February 8, 1995
Reflections of a Scrubby Gun

"Cappy's Boys" Played with Grit and Spirit, but a New Coach and a Kid from Missouri Changed Tiger Basketball Forever
By Selden Edwards '63

Because I am middle aged, tall, and still reasonably lean, when the subject of Princeton comes up, people invariably ask two questions: Did I play basketball? Yes. Did I know Bill Bradley? Yes. Technically true, but misleading. In fact, in my twenties, when I taught in boarding schools, where prep-school boys want their mentors to be heroes, and hyperbole and misinformation take on a life of their own, the school legend-factory had me captain and high scorer of the Princeton varsity and Bradley's best friend and roommate, without my saying a word. Once, a ninth-grader asked me if I'd really been scouted by the Knicks and the Celtics. Occasionally, an older student reported that he'd seen a 1963 Bric-a-Brac, and there was no picture of me in the basketball section.

Franklin "Cappy" Cappon

Truth is, I did play college basketball for three years. But I never dressed for a varsity game and, along with the whole program, I was unceremoniously scrapped in my senior year. I was indeed the first Princeton undergraduate to greet the future Olympian, Knick, and U. S. Senator when he arrived on campus in September 1961. And I was indeed his roommate for his first three days at Princeton. Therein lie some good tales.

I was a late bloomer in all things, but in athletics especially. I was slow to grow hair under my arms, slow to gain my height, and slow to develop what coordination I finally settled into. My best line at school athletic banquets tells the story and always gets a laugh: "I was a great high school basketball player...in college."

My senior year in prep school was the only year in a lifetime of caring about basketball in which I actually started. I had just grown five inches, to 6-feet-4, and I weighed 155 pounds. I played center. Back then, I felt so embarrassingly skinny that I dreaded the advent of spring, when I had to wear short-sleeved shirts. By then, I was a decent basketball player, I suppose -- good hook shot, good first step, good feet for defense. But I had no left hand. I made the Princeton freshman team, a great honor, but I played exactly sixty seconds, the last of the season, and took one shot -- a total brick.

Of the fifteen-man freshman squad, I was the only one at the bottom of the roster who had seen no action. "Still have your cherry," my teammates kidded. (In that raunchy pre-coeducational era, that's the way we talked.) We played our last freshman game in the historic Palestra, home court of the University of Pennsylvania and four other Philadelphia colleges. Time was waning, and we were being killed by a good team led by all-stater and future Rhodes Scholar and novelist John Wideman, Penn's all-time leading freshman scorer. As the seconds ticked away, everyone was looking down the bench to see if Silent Ed Donovan, Princeton's long-time freshman coach, would send me in. Donovan was famous for an economy of style that made "taciturn" an understatement. "A man of no words," Bob Eisenstadt '63, the team's center and acerbic wit, called him. He was not famous for such refinements as noticing if a freshman at the end of the bench hadn't played.

With a minute and a half left, the call came down: "Whitehouse!" Probably the first two syllables Silent Ed had uttered since halftime. No response. He repeated, "Whitehouse!" Jack Whitehouse '62, one of Donovan's freshman stars from the previous year, had moved on to the varsity, which accounted for the silence and the lack of movement. Sitting next to me on the bench, my teammate Eric Shults '63 poked me. "I think he means you," he said. I stood up, walked the length of the bench, and felt a few hands slap me on the butt. Silent Ed nodded and pointed -- his main form of communication. "Eiso," he said. This time I knew exactly what he meant: go in for Bob Eisenstadt, play the post, and run the offense for the dwindling sixty seconds of the season. I took off my warmup jacket and stepped onto the floor of the Palestra. My mouth felt dry, and the space seemed cavernous and cold. Suddenly, the whole crowd erupted. At the other side of the court (unbeknownst to me, my vision constricted by terror) Penn's all-time freshman scoring champion was coming out of his last game. All I knew was that as I stepped onto one of the most historic basketball floors in the nation, in the last ticks of the 1960 freshman season, the crowd -- large for a freshman game -- rose in thunderous ovation. At that terrified moment, I thought it was for me and my virginity.

