Maude came home.
After 77 years, the Maude Naismith Trophy is again in the possession of the Loyola Wolf Pack, who capped its 37-1 season by defeating our dear Mardi Gras friends, Talladega College, 71-56 in the NAIA championship game Tuesday night.
Loyola is the only New Orleans-based team to win a basketball championship. Now, twice. Don’t believe me? Ramon Vargas’ Fight, Grin & Squarely Play the Game tells the 1945 tale.
Once upon a time, the TP’s do-it-all reporter dusted off enough Loyola Wolf Pack box scores to bound a book with them. (I may currently possess Loyola’s only check-out-able copy, but there’s always the one at the main branch of the public library—or Amazon.)
Dust tends to accumulate after 77 years. I know. I inherited my grandfather’s Loyola basketball letterman sweater.
In my grandfather’s forward for Ramon’s book, he fails to mention his role in Loyola’s championship era. Though on March 18, 1945 (aka, chip day) he was still a senior at Jesuit, he did enroll at Loyola the following fall, in time for a return trip to the semifinals of the Kansas City, MO tournament.
So, the sweater isn’t a first-degree relic of Wolf Pack glory, but it brushed glory’s shoulders. And the sweater was no worse for wear from the contact: it’s held up well through the years, with fewer holes than my grandfather’s collegiate box scores. If memory serves, he averaged 2.3 points his senior year. A competitor from that era once assured me: “Your grandfather was a defensive stopper.” Ball don’t lie.
And defense was the name of the game way back when. In winning four games in three days, Loyola held the opposition to an average of 37 points, even below their season average of a paltry 45 per game. You can’t win if you don’t score.
Truth is, the 1945 team would marvel at the currently canonized edition, like a Model T factory worker stumbling upon a Tesla dealership. When Myles Burns missed his exclamation-mark slam in the final minutes of Tuesday’s championship, he most likely never thought about settling for a set shot.
Yet, that’s what got the old timers into the ‘45 finals. With the score knotted 35-35, team captain, John Casteix, launched “a long, difficult, one-handed shot from the sideline.” Baskets, as the kids no doubt said back then (you know short for “peach baskets”). Loyola advanced on 37 points scored.
The finals were even more defensively focused. The tourney favorite, Pepperdine, had a squad of behemoths, averaging 6’4”—or roughly the height of Loyola’s center, Joe Gurievsky. Loyola was at such a betting line disadvantage throughout the competition, the Fortier alum Gurievsky later quipped, “The rumor was, every time we played a game, they had [train] tickets waiting for us so we could leave for home the next day.”
To counter Pepperdine’s physical advantages—and to keep another train longer at the station—Loyola broke tendencies and committed to the full court press the entire game. It worked. With five minutes remaining in the game, Pepperdine coach Al Duer walked over to his Loyola counterpart, Jack Orsley, and waived the white flag. What would Bobby Hebert have said about that?!
Oh, yeah. Did I mention, we were all waiting for a white flag—as in, all this and we were at war? Only nine Wolf Pack players left on the Panama Limited train from the Carrollton Avenue Station, making the 24+ hour trip without lead guard and co-captain Sam Foreman, who was studying in the U.S. Naval Dentistry program at Loyola. The Navy would not permit Foreman to leave campus for more than 48 hours. Loyola’s early season defeat of New Orleans Naval Air Station probably didn’t help Foreman’s cause.
Current Wolf Pack coach Stacy Holloway clearly understood that message, crediting his veteran team’s hard work and commitment before any other post-game mention. This was a team the old guys would’ve been proud of—different situations but commitment challenges still. How Zach Wrightsil was never allured into the transfer portal boggles the ESPN3-viewing mind.
The 1945 squad knew something of transfers, too—through a portal of another type. The Wrightsil of the day was Leroy Chollet. The Holy Cross grad did it all, leading the Wolf Pack in playmaking and scoring. And he wasn’t even the best athlete in the family. His brother Hillary, then a senior at Holy Cross, had committed to the state’s flagship school to play football and basketball. Until he did an end-run and enrolled at Tulane.
Leroy off a basketball championship. Hillary the prized recruit. The Chollet family needed only to walk back-and-forth across Freret St. to take it all in.
But Hillary would never play for the Green Wave, and Leroy would never play again for Loyola. You see, LSU fans didn’t take their snubbing lightly and began doing some genealogical research—who says sports doesn’t help LSU with academics? The problem was Leroy and Hillary’s paternal grandmother. She was born of a White father and a Black mother.
Leroy and Hillary were one-eighth Black—a scarlet letter floating in their bloodstream, incapable of dilution no matter their sporting success.
Tulane would not accept a Black student until 1954, Loyola until 1952.
But the administrators of the schools were so very polite about it. Mark Bernstein’s Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession mentions Hillary’s saga: “Tulane quietly suggested that Chollet might find it difficult to go there.”
Boy, go take your talents across the Mason-Dixon.
The racism cut the local dreams, no matter the cut nets.
But the brothers Chollet refused to read the scoreboard. Hillary went on to star at Cornell. After an NFL career, he became a Los Angeles-based doctor, opening a network of cancer clinics.
I say, it’s sure good we chased someone like him out.
Leroy found success, too. After transferring to Canisius College in Buffalo—he claimed he so enjoyed a trip to Buffalo that he had to move there—Leroy was drafted into the fledging NBA, finding brief success with the Syracuse Nationals. Later, he became a high school teacher and coach in Cleveland. Apparently, he returned to Loyola only once: in 1993, at his induction into the Athletics Hall of Fame.
77 years separate Loyola’s two trophy-winning teams—a story that offers a trip to a different past, one to celebrate but still be saddened by. Wrightsil and Burns could star on this team—what progress. But we also know these are more than just ghosts.
Maude is thankfully coming back to a renovated home, but there are still items on the punchlist. Hopefully, it’ll take fewer than 77 years to get to them—and to do all this again.
There is history galore in the NAIA Tournament. For one, how many of you knew it is the oldest collegiate basketball tournament? That’s right, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics basketball tournament is a year older than the NIT, two years older than the NCAA Tournament. As its trophy gives away, it goes back to the peach-basket man himself, Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the roundball game. Naismith, then-retired in Lawrence, Kansas (a 45-mile drive from Kansas City), was convinced by Baker University head coach Emil Liston to start a little-school tournament. The first one tipped in 1937, just days after Dr. Naismith’s wife, Maude, died. Hence the location, hence the trophy dedication. Unfortunately, Dr. Naismith missed the 1945 team’s heroics, passing away in 1939 himself.
In order to set your calendars—and pray that I can re-set mine—this will be our last Friday post, as the blog will shift to Thursdays. I enjoy these week-by-week productions, if nothing else than to make sure my mom has one blog subscription (she was a big fan of the SNL Stephen A. Smith spoof, believe it or not). So spread the word. Our tens of readers are nothing if not flexible.