1953 Introduction

1953 Introduction

By Bob Hammel

January 27, 2006

Branch McCracken’s 1952-53 Hurryin’ Hoosiers took Indiana basketball to achievements it had never reached before, and back to the best one of all: the NCAA championship.

Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

This was an IU team given little notice early. It was a team that started three juniors and two sophomores, the classic sign it was “a year away.” And when it lost two of its first three games, the question was “a year away” from what?

Moot question. Because that group was weeks away from a joyride that gave the 1952-53 team a spot in Hoosier hearts forever.

The stars started to come into alignment well before the Hoosiers cut down the NCAA nets in Kansas City after a 69-68 victory over Kansas March 30, 1953.

Freshman rule helped Schlundt

American troops were in Korea in the early 1950s. The military draft caused college athletics to suspend the freshman-ineligibility rule – for one year, 1951-52. That was the freshman year of 6-10 Don Schlundt of little Washington-Clay High School outside South Bend. Schlundt – “Ox” – was able to bloom as a college player that rookie season, probably much more than he would have in the freshman intra-squad preliminary games that were common when freshmen weren’t eligible.

Schlundt started and scored 6 points in his first college game, a 68-59 victory over Valparaiso opening that 1951-52 season. In the sixth game, he broke out with 28 points as the Hoosiers sent No. 5-ranked Kansas State home with an 80-75 victory. He was on his way to a team-leading 17.1 season scoring average and a career that still has him No. 1 among all IU players in average points per game (23.3). It was a career that saw him break the hitherto IU career scoring record during his sophomore season, become not just IU’s first 1,000-point scorer but the whole Big Ten’s first 2,000 man, finishing with 2,192 – a total untopped at IU until Steve Alford came along 32 years after Schlundt, who died of cancer before his record fell but sent Alford a treasured letter congratulating him for the achievement he could see was going to come.

Heart of a powerhouse

As a freshman, Schlundt usually started alongside two other first-year players, sophomores Bobby Leonard (14.5) and Dick Farley (8.9).

Those three were the nucleus of a three-year era that ranks with the best in IU and Big Ten history.

But guard Bobby Masters, “Mr. Basketball” on Lafayette Jeff’s 1948 state high school champions, was the senior star of the ’51-52 Hoosiers. And the flashiest of all sophomores on that team was Sammy Esposito, one of the most gifted athletes in IU history. When called on to do it, Esposito’s dribbling skills made him a one-man stall. And he could score, his high 25 in a 96-85 victory at Northwestern. He was even better as a baseball shortstop, which is why he wasn’t around in 1952-53. The spring of his sophomore season, the Chicago White Sox signed him to a bonus contract and he was in the majors in 1956.

That team started 8-0 and got as high as No. 4 in the polls before three straight Big Ten losses started a slide to a 16-6 finish and absence from the season’s last three Top 20 rankings.

Leonard move a key

The next fall, McCracken moved Charlie Kraak in at forward, allowing the shift of the 6-3 Leonard to guard, where he became an All-American – “pound for pound” the best college player in America, Chicago sportswriter Jimmy Enright, who doubled as a colorful Big Ten referee, called him. Kraak, the one out-of-state starter (Collinsville, Ill.) was an outstanding rebounder, in a front line with Farley, so skilled all-round he often had – and excelled in – defensive assignments against the opponents’ best front-court player, however tall he was.

Don Schlundt (34) puts up two against Kansas in the 1953 NCAA championship game.
Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

And Schlundt became the greatest scorer, up to then, in IU or Big Ten history.

That left one back-court role open, and another sophomore, Burke Scott, stepped into it.

That meant the Hoosiers spanned the state that championship season: Scott from Tell City on the Ohio River, Schlundt from just inside the Michigan border, Leonard from Terre Haute, on the Illinois border, and Farley from Winslow in southwestern Indiana.

All five scored in double figures, along with Schlundt’s 6-11 back-up, Lou Scott, in an opening rout of Valparaiso.

But victory got away next time out at Notre Dame, when Leroy Stephens’ mid-court steal and lay-up just head of the gun gave the Irish a 71-70 victory. A week later at Kansas State, Jerry Carby’s long shot at the overtime buzzer delivered an 82-80 victory that shot the Wildcats into the No. 2 ranking when the year’s first polls came out the next week. Indiana (1-2) was 19th.

History, by the 100s

It was the first year the Big Ten tried a full round-robin schedule, 18 league games rather than the 14 of years before. That meant the earliest league game in history for the Hoosiers, who won it 88-60 over Michigan to start an epic run.

Indiana was 8-0 in the league and No. 2 in the country (behind unbeaten Seton Hall and All-American center Walter Dukes) when the semester ended. Grades took their own toll there; Schlundt’s valuable back-up, Lou Scott, was declared ineligible.

McCracken always booked in a non-conference game after the schedule break. This time it was Butler, and more history. The Hoosiers shot away to a 60-39 halftime lead over Tony Hinkle’s patient Bulldogs. The reserves were in when Jack Wright of Richmond hit the free throws that gave IU its first 100-point game in its 55-year basketball history. The game ended 105-70 – future IU assistant coach Norm Ellenberger scoring 8 points as one of the bedazzled Bulldogs.

That put the turn-around streak. It was at 14 when the Hoosiers improved on even their Butler performance with a 113-78 drubbing of Purdue, Schlundt’s 31 points leading six double-figure Hoosier scorers

Five nights later, they took their surpreme-test trip: to Illinois, to face the defending champion Illini, a Final Four team the year before, a team IU hadn’t beaten at Champaign in eight years. That was a night McCracken treasured.