The rest of my Princeton career was downhill. I played two years of J.V., seeing respectable action in games. I even scored twelve points once in the Palestra. The Princeton J.V.'s were an odd assortment of not-ready-for-prime-time players who had not dropped out, even when it was clear that we weren't going to develop into varsity material. Theodore Roosevelt described himself as a first-rate second-rate thinker. We fancied ourselves first-rate second-rate ballplayers, "scrubby guns," as my classmate George Harmon '63 called us in The Daily Princetonian. The Prince initiated fledgling journalists with such challenging assignments as Scrubby Guns road trips to exotic places like Trenton State, or Princeton Theological Seminary or Rider College. When cub reporter Harmon coined the moniker, we reasoned that he -- a preppy and inveterate jock himself -- did so out of respect and envy.

Being J.V. in those years was special. All of us, of course, dreamed of ascending to the varsity, the remotest of possibilities. Of the twenty or so players on the entire squad, the top half were good enough to dress for varsity games, but the bottom half -- the Scrubby Guns -- most likely were not even among the top twenty basketball players at Princeton. The university kept the program going, not so much as a farm system for the varsity as for the educational experience. It was a classical ideal, part of the old English public-school model that believed sports rounded out character and developed leadership: the battle of Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton and all that. Sticking with a sport meant developing one's potential, cultivating the Renaissance Man. The best example of that was Jim Hunter '62, a three-sport man: end in football, pitcher in baseball, and Scrubby Gun. He was also an honors engineering student and most famous as "Ivy Jim," creator and lead singer of the legendary Cannon Club rock-and-roll band.

In the fall of 1962, a new varsity basketball coach, Butch van Breda Kolff '45, a former New York Knick and a future coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was recruited to coach the best college player in the nation. In his dramatic entry, he decided to cut the basketball program and with it all the rising seniors like myself who had hoped by some miracle to eke out a varsity letter. When I met von Breda Kolff two years later at the N.C.A.A. Final Four in Portland, Oregon, he said, "You look familiar." Fighting the temptation to say "I oughta look familiar, you bastard. You cut me," I smiled and said politely that I had been a J.V. The term Scrubby Gun would have been lost on him.

There were some wonderful characters in my basketball days at Princeton. Two are forever etched in my pantheon of heroes. The first was the coach, Franklin C. "Cappy" Cappon. Cappy was Princeton basketball to anyone even vaguely familiar with the teams of that era. Since his arrival from the University of Michigan, his alma mater, in 1938, his personality had come to dominate East Coast basketball. His name cannot be invoked without mention of his two fearsome and powerful institutions: the Iron Five and the five-man weave.

The Iron Five derived from the simple facts that Princeton was academic and had no scholarships, and that Cappy didn't believe in recruiting. More or less, he took what showed up. Usually, in any given year, Princeton had only five real players, and that five played most of the minutes. It was short, white basketball at its best. Cappy's teams and best players were tough, gritty, aggressive, and smart.

His main offense, his other trademark and principle reason for success, was the five-man weave, which his teams had run since the late thirties. The weave involved all five players in constant motion, running from one corner of the floor to the other, along the arc of what now is the three-point line. To run it, you had to dribble with the outside hand, and pass the ball off to the approaching player, who ran outside you to receive the ball -- hence, the weave. You had to be in great shape because you were constantly on the move, and you were expected to run the other guys into the ground. With the weave came the terrific advantage of knowing exactly what you were doing, while leaving your opponent to guess, improvise, and fight his way through an endless series of moving picks. After more than twenty seasons of the same offense, Cappy's opponents probably had a pretty good idea of what they were going to see. Freshman, J.V., and varsity teams ran it every day in practice. After a while you could do it in your sleep. If defenders laid off, you'd get inside jump shots; if they switched, you'd get back doors and pick-and-rolls. The weave got progressively tighter and tighter, and someone eventually was freed in the mayhem for a layup or short jump shot. It was a mix-master offense, a nightmare for short, slow guys to defend against, and it won Cappy so many Ivy League championships that he owned the trophy.

Every year, Cappy had a few blue-chip players for his brand of gritty basketball. During my freshman year there was Jim Brangan '60 and, a year behind him, Don Swan '61. But no one epitomized Cappy's style better than Pete Campbell '62 and my classmate Artie Hyland '63. Campbell set the university scoring record and was all-Ivy for three years. A maniac for practice and a ferocious worker, Pete always pushed his talent and seized opportunities He would take the ball from the middle of the collisions of the weave, drive to the basket, literally hurl himself through the air, put up his soft layup, and crash to the floor beyond the baseline. He dominated a game by sheer pituitary desire.

