate southpaw.

HARKNESS: Yes.

BAYNE: How about your shooting, mid-range?

HARKNESS: Mid-range, not a good shooter. I pressed the ball well, they'd clear the side for me. I was true left. I got away with it because of my quickness. I ran you to death. We (Loyola) had an organized press. In the fourth quarter I'd wear you down. We played the University of Detroit, they had Dave DeBuscherre. He had over 30 points, but I ran and ran him to death, and he slowed down, and we won the game. I was a small forward. I wasn't a good basketball player, when you get to the top level I wasn't that good. I had so much endurance. I wasn't the greatest, but I could steal the ball, draw fouls, and use my jumpshot.

BAYNE: How did Coach Ireland (of Loyola) come into the picture?

HARKNESS: Ireland came to see me play, I didn't play that well.

BAYNE: What were Loyola's teams like before you got there?

HARKNESS: Awful, that's why he felt he could take a chance. They were .500. They hung him in effigy my freshman year. So he took a chance, he didn't mind taking a chance on Black guys, like he did with me. He must have seen some good things.

BAYNE: Did you know he was at the game?

HARKNESS: I knew he was there. But I didn't play well at all.

BAYNE: You probably hustled and played good defense.

HARKNESS: Maybe that was it.

BAYNE: Were there other New York players who went to Loyola with you?

HARKNESS: I was the only one. That was the key, all the guys coming from New York. I went back and helped recruit Ronnie Miller. You never know these things at the time, but not long ago, he told me he was on his way to (the University of ) Dayton.

BAYNE: Did you have a quick, pressure defense?

HARKNESS: Oh yes. We knew where to be, we were organized. We put it on you. We were very quick. See, we didn't have a real tall team. (Les) Hunter was about 6'8", he was quick for his size. With Miller and Egan and me, it was almost like three guards out there. We rattled a lot of people.

BAYNE: Were you better defensively than Cincinnati, or different?

HARKNESS: They were a better defensive team than we were?

BAYNE: Because of (Tony) Yates?

HARKNESS: Thacker, Yates, George Wilson in the middle. Bonham wasn't a great defender, he was good, but he was such a great shooter. Thacker, I always thought, was excellent. You know how a guy can get to you? He got to me. I came back, but in the first half he shut me down completely.

BAYNE: Really?

HARKNESS: Yeah. You know I didn't score in the first half. I kept going at him. Eventually he got in foul trouble, he got five. He let go some. They even switched him off me.

BAYNE: How long did you play for Walter November?

HARKNESS: I think a couple of summers. See, I didn't go right to college. I played the summer after the (NCAA) championship.

BAYNE: The same guys?

HARKNESS: Basically the same folks. I played with Garfinckel a lot, he'd pick me up. My second year we played against Roger Brown and Connie's team. We had Leroy Ellis and Tony Jackson and Ray Peprocky. I was on the bench on that team, but I came in and played a lot. I could have easily started I think, it was so close. I came in, and we beat Connie and Roger and them.

BAYNE: How about the time your parents were surprised when they met November?

HARKNESS: That was at the end, right before November passed. I wanted my family to meet him. My daughter (she's with the Rockettes, she's got her degree, she's with Jimmy Buffett, you know, if I was still in the projects, none of that would be possible. Not saying it would be impossible, but it would be so much harder), they wanted to meet him. My aunt was there, and I think my uncle. Everybody else was gone. We brought him upstairs, this was a nice apartment, on Riverside Drive West, near the G.W. Bridge. Their mouths flew open. We spent a couple of hours together, we looked at pictures. They said "All these years, we thought he was a Black man."

Rucker played a big part in my life too. Not too many people know this. He coached the first organized basketball team, St. Phillips. He was kind of a coach. We played all kinds of Boys Clubs. (Bob) McCullough played. This man Rucker was awesome, when you really think about it. Most people work with other people, and sponsors. This guy did it all by himself. Walter ws the key to my success. You can have talent, but if nobody knoww you well, even if you win the city championship, it's what you do in the community, in the summer leagues that's key.

BAYNE: Was the Rucker the only summer league then?

HARKNESS: Some people played in the Rucker, and you had the Ray Felix League. There was a league over in Brooklyn, and a league in Rockville Centre, in Artie Heyman's territory. I plared everywhere.

BAYNE: You had the stamina. Never smoked or drank?

HARKNESS: I never smoked a cigarette in my life. I'm just now starting with the wine coolers.

BAYNE: Did you ever miss track?

HARKNESS: I missed track, I missed it a lot. I loved track. I had a scholarship to St. John's, but my grades were so bad. I was pretty good at track. I was city champion in the 1,000 yeard run. There were not too many brothers doing distance, but that's another story. I was third in the state out of 300 guys, from the Catholic schools and all.

BAYNE: How'd you get a tryout with the ABA?

HARKNESS: I was with the Knicks, I had a tryout with them. I didn't do well. I was a mediocre pro player. I was a very good college player, I made every All-American team in '62'-'63, first team. When it came to the pros I was limited. I think I had played so much, and with the banging, the cross country, I couldn't get up on my jumper. I would play good early on, but playing three or four games a week I couldn't recover, my legs were so bad. I got a job with Quaker Oats, a real good job, I traveled. I was athletic administrator for Quaker Oats programs, a great job. I think I called Les (Hunter). I said "We'll never forgive ourselves". We went to work out. I think I called or wrote the team, and they gave me a a chance to come up. I was one of the last ones to make the team, I went into the bathroom and cried like a baby. My family was still in Chicago. There were three jerseys left, and I got one of the three. It was very close, but it was a great feeling.
Do you know what happened?

BAYNE: No. I know about the shot.

HARKNESS: Here all my life I've been told I couldn't shoot, and I made the longest shot in history. Roger (Brown) and I were hot shooting that night. I released the ball from uder their basket, and we thought we had tied the game. We forgot about the three-point shot, another great thing that came from the ABA.

BAYNE: Did you shoot it baseball-style, or how?

HARKNESS: Yep, hooked it overhand. I thought it was going to hit the backboard, I thought it was going to be close.

BAYNE: When did you know it was going to be good?

HARKNESS: I thought it would crease the basket. I felt it halfway there, I could see it, just about halfway. Charles Beasley of Dallas had just scored, I mean the crown was still cheering. Oliver Darden takes the ball out and gives it to me. There was some debate whether I had gotten the shot off. That place got so silent. Then the guys ran up to me.

BAYNE: Did they tease you because you weren't a shooter?

HARKNESS: All the guys teased me all week. That was the highlight of my pro career. Early on I helped them a lot, but I probably couldn't keep it up.

BAYNE: Do you think having played forward in college had anything to do with it?

HARKNESS: I had played forward, I was better at forward. I was quicker than those guys, and I could wear them down. The guards were just as quick as I was. I've had a great life though, if you think of all the things that happened to me.

BAYNE: Yes, and you've known some good people. Thank you Mr. Harkness.

(more about Jerry Harkness):

http://www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=45&category=sportsMakers

http://www.loyolaramblers.com/sports/mbball/retired/harkness.asp

The seven Catholic colleges to win the men's NCAA basketball tournament were Holy Cross, LaSalle, U. San Francisco, Loyola, Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova. How many did you know?

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