NCAA champ became CIA legend. Historic La Salle team produced unsung hero

Posted: January 23, 2004

The members of La Salle's 1954 NCAA championship men's basketball team are remembered in all the usual places - in musty newspaper clippings; in the North Philadelphia school's trophy case; in the dens of the players themselves; even in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But there's a memento to one of those half-a-century-ago Explorers that very few people, not even his aging teammates, have ever seen. A bronze plaque dedicated to Bob Ames, a sophomore reserve, hangs on a wall of fame in a Langley, Va., exhibit center.

Only visitors with government clearance have ever viewed it. That's because the plaque is inside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.

This weekend, when those players gather for a 50th anniversary dinner at the Union League tonight and a ceremony during tomorrow's La Salle-Dayton game, much of the talk will focus on Tom Gola, their all-everything superstar who is still recuperating from a serious fall.

But Ames, who played very little that championship season and who dropped out of sight after graduation, will also be a major topic of discussion. This quiet teammate, a Philly guy who may have been the team's best shooter but who nonetheless rode the bench contentedly, went on to become a legendary CIA agent.

"It's amazing. This very nice guy we played with all those years ago became such a major force in world affairs, and he did it as a CIA agent," said Charlie Singley, like Ames a sophomore on the La Salle team that defeated Bradley, 92-76, in the 1954 NCAA title game.

Ames was born in a Roxborough rowhouse in 1935 and died at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, 48 years later.

In between his 1956 La Salle graduation and his death in the April 1983 terrorist bombing that killed 63 people - including six of his CIA colleagues - Ames carved out a career that remains one of the most widely praised in the history of U.S. intelligence.

"His patriotism and courage were unquestioned," wrote Steve Posner, author of Israel Undercover: Secret Warfare and Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East.

"He rose quickly through the CIA's ranks, becoming national intelligence officer for the Middle East, then chief of operations for the region, and eventually director of assessment for the Near East and South Asia."

Ames' friendly nature and the flair for languages he began to develop at La Salle - he was fluent in Arabic and Farsi - won him entr┬Łe to Yasir Arafat and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s. His contact with the infamous Palestinian organization Black September is credited with thwarting an assassination attempt on Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the same decade.

U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz made him the key Mideast adviser to the National Security Council in the early 1980s. And when Ames' flag-draped coffin arrived at Dover Air Force Base, cameras caught President Reagan with tears in his eyes.

"He loved the Middle East, spoke Arabic fluently, and had a gift for the human relationships that are, in the end, what espionage is all about," wrote David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who has written extensively about American intelligence.

Yet for all the international intrigue that infused his life, Ames never forgot that 1954 La Salle team.

"Bob was buried at Arlington National Cemetery," said Frank Blatcher, another La Salle teammate who now lives in Sarasota, Fla. "After the funeral, we all went back to his house. Inside, he had two plaques from La Salle, one for the championship, one for being the NCAA runner-up [in 1955], in a very prominent spot."

But it was only a few years before his death that Ames, at a team reunion, had shared his professional secret with his old teammates.

"I always thought he was in insurance," Blatcher said.

According to the CIA's Web site, Ames began working for the agency in 1960. Married with a home in Northern Virginia, he and his wife, Yvonne, raised six children.

Family members did not want to be interviewed for this story, but last year, Ames' son Kevin told CBS News that, until he was in fifth grade, he had no idea what his father did.

On April 18, 1983, not long after a van packed with explosives leveled the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the family got a painful reminder.

"I remember hearing a knock at the door, and then my sister screaming," Kevin Ames, who is expected to represent his father at this weekend's activities, said last year. "It's the kind of scream you hear, and you cringe inside, because you know something horrible has happened."

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Ames, the uncle of ex-major-league pitcher Mark Gubicza, was a dark-haired, long-faced, 6-foot-3 forward who graduated from Roxborough High.

"He was a warm and personable guy," Charlie Singley said.

In 1954, Ames, who commuted from his Roxborough home, averaged two points and one rebound in 14 games as the 26-4 Explorers won the NCAA title.

Friends recall that Ames, who earned a bachelor's degree in liberal arts, was an outstanding student, one particularly gifted in French. His La Salle teammates got their first hint of Ames' secret life at a 1981 reunion.

"I asked him what he did and he said, 'Oh, I do some stuff for the President,' " Blatcher said. "He started talking about the Middle East, and I told him he had some really good ideas and that he ought to be devising U.S. policy. He said, 'I am.' "

According to Posner, by the early 1980s Ames was meeting secretly with Palestine Liberation Organization officials, including Arafat, Abu Jihad and Ali Hassan Salameh, the man blamed for masterminding the Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes.

"When [Ariel] Sharon's troops invaded Lebanon and encircled Beirut in 1982, Ames helped offer Arafat a way out," Posner wrote.

On April 18, 1983, Ames was conducting a meeting with several CIA colleagues in a conference room of the Beirut embassy.

At 1:05 p.m., a black van crashed through the gates and 300 pounds of explosives were detonated. Sixty-three bodies - 17 of them American - eventually were extracted from the rubble.

More than 20 years later, his La Salle teammates still have difficulty equating the friendly young man they knew with the daring CIA operative he became.

"You just never know," Singley said. "Here was this very quiet guy who loved doing crossword puzzles. And look at what happened."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick

at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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