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Jackie Robinson's Madison Square Garden Memories

March 31, 2009

Baylor Bear Insider

Former Baylor All-American and Olympic gold medalist Jackie Robinson has been "thrilled to death" watching the Bears' magical run through the National Invitation Tournament.

"If those guards are hot, they can play with anybody," said the 81-year-old Robinson, a retired minister who pastored First Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., for several years. "I had an inkling they could beat Auburn (74-72 in the quarterfinals), because I had seen Auburn play a number of times. I'm hoping they'll go all the way."

What's brought it home even more for Robinson is the Bears' destination for the NIT Final Four. Sixty-one years after a Robinson-led Baylor team lost to Kentucky, 58-42, in the 1948 NCAA Tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York City, which was then located on 49th Street, Baylor (23-14) is going back to The Garden, which has relocated to 33rd Street in 1967, for Tuesday's 6 p.m. CDT semifinal against San Diego State (26-9).

"That was THE place," Robinson said of Madison Square Garden, which humbly refers to itself as "The World's Most Famous Arena."

"It was like television . . . And at Baylor, we barely had radio."

While this year's team took a chartered flight out of Waco on Sunday, the '48 team took a train from Kansas City, Mo., to New York and played Kentucky in The Garden just three days after beating Kansas State, 60-52, in the West Regional final.

"We didn't fly anywhere," said Robinson, who was a 6-foot guard from Fort Worth, Texas, and a three-time All-Southwest Conference pick for the Bears. "They held the train for us in Kansas City. We went by train and then worked out at The Armory Sunday afternoon and played in The Garden that night."

Three years earlier, the Bears had finished 0-17 and were blown out in all but a handful of games. But in what has to be one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of college basketball, they were 25-5 and Southwest Conference champions in Robinson's first year of eligibility as a sophomore in 1946.

The '46 team was the first to make it to the NCAA Tournament, losing to Oklahoma A&M in the West Region semifinals. Two years later, they made history with tournament wins over Washington and Kansas State before losing to Kentucky at The Garden.

Joining Robinson in the lineup were Bill Johnson, Bill DeWitt, James (Red) Owens and Don Heathington.

Staying in New York for the USA Olympic team trials, the Bears defeated New York University, 59-57, before losing to Kentucky again (77-59) and a Denver Nuggets AAU team (73-64) in the third-place game.

"We lost to Kentucky a week later in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament," Robinson said. "And if we had played them again, we would have lost again. I really hate to say that."

The Wildcats were led by the "Fabulous Five" - Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones and Cliff Barker - a group that won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1948 and '49 and played on the '48 USA Olympic team that won the gold medal in London. But in 1951, Beard and Groza were banned for life from the NBA when they were implicated in a point-shaving scandal from Kentucky's 1948-49 season.

In a far cry from today's USA Olympic Trials, the 1948 team was picked from an eight-team tournament at Madison Square Garden that included four collegiate teams, one YMCA squad and three AAU semi-pro teams.

When the AAU Phillips 66ers defeated Kentucky in the finals, Phillips coach Bud Browning and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp opted to go with five-man rotations from their respective teams and added Robinson, guard Ray Lumpp from New York University, center Don Barksdale from the Oakland Bittners and guard Vincent Boryla from the Denver Nuggets.

Riding down in the elevator the next morning, Robinson glanced down at a newspaper and noticed the headline: "Robinson, Lumpp Make U.S. Olympic Team." That's how Robinson found out he had made the Olympic team.

"You didn't get USA Today at the front desk free," he said. "The (hotel) elevator operators used to sell newspapers. I looked down, and there it was."

Playing in pre-Olympic exhibition games to raise money for other Olympians that "couldn't raise a dime," the U.S. team played before a sell-out crowd of 32,000 in a game at the football stadium in Lexington, Ky.

"We played under the lights with a white ball," Robinson said. "They brought a floor over from Louisville, and all the seats were sold. Then they gave us a send-off and took a trip to Southampton (England)."

Other than a 59-57 win over Argentina, when Robinson hit a clutch shot late in the game, the U.S. team blew out the Olympic field by at least 25 points in every game before blowing out France, 65-21, in the final. With the coaches primarily using their own players, Robinson saw only limited minutes and averaged 2.6 points.

But his gold medal is no different than the other 13 players on the team.

"It was a big deal," Robinson said of the Olympics. "The opening-day parade was great. Five thousand athletes from all the major countries of the world (walking in), the pigeons they let loose, the bad played and the King (of England) declared the Games official. They had a 500-piece band, 1,200-voice choir and 90,000-plus in the stands. It was a big deal."

With the Olympics going back to London in 2012, Robinson said he recently talked to his personal physician in Augusta about a return trip after undergoing open-heart surgery.

"When I asked him if I'd be able to go to the next Olympics, he said, `Hmm, I don't see why you couldn't, if you take your physician and his wife.' So I shook his hand, and we're working on it," Robinson said. "I had open-heart surgery, so that's why I was questioning it. I hope to take about 25 of us over there and really enjoy it."

Elected to the Baylor Athletic Hall of Fame in 1963 and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in '66, Robinson was one of 17 players named to Baylor's All-Centennial Basketball Team in 2006. A few years ago, he came back and got a tour of the team locker room and other facilities at the Ferrell Center.

"Each player had a locker with a VCR in it and a computer thing to watch film. All that stuff," Robinson said. "And they said, `What did y'all have?' And I said, `Well, we had a hook."



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