Giving 'Em Fitz: Recalling the first UConn-St. Joe's NCAA game

The Palestra. (Matt Rourke/AP)
The Palestra. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Posted: March 20, 2014

Chances are there won't be many 15-year-olds sitting by themselves high in the First Niagara Center on Thursday night when St. Joseph's and Connecticut meet in a second-round NCAA tournament game.

And if there are, when that Buffalo doubleheader concludes about midnight, it's doubtful any will be hitchhiking part of the way home.

The world and the NCAA tournament have changed since the last time the Hawks and the Huskies opened against each other.

On Monday, March 8, 1965, I attended the Palestra tripleheader that launched the NCAA tournament that year.

March wasn't mad yet, maybe a little quirky at most. Only 23 teams made the NCAA field that year. Among those left out was my Big Five favorite, 23-5 Villanova.

Still, the Palestra's NCAA lineup was, on both a local and a national level, appealing. Tickets, as Inquirer columnist Tom Fox later wrote of the event, "were as hard to find as an honest man."

St. Joseph's, 25-1 and ranked No. 3 nationally, met UConn in the 8 p.m. main event. The 6 p.m. opener featured Bill Bradley's Princeton against Penn State. And in the 10 p.m. nightcap, No. 4 Providence faced West Virginia.

Since I'm certain that neither my grades nor my behavior warranted such remarkable freedom on a school night, my poor parents must have been subjected to some world-class whining that week.

My father, a Bulletin proofreader, got me one ticket through his friendship with that paper's Big Five writer, Bob Vetrone.

A Red Arrow bus and the Market Street El got me from Broomall to 34th Street, and I walked the three-and-a-half blocks to the Palestra. It was a journey thousands of hoops-obsessed Delaware County kids knew by heart.

Game details are blurry all these years later, but a few vague memories have remained:

I recall a bag of soft pretzels, a hot dog or two, and, after six hours on a hard bleacher bench, a few sore body parts. The Palestra, with just one local entrant, wasn't as raucous as usual.

Jack Ramsay's Hawks, whose only loss had been to Providence, were especially flat. I liked St. Joe's because its starting five - Matt Guokas, Cliff Anderson, Marty Ford, Tom Duff, and Billy Oakes - had gone to high school within six miles of the Palestra, a geographical fact that validated my belief in Philly's basketball superiority.

I'd never seen anyone who could leap like Anderson or a guard as tall as the 6-foot-6 Guokas. Those two eventually helped the Hawks prevail over the Huskies, 67-61, but a little Palestra home cooking didn't hurt.

UConn's star was Toby Kimball, whose most memorable attributes were his grit and his baldness. Kimball managed 29 rebounds, still the fourth-best total in NCAA history.

Princeton, which would win the East Regional, wasn't at its best, either.

Bradley, the college game's poster boy in what was his senior season, scored eight late points to give the Tigers a 60-58 win over Penn State.

Providence was the best team on the floor. Behind Dexter Westbrook and Jimmy Walker, the Friars routed West Virginia.

In a second-round game in College Park, Md., later that week, Providence broke my heart by eliminating St. Joe's before getting destroyed by Princeton in the regional final, 109-69.

It was midnight, I'm sure, when I exited the arena and got on the westbound subway. The bus that hours earlier had deposited me at 69th Street didn't run that late, so I caught one that took me to West Chester Pike and Lawrence Road, about a mile from home.

Late nights engender a certain camaraderie among those who must be up. Once I stuck out my thumb, a lift came quickly.

I don't recall being scared on the subway or the bus or even in the stranger's car, though the world, even then, was far from innocent.

That same March 8, the first sizable contingent of U.S. troops - 3,500 Marines - had been dispatched to Vietnam.

And a day earlier, scores of civil-rights marchers had been bloodied as they tried to cross a bridge in Selma, Ala.

But those were events for a grown-up world.

I was 15. It was 1:30 in the morning. And, as I entered our house and heard my mother call down, I couldn't imagine ever being afraid.


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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