Brown Men's Basketball Team of 1938-39

Brown Men's Basketball Team of 1938-39
Year Inducted:

Some 40 years ago, perhaps the finest basketball team in Brown’s history compiled a 17-3 record, won the New England championship, and accepted an invitation to meet Villanova in the first NCAA Tournament.

This was back when a banana split sold for .15 cents, when Larry Clinton’s orchestra and his pert vocalist, Bea Wain, captured the hearts of the college set with their version of “Deep Purple,” and when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their way through Carefree.

The success of the 1938-39 club could be traced to a happy blend of seasoned veterans and promising sophomores up from an 11-1 Club team. Returning from the previous year’s 8-11 squad were Capt. George Truman and Bill Glatfelter at guard, Bill Kelley, Bill Mullen, and Len “Soup” Campbell at the forward positions, Harry Platt at center, and Bob Staff in a reserve role. The manager was John Volkhardt.

Unheralded as a Yonkers, N.Y. schoolboy, Platt had gained national prominence in 1938 as a sophomore when he scored 406 points for an average of 21.4 points per game. Both figures were new Brown records. Platt’s average was the second highest in the country that year, and in total points he ranked third nationally behind Hank Luisetti of Stanford and Chet Jaworski of Rhode Island State (now URI). Against Northeastern, Platt set a Brown single-game record of 48 points, which, at that time, was second only to Luisetti’s 50 points in the national books.

Incidentally, Platt’s single-game record still stands. The man who came closest to breaking it (46 points) is Russ Tyler ’71, also being inducted this evening.

The sophomore contingent on the 1938-39 team included Jack Padden, a former McBurney School captain; Bob Person, formerly of Rahway, N.J., and the Peddie School; Fran Wilson from Williamstown and Williston Academy; George Fisher of Weehawken, N.J., and George Davis, who played for Nichols Prep.

There were fine athletes in this second-year group, smart players who were well-schooled in fundamental basketball by Coach Eck Allen during their 11-1 Cub season, a season that included a victory over the varsity.

By today’s standards, the 1938-39 varsity was not a tall team. Platt and Person were the “big” men at 6-3. Mullen and Staff were each 5-8. Yet, Allen, in his first head coaching assignment, molded this group into one of the most successful teams in the East.

Under Art Kahler, Brown had played a wide-open brand of basketball in 1937-38, with more emphasis on offense than defense. Allen quickly installed a different sort of game when he was promoted to the head coaching spot. His team stressed a deliberate, short-passing attack and a defense that was always tight – and sometimes tenacious. It was precision basketball, beautiful to watch, and a perfect example of the old New York style of play in which five men blend into one.

Harry Platt, his duties radically changed under Allen, was the key to the team’s success. Instead of being just an outstanding individual scorer, Platt was burdened with defensive duties that made him more of a team player. His passing, pivot work, ball-handling, and defensive play (he was always assigned to cover the other team’s best scorer) earned him the reputation of being the finest all-around player Brown had produced up to that time.

Younger readers might be surprised to see that the schedule included a game with the alumni. However, this was not uncommon for colleges in the pre-World War II years. These were not scrimmages. The games counted, and so did the stats.

Several contests stand out in the 1938-39 season. After running off four straight victories, the Bears lost to an all-senior Army team that had played together since its undefeated Plebe season. Then came one of the most controversial games in Brown’s history, a 51-42 loss to Rhode Island State at Kingston.

Trailing 28-26 at the start of the second half, Brown controlled the tap, worked the ball down court, and Platt tossed in the tying basket. Or did he? The referee discovered that he had lined the teams up the wrong way for the center jump and he declared it no play. Coach Allen protested that Brown should have been allowed the tying points. Coach Frank Keaney said he would remove his team from the floor if the basket was not credited to the Rams. Meanwhile, tiny Rodman Gym was in bedlam, with fans from both schools literally hanging from the rafters screaming at the referee, the coaches, and anything else that moved. Coach Keaney was “Mr Basketball” in those days, having parlayed smart coaching with a racehorse style of play that took the country by storm and turned his Rams into a national power as well as one of the best gate attractions in the game.