The brash Leonard, master of the long, two-handed set shot, misfired on his first two tries. The Illini crowd jeered “Shoot! Shoot!” when he got the ball again. Leonard sank seven straight shots, ten field goals in all, in a 23-point contribution to a 91-79 Hoosier victory that – with four games still to play – clinched another item of history: IU’s first-ever clear-cut Big Ten championship. (The early clinching and the relatively meaningless “stretch run” – only the league champion went onto post-season play then – convinced Big Ten officials to end the one-year “round-robin” experiment and cut back to 14 games, never to return to 18 for 22 years. And when it did, in 1974-75, another Indiana team went 18-0 to sew up the championship, and much the same team the next year again went 18-0 with an early clincher – which surely must have made surviving 1952-53 Big Ten decision-makers say: “See.”)

Another bonus came with the victory: Seton Hall finally slipped. When the polls came out March 3, 1953, Indiana – for the first time ever – was No. 1.

That old buzzer thing, and a big birthday

The night before, the Hoosiers had barely kept their winning streak alive with a 90-88 victory at home over Northwestern: 17 straight wins, a 16-0 Big Ten record.

But the last-second road hex struck for the third time. Sophomore guard Chuck Mencel, on his way to an NBA career, hit a jump shot just ahead of the buzzer to give Minnesota a 65-63 victory.

It didn’t dislodge the Hoosiers from No. 1, so they carried the ranking into NCAA tournament play.

At Chicago Stadium, Schlundt had 23 points and Leonard 22 as Indiana held off fast-closing DePaul, 82-80.

The next night there, Schlundt – in every way – came of age.

Against muscular Norb Lewinski, who had outscored him 28-23 in the earlier meeting in Schlundt’s home town, “Ox” unloaded the first 40-point performance in IU and Big Ten history – 41, on 13 field goals and 15 free throws – to Lewinski’s 19 and Indiana moved on to the Final Four at Kansas City with a resounding 79-66 victory.

That record game came on Schlundt’s 21st birthday.

Jayhawks were waiting

In the semifinals, Indiana met Southeastern Conference champion Louisiana State and its great All-American center, Bob Pettit. Pettit matched Schlundt’s 29, but no one offset Leonard’s 22 as IU cruised, 80-67 (the first of what now is five straight IU victories over LSU, all in NCAA tournament play).

Kansas, the Big Seven champion, defending NCAA champion, and No. 3-ranked team, had an even easier time with Pacific Coast champion Washington in the other semifinal, 79-53.

It set up a rematch of the 1940 finals that Indiana had won so shockingly, a rematch that surely realized a 13-year hope for the legendary Jayhawk coach, Forrest “Phog” Allen. And it was on the same Municipal Auditorium court, before a crowd even more Jayhawk-packed than the first time. A press story at the time said “Kansans had bought up 10,000 seats” as soon as they went on sale, before the Final Four field was set. IU got the usual participants’ allowance: 200 tickets. “Their voices were merely cries in a wilderness compared to the intimidating, stereophonic sound of the Kansas clan,” Ron Rapoport wrote in the 1979 book, “The Classic: The History of the NCAA Basketball Championships.”

This one was no blowout.

And Hoosier voices were heard.

A fiery final

Before halftime, Farley picked up his fourth foul and Schlundt his third, and Kansas led 39-33. It was 41-41 at halftime, and Leonard had just one field goal.

In the third quarter, the game tight, Kansas center B.H. Born – later named winner of the NCAA’s Outstanding Player Award, the only time in IU’s five championship years the award didn’t go to a Hoosier (and even this time Schlundt outscored him, 30-26) – was called for a foul and scorers buzzed for his exit, with five fouls. Kansas scorebooks disagreed – Born had four, they contended. Scorers rechecked and changed their count to four, in agreement, Rapoport wrote, with “all on press row.” Born played on. And McCracken boiled over.

McCracken, Rapoport’s account said, “charged the scorers and protested what he called changing the books.

“”You had five on him and you changed it to four,’ McCracken shouted, ‘You know you did. We come out here and are supposed to be your guest. You’re robbing us!'”

During the explosive, intense game, Schlundt and Leonard each drew a technical foul for remarks to an official. And, in the closing minutes, with Indiana leading by three points, Kraak exploded when called for a foul and he was charged with a technical.

But, with 27 seconds to go, the score was tied at 68 when Leonard drew a two-shot foul.

The first one missed.

The second one didn’t.

Photo Courtesy: Indiana University Archives

And, when Kansas followed Allen’s orders and played for one last shot, those three last-second road losses had to be hanging in Hoosier heads.

Allen’s plan was to get the ball to shooter Al Kelly with five seconds left. Kelley couldn’t get open. He improved with a pass to the deep corner to Jerry Alberts, whose shot at the buzzer bounced off.

Indiana – the team that was “a year away” – was the national champion.

Revenge for the Irish, early end for IU

Bloomington exploded when the popular team and coach returned the next day.

All players were back. All eyes by summertime had switched to dreams of a second straight championship. A pre-season magazine in fall 1953 said, “Any time they lose it will be an upset.” Schlundt and Leonard were pre-season All-Americans.

They did follow up with a second straight Big Ten championship. They did spend much of the year No. 1-ranked.

They finished the regular season 19-3 and No. 2-ranked, behind tournament-ineligible Kentucky.

But on opening night of the 1954 NCAA tournament, at Iowa City against No. 6-ranked Notre Dame, which had lost to the Hoosiers in December at IU, 66-55, Notre Dame collared Schlundt and won, 65-64.

A glorious era was over.But never forgotten.

(Bob Hammel, a senior in Huntington High School in 1953 and an intent listener on scratchy radio the night of March 18, was sports editor of the Bloomington Herald-Telephone and the Bloomington Herald-Times from 1966 through his retirement in 1996.)