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NCAA Tournament started 70 years ago, before madness set in

THE INQUIRER on March 18, 1939, was full of news. Bannered across the top of the page was a headline that announced, "Lower Merion Defeats Hazleton, Gains Eastern Court Final." Elsewhere, there were two spring-training pieces out of Phillies cam

THE INQUIRER on March 18, 1939, was full of news. Bannered across the top of the page was a headline that announced, "Lower Merion Defeats Hazleton, Gains Eastern Court Final." Elsewhere, there were two spring-training pieces out of Phillies camp, including one where team president Gary Nugent said he would not "upset the apple cart unless we can get better apples"; Connie Mack was looking for someone to play third base for the Athletics; and in his "Strictly Sports" column out of Florida, Cy Peterman asked the question: "Is the Iron Horse Crumbling?"

That would have been Lou Gehrig, who had by then played in 2,122 consecutive games and of whom Peterman observed: "The famed piano legs now lumber when they leap." No one knew then that Gehrig was suffering from a disease that would later carry his name - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In fact, an unidentified "loyal attache" was quoted by Peterman as saying: "This is the payoff of the great Gehrig record. What will it mean in a few years?" Given that the record of 2,130 consecutive games stood until Cal Ripken Jr. eclipsed it 56 years later, it is fair to say that the lens of history is not always immediately in focus.

That also could be said of a far lesser story among the 17 crammed on the sports page that Saturday. It was the first NCAA Tournament basketball game and it was played the previous evening at the Palestra between Villanova and Brown, the "lid lifter" of a doubleheader that included a "whirlwind windup" between Ohio State and Wake Forest. The headline reads: "Villanova, Ohio State Win N.C. 2-A Basketball Games." The article says that a crowd of 3,500 showed up at the Palestra, but chances are that it was far easier to get a ticket then than it is this week for the opening round of March Madness at the Wachovia Center. Even Penn sports information director Bob Paul did not attend the 1939 game.

"No one cared that it was even there," said Paul, 92. "I wish I could help you out but, no, I was not there. And I just had to walk across the street. But that just shows you how unimportant it was then."

Paul paused and asked, "Who did the Inquirer have covering it?"

He was told: Edward J. Klein.

"He wrote high school stories for them," Paul said. "So that should tell you something."

Does he know anyone who attended the game?

He thought a moment and replied: "No. It was nothing like it is today. Good luck finding somebody, though."

Eight teams were in the tournament that year. Villanova, Brown, Ohio State and Wake Forest played here in the East Regional. Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah State played in San Francisco in the West Regional. The finals were played on March 27 in Evanston, Ill., between Ohio State and Oregon. Oregon won it, 46-33, but the Most Outstanding Player was Ohio State All-America James R. "Jimmy" Hull, who later was inducted in the Rocky Mountain Orthodontics Athletic Hall of Fame. Hull has passed away, but in an interview with the New York Times in 1988, he said that the tournament was so inconsequential that he and his teammates did not even want to go.

Hull told the Times: "We had just won our league title, which was the most important thing in our minds, and the state high school tournament was being played. We wanted to watch that."

Given that it is now 70 years since that inaugural tournament, it appears the only way to contact anyone who actually played in the Villanova-Brown game would be by seance. None of the 10 Villanova players in the box score is still with us, according to the school's sports information department. The Brown sports information department reports the same: None of their eight players is alive, either. Insofar as locating someone who just happened to be a fan and happened to attend the game, a survey of local octogenarians proved unsuccessful. That even included Harvey Pollack, the legendary statistician for the Sixers, who reports that he was "a senior in high school and not big in basketball back then."

But we did come close. Maje McDonnell and Red Klotz played in 1940 for the unbeaten Villanova freshman team. Neither was at the Palestra for the Brown game, but they knew the players and agreed they had a fine team that year. Two of the top players for Villanova were "right guard" Johnny Krutulis and "left forward" Jim Montgomery. Both McDonnell and Klotz agree that any similarity between basketball then and now is name only.

"All the players were short and we played a very physical style then," says McDonnell, who later coached with the Phillies. "By the year I got there, some of the players from that team had graduated. I remember we used to run the varsity ragged during practice."

Klotz laughs. "No one had a jump shot back then," says Klotz, who founded the Washington Generals and toured for years as the perennial "opponent" of the Harlem Globetrotters. "And, yes, we had a heck of a freshman team in 1940. But it was so unlike it is today in terms of athleticism."

From what can be ascertained from the Inquirer report, Villanova handled "the standard-bearer of the New England area" with relative ease that evening in 1939. Klein wrote floridly: "Contrary to advance warning, Brown came here without the band of eagle-eyed sharpshooters who could cut the cords from mid-floor. Even broad-shouldered Harry Platt, who scored 240 points for the New Englanders this semester, was conspicuously silent in the early stages. Later he got going and tabbed seven markers."

Coached by Al Severance, the Wildcats cruised to 42-30 victory. They were led in scoring by the 5-9 Krutulis, "who hit the hoops for a half-dozen field goals and a brace of singletons for 14 points." Montgomery added an even dozen. Klein reported that Villanova "took almost twice as many shots at the scoring strings" than Brown, who "hindered themselves considerably by frequent misses of easy lay-up tosses." But that victory would spell the end of the line for Villanova, who faced off the following day with a "sky-scrapper squad" from Ohio State.

The Buckeyes had crushed Wake Forest, 64-52.

And they whipped the Wildcats even worse, 53-36. Hull scored 28 points.

Had anyone known what the NCAA basketball tournament would eventually become, chances are someone would have held on to more stuff from 1939. But there are only a few old photographs still around, of young men with slicked-back hair, tight-fitting shorts and kneepads. The National Invitation Tournament had began the previous year and remained the big event on the college basketball calendar for years, in part because it was played in New York at the premier arena of the day, Madison Square Garden. But according to Gary Johnson, the NCAA associate director of statistics, that began to change in the early 1950s.

"Some of it had to do with the betting scandals that surrounded New York basketball back then," he says. "But there were other factors involved: Conference champions began getting automatic bids; television began showing it live; and the tournament field began to grow, from eight teams to 16 in 1950 and so on to 32, 40 and later to the current 65."

Some are now clamoring for the field to be doubled in size.

Millions of dollars are now involved.

And people wager on office pools.

"It sure has come a long way," Paul says. "No one could have imagined it."

Even the Inquirer reporter assigned to the story that evening. In what can only be looked upon now as a telling irony, he overlooked the fact that the Villanova-Brown story was the first-ever NCAA Tournament basketball game. He did not know he was covering history. *