The Kansas Jayhawks arrived in Seattle for the national semifinals of the 1952 NCAA basketball tournament — 64 years ago this week — with the kind of greeting typically reserved for kings. Having battled through the first two rounds of the 13-year-old tournament behind the brains of a veteran coach named Phog Allen and the brawn of a 6-foot-9 behemoth named Clyde Lovellette, the Jayhawks were the sudden favorites to win it all.
Defending champion and top-ranked Kentucky had fallen to upstart St. John’s and wasn’t even among the final four teams who would be playing at the University of Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion on March 25-26, 1952.
The only thing between Kansas and the school’s first outright national championship was the possibility that Lovellette would get lost somewhere along the way.
That’s precisely what happened.
A trendsetter in nearly every aspect of the game of basketball, Forrest “Phog” Allen was late to the party only when it came to recruiting. For most of his first three-plus decades as a basketball coach, Allen had so much success at Kansas that the program sold itself. Star high school players from in and around Kansas would line up every year, five and six deep at every position, to get a chance to try out for the Jayhawks. Allen’s only strategy for keeping the flood of talent coming was to continue winning.
But sometime in the mid-1940s, shortly after Allen’s National Association of Basketball Coaches introduced the NCAA tournament – to a lukewarm early response – he saw some of the top players in the state get swept up by younger, more progressive coaches like Henry Iba at Oklahoma State and Jack Gardner at Kansas State.
Allen, by then in his 60s, realized that sitting back and waiting for star players to come to him wasn’t as effective as it once was. So he hired an assistant coach (former Jayhawks star Dick Harp) and sent him out on the recruiting trail.
When it came time to try and land the biggest, and best, recruit in the country, Allen got in his Chrysler and drove to Terre Haute, IN., to deliver the sales pitch himself. Clyde Lovellette was the most high-profile high schooler in the nation. The big redhead was just the kind of transcendent player that could take KU to the next level.
Lovellette (pronounced lo-VELL-ett) already made a handshake agreement with University of Indiana coach Branch McCracken to play for the Hoosiers, but Allen wasn’t going to give up easily.
Having secured commitments from the top three recruits in the state of Kansas to enroll at KU in time for the 1948-49 season – Allen instructed Harp to promise high schoolers Bob “Trigger” Kenney, Bill Lienhard and Bill Hougland that the Jayhawks were going to win the 1952 NCAA title – the 62-year-old Allen went to Lovellette’s house to try and talk him out of attending Indiana.
Lovellette was so distraught about the possibility of confrontation that he hid inside the house when he saw Allen’s Chrysler New Yorker pull into the driveway, telling his brother-in-law to do the talking.
Allen eventually persuaded Lovellette’s mother, telling her that the “rarefied air” atop Mount Oread in Lawrence, Kansas, would help Big Clyde’s asthma. (Allen made no mention of the fact that the elevation of the hilltop campus in Lawrence was barely more than 1,000 feet.) The sales pitch was enough to get Lovellette to agree to visit the KU campus. Allen was only l too happy to drive him 450 miles to see it.
Upon arriving in Lawrence, Lovellette was smitten. He fell in love with the campus and with the school’s basketball tradition, which dated to James Naismith — the game’s inventor and the Jayhawks’ first head coach.
“The tradition,” Lovellette would say years later, “it rains on you out there.”
Lovellette reneged on his commitment to Indiana, drawing the ire of thousands of Hoosiers, and he returned a few weeks later to begin classes at KU.
Basketball had seen few men like Clyde Lovellette by the time he was eligible to play for the Jayhawks in the fall of 1949. Big men such as Bob Kurland and George Mikan had taken the game to a new level, using their height with such dominance that Allen began campaigning for the baskets to be moved from 10 to 12 feet.
Eventually, Allen stopped fighting the idea of big men and started recruiting them. His final recruit, in 1956, would be Philadelphia school-boy legend Wilt Chamberlain. He would also land a 6-foot-9 stringbean named B.H. Born, who went on to be named the NCAA tournament’s MVP (in 1953, edging out tournament leading scorer Bob Houbregs of Washington).
But neither had the impact on college basketball that Lovellette did. Big Clyde was an immediate star on a team that rebounded from two of its worst seasons in school history to go 14-11 in 1949-50 and 16-8 in 1950-51. By the time Lovellette’s senior year began, the Jayhawks were considered a national powerhouse and began the season with one of the highest preseason rankings in school history.
Lovellette and the Jayhawks lived up to the hype. But not until Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats were upset in the second round of the tournament did anyone consider KU as a serious threat to win the title.
By the time Kansas arrived at Sea-Tac Airport and took a bus past a Seattle skyline that didn’t yet include the Space Needle, Lovellette and the Jayhawks were the prohibitive favorites.
Lovellette dominated for most of the season, scoring a nation-leading 28.6 points per game. (The only player who scored close to that in 1951-52 was Seattle University’s Johnny O’Brien, who averaged 28.4 – not including the 43 he poured in during a January upset of the Harlem Globetrotters at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.)