Artie Hyland couldn't have been more different. The epitome of an Iron Five player, he could go forever without breaking a sweat, always seeing the open man, always moving the ball, reserving his shots for the perfect moment, and conducting himself on court -- as he did off court -- with irreverence, humor, and grace. In four years of watching him play in practice and in games, I never saw him take an egocentric shot or make an awkward move. Artie was such a gifted and savvy athlete that he picked up lacrosse in sophomore year for the first time, started every varsity game, and as a senior was an all-American defender: the epitome of Cappy's kind of guy.

Ivy League basketball in Cappy's day was virtually all white and played below the rim, signs of the times. The sad lack of opportunity and diversity aside, it was what it was -- short, white basketball -- and no one played it better than Cappy's teams. His closest rival was Doggy Julian's boys at Dartmouth. Julian had been Bob Cousy's coach at Boston College, and he and Cappy locked horns in some classic games, the most notorious being in the late fifties, when Doggy had future N.B.A. star Ruddy LaRusso and Cappy had twins Carl and Herman Belz '59.

Cappy was as conservative as he was charismatically crusty. To him a fast break showed a lack of discipline; dunking the ball had no practical merit (with slow white guys that wasn't much of an issue); warmup uniforms were needless frills; and shooting before five or ten passes had been completed was impetuous. He pampered no one. During his entire tenure, Princeton uniforms remained unchanged: white (or black) with two orange stripes around the chest, and a small sewn-on number. No identifying names anywhere. Occasionally, we would get a taste of the future, when an urban school like Villanova or Temple would come into Dillon Gym with tall, quick black guys who could fast-break and dunk and swat balls out of the air. To them the weave must have looked anachronistic, uptight, and silly.

I knew both Cappy's legendary personality and his mayhem offense before Princeton because my prep-school coach, Bill Clarke '50, had played for him in the late forties. The challenge for me was that coming out of the right-hand corner, you had to dribble the ball with your left hand, which I would do anything to avoid. That avoidance was what kept me a Scrubby Gun.

In 1959, the fall I arrived at Princeton, Cappy was in peak form, a character who knew he was a character. He was in his early sixties, and his body looked as if it had been sculpted in ice cream and left in the sun. He was bald, the skin on his face drooped, he had deep shadows under his eyes. His voice was gravelly, and he enunciated as if he had wads of Kleenex in his mouth. He always said exactly what he meant, and his language was delightfully salty. Legend had it that he had been a great athlete at Michigan, but by the 1960s no one could imagine that. He was grumpily personable and totally without pretension. As much as his Iron Five policy played favorites, he treated everyone in the program with equality. We J.V.'s had our own coach, Jake McCandless '51, but in a way we were all Cappy's boys. He oversaw the whole program, and, as far as you could tell from off-court treatment, any one of us was about to be called up to the Iron Five.

Cappy died in the Dillon Gym showers one evening after a fall practice during the preseason of my junior year, and it was one of the saddest days in the lives of anyone connected with Princeton sports in those years. Like the moment, two years later, when I heard of John Kennedy's assassination, I remember exactly what I was doing in the hours before and after I learned of the tragic news.

Just hours before, a group of us were leaving the lockers, heading down to the clubs for dinner as Cappy walked by with his old friend Silent Ed. He was naked, with a towel wrapped loosely around his waist. He growled something affectionate at us as we left the gym. I was walking with fellow J.V. Pete Eisenberger '63 and noted that Cappy had yelled at him in practice for an errant move. Cappy never yelled at J.V.'s, and I asked Pete if it had been okay. "An honor," he said with a smile, hoping that it meant varsity consideration. It was more of an honor than Pete realized. He became the last player Cappy Cappon ever chewed out.

