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Vintage '54

Retrospect: USC last made an appearance in the Final Four 47 years ago, when it was unable to get the jump on national runner-up Bradley.


They weren't spectacular leapers--any jams were purely accidental--yet they reached as high as any USC basketball players in school history.

"Toogie wouldn't let us dunk," recalled Roy Irvin, 67, whose memories of that glorious season are still crisp after 47 years. "That was taboo, because some guys would try it and hit the back of the rim. Toogie didn't support dunking at all. I did it once and got [benched]."

"Toogie" was Forrest Twogood, the longtime USC coach who led his team to the Final Four in 1954. It was the last time the Trojans advanced so deep into the tournament.

It's no wonder, then, Irvin will be watching with keen interest from his home in Orange tonight when USC plays Duke in the East Regional final.

"This is tremendous," he said. "I'm really so proud of those guys."

Glendale's Tony Psaltis is beaming too. He was a sophomore guard on the 1954 team, and still makes it to every game he can. He would be in Philadelphia this weekend but for a grandchild's baptism.

Irvin and Psaltis don't keep in close touch, but they try to round up their old teammates--players such as Dick Welsh, Chet Carr, Jack Dunne and Ralph Pausig--for a reunion every so often.

Dick Hammer, an Olympic volleyball player and the best leaper on the basketball team, died a few years ago. Irvin is the chairman of a petroleum marketing and transportation company. Psaltis runs a pest-control business.

Times have changed, but not as much as basketball.

"These kids today are so much bigger and stronger," Irvin said. "They do everything so well. It's just a different game. All we ever did was jump rope, run up and down, and do drills."

Boy, did they do drills. They lost five consecutive road games in 1954 during a winding odyssey that took them from Iowa to Michigan State to Bradley (in Peoria, Ill.) to Oklahoma State to Arizona.

By the time they got to Tucson, Twogood was fed up. After the crowd cleared out of the arena, he sent his players back onto the floor for a late-night practice. They had just lost a two-point game, so they weren't at their best as they slogged through drills.

It's debatable whether Twogood got his point across. The Trojans won their next two games, then lost five of seven in what appeared to be a hopeless season. But they finished with a flurry, sweeping California and UCLA, and splitting with Oregon State.

That was good enough to get USC (17-12 at that point) into the 24-team tournament. After a first-round bye, The Trojans defeated Idaho State with ease, then knocked off Santa Clara in double overtime, 66-65. The ride ended when Bradley defeated them, 74-72, to advance to the championship game at Kansas City, Mo.

Before the term "Cinderella team" had become so tired, The Times called the Trojans that and ran a story that featured drawings of the starting five on a basketball-shaped carriage.

Irvin, an undersized center at 6 feet 6, was the team's most valuable player. One of his most difficult challenges was trying to shut down 7-foot Oregon State center Swede Halbrook, the tallest person he had ever seen.

"He was really intimidating," Irvin said. "I had to guard him and I had to jump to look over his shoulders. The guy was all over you like an octopus."

As for Irvin? More like a shark with elbows.

"Roy was so physical that people wouldn't like to play too close to him," Psaltis said. "Roy gave about 18 stitches one week. . . . Elbows. Real sharp elbows."

Irvin is still an expert at clearing space.

Just check out the Final Four plaque on his office wall.

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