The Village People

The recent death of Cal Ramsey, long-time TV commentator and later community rep for the New York Knicks, got me thinking not only about Ramsey, but also about NYU, the school he starred for as a player. NYU? Basketball? Huh? Many non-New Yorkers and younger folk may not even know that NYU—that fancy- schmancy, tall -thin -latte school in the village—even fields a basketball team. Theatre and the arts, sure, elite professional schools, yes, but hoops? C’mon. If they do, what schools do they play? Juilliard? The Rhode Island School of Design? Who is their all-time great player? Keri Russell?

Jokes aside—ok, one more, the team’s nickname is actually the Violets—NYU has done pretty well since it began competing at the Division III level in 1983, particularly in the 1990s. For example, the school’s team finished as national runner-up in 1994, losing the championship game in OT to Lebanon Valley College.

While the school’s success at the D-III level merits props, the earlier history of the Violets is even more interesting and important from a “history of basketball” perspective. Indeed, before dropping its program after the 1970-1971 season, NYU had an illustrious hoops history, replete with great players and coaches, classic games at Madison Square Garden, high national rankings, and appearances in the Final Four. Who knew?

NYU’s success began early, which, if one stops to think a bit about its location in the basketball hotbed of New York City, makes sense. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Violets were often ranked highly, and in the ’30s and ’40s were frequently powerhouses. During that period, they often made it to the NCAA or NIT tournament, finishing as runner-up to Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) in the NCAA in 1945 and runner-up to St. Louis University in the 1948 NIT. Hall-of-Famers Nat Holman and Howard Cann both starred at NYU in the early twentieth century, with Cann coaching the Violets for the long stretch between 1923 and 1958. In the mid-1940s at NYU, Cann had the privilege of coaching 6-8 Dolph Schayes, later named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

The school’s success in basketball was not limited to the first half of the twentieth century either. NYU made it to the NCAA tourney in 1960, 1961, and 1963, reaching what is now known as the “final four” in 1960, before losing to eventual national champion Ohio State, which featured Hall-of Famers Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. A year earlier Violets placed third in the NIT, and in 1966 were NIT runner-ups, losing to BYU in the championship game by a score of 97-84.

Cal Ramsey starred at the school between 1956 and 1959, before enjoying a short stint in the NBA, but other NYU players in the ’50s and ’60s had more distinguished college and professional careers. For example, Ramsey’s time at NYU overlapped with that of forward Thomas “Satch” Sanders (1957-1960), another Hall-of-Famer, who played an important role with the Celtics on eight NBA championship teams in the 1960s.

In the early ’60s Harold “Happy” Hairston did his star turn, before embarking on a successful 11-year career in the NBA, averaging almost 15 points and over 10 boards a game. In 1971-1972 Hairston started and averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds a game on one of the greatest NBA teams ever: The 1971-1972 Lakers, which team featured both Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, went 69-13 in the regular season, and beat the Knicks four games to one in the NBA finals.

And while at NYU Hairston wasn’t even the most acclaimed player on his team. That status went to guard-forward Barry Kramer, who was a consensus All-American in 1963 and was the 6th pick in the NBA draft in 1964. Just after Kramer and Hairston left, guard Mal Graham became a star in his own right, and in 1967 was drafted number 11 by the Celtics in the first round of the NBA draft. Moreover, while at NYU Graham played with Stan McKenzie, who went on have a solid eight-year career in the NBA before retiring after the 1973-1974 season.

The little sketch above hints at, but hardly captures the entire history of hoops at NYU. For example, players from the school were implicated in the college basketball gambling scandals of the early 1950s and early 1960s, and, as New York City’s relative stature in college basketball declined in the ’60s, NYU’s hoops’ fortunes followed suit. In the aftermath of an awful 5-20 season in 1970-1971, NYU–which was facing serious financial problems at the time–suspended the program. But in 1983, after a twelve-year hiatus, the program was revived at the D-III level, where it has remained ever since (with Cal Ramsey a member of the coaching staff there until his recent death).

So the next time you think about NYU or the next time you’re down in the Village, keep in mind that that fancy-schmancy, tall-thin-latte school has a real basketball history, one that deserves to be better known today, especially by younger players and fans.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a long-time basketball fan and has written for NY Sports Day over the years.

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