I had finished dinner at Tiger Inn and was down at the pool table watching a senior sight a ball. He looked up and said, "I hear you just lost your coach." Weeks later, in reviewing it, I would be flattered that a clubmate had considered Cappy "my coach," but at that moment I felt nothing but numbness. Cappy had suffered a near-fatal heart attack halfway though the previous season, and we all knew he was at risk coming back to coach. "I heard it on the radio," the senior said. I rushed back to Dillon Gym, but of course everyone was gone, and the place was quiet. Just a few hangers-on walked around, looking dazed. Apparently, Cappy had been showering beside Ed Donovan, in the vault where we ourselves had showered only minutes before, and he simply had keeled over. I've never been able to get that image from my mind, of the two naked old men on the tile floor, Silent Ed cradling Cappy Cappon in his arms. Something out of Michelangelo.

Later that night, I walked into the Student Center and saw freshman Bill Bradley '65, the other indelible character from my basketball days, sitting at a table by himself, eating a pint of ice cream. I approached, and we both had that dazed look of grief that the whole nation would wear two years later. "The two people who brought me here are gone," he said, which I first thought curious. "First your uncle, now Cappy." My uncle, C. William Edwards '36, the director of admission, had just announced his retirement.

Bill had been the best high-school basketball player in the country and as a senior at Crystal City (Missouri) High School, he had been recruited by major college powers. It was a surprise that he had even applied to Princeton. After my uncle accepted him, he placed it on his short list, a fact all of us in the basketball program knew because of a visit he'd made to campus the previous spring -- one that Cappy, of course, had treated with characteristic nonchalance. But in May, Bill had chosen Duke, thus ending our brief dream of national spotlight.

In September 1961, I had just returned from a summer exchange program in France, and as a junior Keyceptor, I had been assigned a small group of freshmen to shepherd through their orientation week. I was staying at my uncle's house. The Sunday afternoon before the freshmen were to arrive, he was out on his lawn mower when the phone rang, and I picked it up. "Tell him to call back," my uncle shouted when I told him he had a call. The caller, Pete Leland '28, the head of the St. Louis schools committee, insisted that he come to the phone now. I walked out to tell my uncle. "It's the guy from St. Louis. Bill Bradley's changed his mind," I joked. Of course, that was exactly what had happened, and my uncle made the most spectacular admissions decision of his career right there on the spot: "Tell Mr. Bradley to be in my office tomorrow morning at 10." He turned with a quizzical look. "I suppose it's all right." Then he added, "He can sleep in your room."

So the next morning, I walked into the admission office and met William Warren Bradley. I became his host for the first few days, until the university found him a place to stay. He never mentioned anything about Duke, where he had been for a few days of freshman orientation, but I later read how he had come to change his mind about college. He had broken his foot playing baseball over the summer, and he had gone to Europe and visited Oxford, where a tour guide had told him that if he wanted to be a Rhodes scholar he should go to a place like Princeton, which turned out a lot of them. The Oxford visit, the broken foot, and the possibility of losing his ability to play had given him now-legendary second thoughts, on which he had acted.

How fateful. I can't imagine Bill Bradley without Princeton, or Princeton without Bill Bradley. I remember walking around campus with him in those first few hours, introducing him to people, aware that we represented opposite ends of the basketball program, but together a team that could beat anyone in the university two on two. Bill Bradley and my mother could have claimed that.

Bradley didn't really look like the best basketball player in the country. He was only a little taller than Eiso and me, with a slightly protruding posterior and one errant eyebrow. Artie Hyland looked more like an athlete. But Bill had an uncanny instinct with the ball. Part of it came from his Calvinistic lifestyle and work habits. He believed in practice, practice, practice. He once told a group of eighth graders I was coaching, "I never make a move in a game that I have not practiced at least fifty times." He could give a perfectionist's clinic on proper style and form. But he also had incredible native ability. It was pure pleasure watching him play. He had more of a sense of what was happening on the whole floor than I thought possible.

I was also there when he stepped into a Princeton scrimmage for the first time. It was in the first few weeks of practice, and the J.V.'s were playing defense, while the varsity worked on some offense or other. I was defending Jack Whitehouse, who sprained his ankle and limped off. Bill, whose foot had just mended, was shooting baskets at the far end of Dillon Gym, and someone pointed and said to Cappy, "How 'bout using him?" Unceremoniously, Cappy sauntered over to the freshman and asked if he wanted to give it a go. Bill shrugged, and stepped onto the court and listened intently, like a grade-schooler, as the old coach grumbled about what move they'd been working on: coming off the pick for a jump shot. I, of course, had the Scrubby Gun's main advantage. Part of our lot in life was playing set defenses and hearing from the coach exactly what play was going to be run. So I heard exactly what Cappy told the young freshman to execute.