The combination of Lovellette and Allen were too much for the Seattle fans to ignore. While Allen’s quick wit and penchant for storytelling mesmerized reporters around Hec Ed, fans were struck with the pure mass of the 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior star with the red flat-top. Lovellette couldn’t walk 10 feet along “The Ave” near the University of Washington without being asked for an autograph. In an era when the National Basketball Association was still in its infancy, Lovellette was as big a star as the game could offer.
But before he could deliver Allen’s first outright title, Lovellette would have to beat an underdog group from Santa Clara University and then face either St. John’s or Illinois in the finals.
The 1952 tournament marked the first time that the final four teams would be in the same city to play the semifinals and finals on consecutive nights – what later came to be coined as “The Final Four” — so there were more reporters on hand than ever before. Yet the media throng was minuscule compared to what it would become by the end of the 20th century.
The night before the semifinal game with Santa Clara, Lovellette found time to slip out and meet up with an old friend, a former fraternity brother named Buddy “Fig” Newton, who was stationed in Puget Sound as captain of a Coast Guard cutter. Newton invited Lovellette to join him for dinner on the craft, which left its dock near downtown Seattle.
Soon it was overcome with a dense fog. The March evening turned to night. The cutter had no clear way back to shore.
At the Jayhawks’ hotel, the rest of the team quietly slipped into their rooms and settled in for curfew. Charlie Hoag, Lovellette’s roommate on the road, was a basket case.
While Allen no longer did bed checks – the veteran coach so trusted his senior-laden team that he found no reason to check on them this late in the season – the empty bed next to him was reason for serious concern. (Two beds, actually, as the hotel had to accommodate for Lovellette’s size by placing beds end-to-end.)
In the pre-cell phone era, Hoag had no idea what happened to his star teammate. He was concerned for Lovellette’s well-being, first and foremost, but he was also beginning to wonder whether the Jayhawks were going to have to take the court without their star.
At 86, Clyde Lovellette passed away March 9 after a long bout with cancer. He played 11 seasons in the NBA with Minneapolis (the Lakers took him ninth in the first round of the 1952 draft), Cincinnati and St. Louis, finishing in 1964 with Boston, with career averages of 17 points and 9.5 rebounds and four All-Star Game appearances.
While KU players like Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce may have been better remembered, it would have been hard for any of them to match the credentials of Lovellette.
The big kid from Terre Haute led the nation in scoring, earned All-America honors and was part of a large contingent of KU players who led the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
In the spring of 2015, Lovellette said during a phone interview that he never regretted his decision to spurn his hometown Hoosiers to play at Kansas. He recalled his unique relationship with Phog Allen, who often pushed his buttons by joking that he looked like he was carrying a watermelon under his jersey.
Allen often playfully refused to call him by name; he once presented Lovellette with a portrait that featured the coach’s signature and the words: “To an All-American, see you in 20 years.” Lovellette’s easy-going demeanor could be mistaken for aloofness, while Allen expected all of his players to fall in line.
Lovellette earned enough of Allen’s respect that he could joke with him. Such was the case in the days leading up to the 1952 NCAA tournament semifinals, when the Jayhawks’ team plane en route to Seattle was experiencing turbulence.
Allen, notorious for his fear of airline travel, was sweating profusely. Dressed in a suit and tie, Allen opened his eyes to find Lovellette standing over his seat with a bouquet of flowers.
“If we pile in,” a toothy Lovellette said, referring to the possibility of a crash, “you’ll be dressed for the funeral.”
One of Lovellette’s most vivid memories of his KU career came after the plane arrived in Seattle, where he was lost in the fog.
Lovellette recalled his journey back to the mainland taking longer than expected. After the fog cleared, Newton finally guided the cutter to the dock in the late hours of March 24, a Monday night before the national semifinals.
Lovellette’s main concern as he rushed back to the hotel was the wrath of Allen, who preached the words “promptness is like godliness” and whose locker room featured the sign: You can’t hang with owls at night if you want to soar with eagles during the day.
Lovellette, sweaty and nervous, entered the hotel around midnight, expecting to find Allen waiting with arms folded. But the only person in the lobby was a reporter who – inexplicably – paid little notice. The man looked up from his paper momentarily, then back down as Lovellette scampered off to his room to find a relieved Hoag, waiting like a worried mother.
Whether Allen ever found out was a mystery never solved. He never said a word to Lovellette about it.
“I don’t know why,” Lovellette said a year ago.
Not even at the team breakfast the following morning.
“It was just like any other game day,” Lovellette recalled.
That night, Lovellette scored 33 points to lead the Jayhawks past Santa Clara. The following day he shook off the physical play of St. John’s big man Bob Zawoluk while giving Allen his first NCAA championship in front of 11,700 fans at Hec Ed.
Seattle’s basketball history is rich, from Houbregs to Seattle U’s upset of the Globetrotters to the days of Sikma and Johnson, of Payton and Kemp.
Lovellette in his day was as big a star as any of them. And the brightest night of his storied college career came in Seattle, once he came out of the fog.
Scott Morrow Johnson of Seattle is the author of the upcoming book, “PHOG: The Most Influential Man in Basketball,” due for release this fall by University of Nebraska Press.