At any rate, the referee finally bowed to Keaney’s demands and instead of a 28-28 tie Brown trailed 30-26 after having “scored” the first basket of the second half. Weird!

The Bruins then went on an 11-game winning streak, still the longest in the school’s history. The string included a pair of impressive road victories over Duke, 41-33, and Rutgers, 58-35. Then came the long-awaited return match with Rhode Island. The entire state, it seemed, wanted to see this grudge game, and al tickets were gone 10 days in advance.

Paced by Chet Jaworski, the Racehorse Rams had a 16-2 record and were leading the nation with an average of 80 points per game. Jaworski, with a 23.7 average, was the second best scorer in the country.

Before a roaring crowd of 2,200 fans, Brown took the lead in the second minute of play, led 30-18 at the half, and coasted to a 53-37 victory. Platt won a personal duel with Jaworski, scoring 17 points himself while holding the Ram star to just four points while he was guarding him (Jaworski had 10 for the game).

The Eck Allen defensive game, operating at its best, took away the Rams’ fast break, controlled the tempo of the game, and slowed the vaunted Rhody offense to a walk. While the Bears were enjoying the nationwide attention brought by this victory, the team went to Hanover emotionally spent that weekend and lost to a fine (16-3) Dartmouth team led by Gus Broberg, father of the current major league pitcher.

After the 40-38 victory over Yale (on a pair of foul shots by Harry Platt with two seconds left), Athletic Director Tom Taylor immediately called the players into his office and told them that they had been selected to represent New England in the first NCAA Tournament at Philadelphia. The group accepted and then did their celebrating a few nights later by whipping Providence College (Tank Wilson had 18 points; all from outside), 45-26, the first victory over the Friars since the opening game of the series in 1922. Unfortunately, the Bruins had an ice cold first half in Philadelphia and lost the NCAA game 42-30 to Villanova, the Middle-Atlantic champs.

Most members of the 1938-39 team are back for the Hall of Fame Induction Banquet, some carrying a bit more weight around the middle and less hair on the head than when they thrilled the crowds at Marvel gym night after night.

Capt. George Truman ’39 is a purchasing agent for the Delta Rubber Co. in Moosup, Conn. Lenn Campbell ’40 is senior vice president of I.N.A. International Corp. in Philadelphia, and Harry Platt ’40 is sales manager for C.J. Fox Co. in Providence.

Bill Kelly ’40, having spent a lifetime in education, is now director of guidance at Mexico Academy in Mexico, N.Y., and Bill Mullen ’40 is living in retirement in Englewood, Fla. Dr Robert E. Staff ’40 is a physician in Avalon, Calif.

Jack Padden ’41 is president of J.A. Padden Co. of New York City. He has three children with Brown degrees: Andy ’66, Sally ’71 M.A.T., and Nancy ’76. Frank Wilson ’41 is corporate manager of employee services and safety at Sprague Electric in Springfield. In 1954 he was the fifth ranker senior doubles tennis player in New England, and for the past three years he has been first ranked senior (50 and over) in New England platform tennis.

Dr George Fisher ’41 is owner of Fisher Small Animal Clinic in Radnor, Pa., and George Davis ’41 is superintendent of industrial relations at Republic Steel Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y.

The team’s manager, John M. Volkhardt ’39, is president of CPC North America, a division of CPC International in Englewood, N.J. and an executive vice president and member of the board of CPC International.

Two members of the team are deceased. Bill Glatfelter ’40 was killed during World War II. Bob Person ’41 was department manager of General Electric in Baltimore when he died of a heart attack on Oct. 18, 1960.

Could this 1938-39 basketball team defeat one of today’s run-and-shoot freelance teams? “I think we could,” Harry Platt says, “but it would be close. Remember, most of us are now in our early sixties.”

Well a banana split will cost you more than .15 cents today, the vocals of Bea Wain are just a memory, and Fred Astaire’s dancing feet are in retirement. But the memories of Brown’s great NCAA team – playing in an era we’ll never see again – will always remain vivid in the hearts of Brown men everywhere.