A few moments later Bill took a pass, moved into the pick as he'd been instructed, and began his jump shot. Knowing what was coming, I avoided the pick, slid into the spot, and was there to block the shot. One of the small victories of being a J.V. What happened in the next fraction of a second I will never forget. Until then, Bill was operating on instructions, doing what he was told. Then suddenly, finding me in his path, he switched to pure instinct. He flipped the ball to his left hand, arched it toward the basket with a graceful flip, and swished it. It was one of the most athletically deft moves I had ever seen, let alone tried to guard against. His first basket in a college practice, and for an instant everyone stopped. "Holy shit!" I heard someone say.

It was fun to watch him, and inspiring. He played all aspects of the game at a totally different level from anything I'd seen before. But it was his passing that I remember most vividly.

Even at eighteen, Bill Bradley would make passes we couldn't imagine, off moves that the rest of us didn't think possible. At first, the ball would rocket in to an open man, hitting him on the chest, until everyone got used to the new possibilities. People started going to freshmen games, just to see this phenomenal craftsman. That year he hit a string of fifty-eight free throws that has since never been equaled by anyone, college or pro. Later, I remember watching a film of the Providence game in the 1965 N.C.A.A. tournament in his senior year, in which four opposing players switched to guard him. He was that good. At the end of my senior year, in our class poll, we had a tie for "Most Inspirational Person": the young President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and a sophomore at our own college, William Warren Bradley.

Arguably, the two most famous basketball games in Princeton history are the one-point loss to Georgetown in the 1989 N.C.A.A. tournament, and Bill Bradley's last game, in Portland in 1965. I was living in Southern California at the time and drove with friends up to the game. At an all-night restaurant in Grant's Pass, Oregon, a carload of spirited U.C.L.A. fans engaged us in conversation and explained how they really believed the Bruins could stomp either Michigan or Princeton. The observation was not so remarkable for its accuracy as for the fact that fans of one of the best teams ever to play the game thought of the Tigers almost as an equal. Some change from a few years before, when Cappy's teams would arrive in the first round without warmup pants.

In the Final Four, Michigan beat Princeton in the first game. They had Cazzie Russell and a stockpile of talent. The game had been close until Bradley fouled out midway through the second half. But the game everyone remembers was the second one, the consolation championship, against Wichita State. Legend has it that von Breda Kolff said to Bradley, "For crissake, Bill. Everyone up there's here to see what you can do. For once in your life, just shoot the goddam ball." And shoot the ball he did. It was certainly the greatest one-man show in Princeton history, and probably one of the best in basketball history. He couldn't be stopped and he couldn't miss. One shot was a left-hand hook from the corner. By game's end, he had fifty-eight points, which remained the tournament record until a few years ago.

I remember thinking in the elation of the moment, as Bill Bradley was chosen M.V.P. of the Tournament over U.C.L.A.'s Gail Goodrich, that Princeton basketball had changed forever. Gone were the Iron Five and the predictable five-man weave, and also the idea of fielding college teams to develop character. It dawned on me that the change had begun in the fall of 1962, when Knick alumnus Butch von Breda Kolff began the tenure that would lead him and his famous future Knick to the Final Four. A bunch of first-rate second-rate ballplayers and I had been unceremoniously cut from the basketball program, and the J.V. schedule had been scrapped. It was the beginning of a nationally prominent program, but the end of the Scrubby Guns. And the end of an era.

I still play full-court basketball whenever I can. I love the game and can usually keep up with the young guys. I shoot pretty well from the outside, I can execute a pick and roll, I have a patented baseline drive, and I'm a good passer...for my age. Years ago I developed a left hand. People assume that since I can still play, I used to be really something. Actually, I have to tell them I haven't changed much, I used to play just like this when I was younger. "I was a great fifty-year-old ballplayer...when I was in college."

Selden Edwards, the secretary of the Class of 1963, is an independent-school teacher and headmaster of long standing. He can be reached on the Internet at 72246.1672@CompuServe.COM.