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In 1953, Seton Hall Was in Bloody Battle for Top Spot

February 05, 1989|STEVE JACOBSON | Newsday

The night after losing its 27-0 record, Seton Hall slept on the train in the station in Louisville, Ky. Walter Dukes, the All-America, folded his 7-foot body into the Pullman bunk and dealt with the outrage privately.

The city of Louisville was newly and only partially integrated then and Dukes and backup center Frank Minaya were not welcome in hotels. Change was coming slowly.

The last time the national rankings seriously concerned Seton Hall was in March of 1953 and Seton Hall had alternated with Indiana in the first and second spots in the polls all season. At Indiana, which went on to win the NCAA, people were convinced Eastern bias dominated the polls.

Seton Hall was a week from beginning its winning run through the NIT, which was still equal to the NCAA tournament then. It was three games from a perfect regular season.

Then the Pirates went west and wound up on the cover of Life magazine with Mike Hannon unconscious on the floor of the Louisville Armory and an angry crowd surging around them.

"I felt we lost one game on the trip, and one game was taken from us," recalled Arnie Ring, now a vice president at Morgan Trust.

"We thought we could finish undefeated; we were very brash," recalled Richie Regan, executive director of the Blue Pirate athletic fund, former athletic director, former coach and an All-America guard on that team. "We were all from New York and New Jersey; we thought that was the best basketball area in the country, and it was."

Seton Hall had Regan, who went on to three seasons in the NBA. Most of all it had Dukes, the leading rebounder in the country. Regan recalls that Dukes could have been an Olympic runner if he'd devoted himself to it. "He never tired in a game," Regan said. "He'd make a basket and be back at the other end to block a shot on a break."

They excited the school and New York in the aftermath of the big scandal of 1950, which did not involve Seton Hall. Channel 13 was in New Jersey then and all the Seton Hall games were on TV. They played in the same little Walsh Gym, which they didn't think was so little then, but they set a Madison Square Garden attendance record against St. John's in the NIT final.

They had defeated Dayton and Louisville earlier in the season. Dukes had been the subject of taunting by Western Kentucky at the Garden and strong-armed by West Texas State, and overcame it. "I would think it would have affected him," Ring said. "He was a brilliant fellow, but he was shy."

They played a tough game at Dayton and lost, 70-65. The controversy was that the official Dayton scorebook said Regan had fouled out with five minutes to go and Seton Hall claimed he had only four personals. "To this day I say I had four fouls," Regan said.

They accepted their defeat and got on the train to Louisville and were told they could not stay in a hotel on arrival. Their car would be dropped off in the yard, hooked up with heat and water. Dukes, who had been recruited from Rochester, N.Y., by former Seton Hall great Bobby Davies, was meeting Jim Crow.

"We didn't like that we couldn't stay in the hotel because of them, not only because they were teammates, but they were terrific guys," Regan said. "They certainly didn't like it, but it might have been easier because their teammates were with them. We even tried to make light of it."

Ring remembers rooming with Dukes on trains and hotels on earlier trips and considering this situation a fact of life. "It was a conservative time," Regan said. "In the '60s there would have been pickets and sit-ins and everything."

Louisville was a good team, led by Chuck Noble and Phil Rollins. The game was rough from the outset and the crowd was hostile. "The same referees we had in Dayton called a different game," Ring said. "Richie couldn't move without being called for walking."

"Home cooking," Regan said.

Several times they came close to fighting. There were few police in the armory, but they were watching on TV in the station house. "We were scared stiff; 7,500 vs. 12," Regan said. In a desperate effort, guard Harry Brooks struggled for a rebound and his mouth was split by an elbow.

The fight broke out with seconds to play and Louisville realistically out of reach. Bottles flew onto the court. Regan recalled Dukes, who'd scored 35 points, standing his ground in the melee when a man ran out of the crowd, said to Dukes, "You call yourself a Catholic," and ripped the miraculous medal off Dukes' neck. "We were afraid for Walter and Frank in a hostile crowd," Regan said.

A spectator hit Hannon in back of his neck and he crumpled to the floor. "I started to go into the crowd after the guy," Ring said, "and Richie grabbed me. He said, 'No way I'm going in there with you; they'll kill us.' "

Three Dominican priests who'd been traveling with Seton Hall went onto the court and rushed Dukes out of the armory. The team dressed without showering. "We got our clothes on and got the hell out of there," Regan said. Ring remembers a police escort. "We never saw Walter again until we got on the train," Ring said.

They went to get something to eat with the trainmen in a diner across from the stockyards and rumors kept filtering in that the crowd was coming to get them. "I think we were too hungry to leave," Regan said.

Harry Brooks died a few years ago. Dukes got his law degree during his 10 years in the NBA, has fallen on difficult times and has become reclusive. The last his teammates saw of him was at the midnight practice that opened this season. This is the next best season since his team was 31-2.

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