Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
by Gregg Lange '70

April 4, 2007:
The boys of winter
How van Breda Kolff '45's last Princeton team became its best ever

By Gregg Lange '70

The NCAA basketball tournament is the epitome of college athletic competition in the United States, not only given the megabucks it makes for the NCAA (there, we've covered the investment bankers) but because, as of each Jan. 1, virtually every one of the 336 Division I teams has at least a minute chance of getting to the Dance (that's for the socialists, so I think we've got the alumni body pretty well covered). Since this year's three-week, 65-team extravaganza was overseen by University Athletics Director Gary Walters '67 – a task that combines the charms of running the United Nations with the skills of bare-handed eel fishing – thoughts naturally turn to that other activity of endless controversy: debating which Princeton men's basketball team was the best.

Recent alums have a great fondness for the 1998 team of Bill Carmody, with its iron five of Steve Goodrich '98, Mitch Henderson '98, Gabe Lewullis '99, Brian Earl '99, and Jamie Mastaglio '98. They swept the Ivies and turned in a gaudy 27-2 record, including wins over Texas, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest. Their only losses were by eight points in a game at Chapel Hill they led in the second half, and by seven in the NCAAs to a Michigan State team building toward Final Four appearances in the following two years.

Most older alums are surprised at the question itself: The 1965 Final Four run of Bill Bradley '65's last team is legendary not only here, but around the basketball world. It included two riveting quixotic losses – one in the national semifinal – against a great, top-ranked, Cazzie Russell-led Michigan team. And perhaps more important, that team played the best single game ever by an Ivy League squad, and one of the best in NCAA tournament history, a 109-69 dismantling of Jimmy Walker's fourth-ranked Providence College in the Eastern Final.

I, however, choose the road less traveled by. [Note to the Class of '65: Hate mail can be sent directly to PAW's editors; that's why they get the big bucks.] Let us send the Wayback Machine to the winter of 1966-67 and Butch van Breda Kolff '45's last Princeton team. The '65 squad had not been ranked in the national Top 10 before the NCAA tournament, although they would have been after Providence. The '98 team was ranked eighth, a monumental accomplishment by an Ivy in the megabusiness, modern NCAA era. The '67 team, however, was ranked fifth despite only 10 home games, and before the tourney already had a win against a higher-ranked team. Here, in the first of two columns, is how it happened, and how fate caught up with them.

The '65-'66 season had been a relative debacle. With loads of experienced returning talent from the Final Four, the Tigers kept waiting patiently for the graduated Bradley to save them. In the words of then-junior Gary Walters (yes, the very same Gary Walters), "Princeton is the only six-man team in the league: five players and a ghost." They lost four of their last five Ivy games to finish 16-7, no one was voted first team all-Ivy, and no Ivy team even got invited to the NCAAs. Van Breda Kolff seethed.

So even with seven lettermen back the following fall for another try, it was manifestly unclear whether the Providence spark would ever return without Bradley. The only obvious help up from the freshman team was the heavily-recruited center, Chris Thomforde '69, and he played the same position as two-year starter Robby Brown '67. The other principals were Walters, the slick playmaker; Joe Heiser '68, the team's best shooting guard and a demon on defense; John Haarlow '68, the last and least likely of three Illinois brothers to play here, a deadly outside shooting forward who looked alarmingly fragile (6 feet 6 inches, 180 pounds) but somehow was the team's second-leading rebounder; captain Ed Hummer '67, a workhorse inside forward who always drew the opponent's best offensive player man-to-man; and swing sixth man Dave Lawyer ‘68, who could play any guard or forward slot without the offense or defense suffering.

After a summer of abject embarrassment and soul-searching, this cast served early notice that change had arrived. More-mobile Thomforde immediately started; rather then sulk, Brown became the best second-string center east of the Rockies and took on a key role along with Lawyer and seniors Larry Lucchino, Allen Adler, and Bill Koch. The veteran second team became a kamikaze unit in practice, proudly humiliating the starters whenever they could, making the real games seem tame. After scoring no more than 82 points at Dillon Gym the prior season, in its three December 1966 home games Princeton averaged 101 points and won by an average of 38. Basketball people took notice.

They went to the Quaker City Classic at the Palestra, one of the three pre-eminent holiday tournaments of the day, and beat a very good Bowling Green team and a Villanova squad that swept the Big Five that year. Then, for the championship, the Tigers faced undefeated Louisville, ranked second and featuring big Wes Unseld and high-scoring Butch Beard. Hummer spent the entire game on the bench with the flu. Beard, who would have been covered by the clawing Hummer, scored 22 with nine rebounds and Louisville put on a late spurt to win 72-63. Basketball people now were intrigued.

Then came the sort of epic adventure that separates the storied from the great. With bad weather grounding all East Coast air traffic, the Tigers embarked on an improvised train trip from Princeton to Chapel Hill. Since they left on New Year's Day, they spent most of the 500 miles sitting on luggage in the aisles, playing cards and trying to figure whether an athletic scholarship elsewhere (Hummer, for example, turned down North Carolina to go to Princeton) would have been more sensible. Arriving in time for five or six hours' sleep, they staggered onto the court at the sparkling new Carmichael Auditorium and laid 91 points on Dean Smith's first great team, the third-ranked Tarheels. The Tigers shot 65 percent from the floor in a 91-81 victory; Haarlow was 11 for 13 and scored 26 points. Basketball people went nuts.

The team that nine months earlier was the fourth best in the Ivy League was now 9-1 and ranked seventh in the country. And the ghost was nowhere to be found.

Will the Sports Illustrated cover jinx wreck the impressionable kids from Tigertown? What evil lurks in the bowels of the Palestra? Will the vengeful Class of '65 succeed in offing the author? Don't miss the riveting '67 Ivy season in the next exciting episode of "The Boys of Winter," coming soon to a flat screen near you. P

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.