Book remembers BYU's forgotten 1951 NIT champions

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 8:00 p.m. MST

Said Steele, "This simple act of kindness was what typified the 1951 NIT Champions, and what has been the calling card of the players on that team for the last 60 years. It is true that the '51 Cougar ballplayers were known for their tenacious play, but they were equally well known for their sportsmanship and equanimity. After observing BYU during the course of the 1951 NIT, Elder Ezra Taft Benson observed, 'The BYU team has done U.S. athletics a great service, and has taught Madison Square Garden a wonderful lesson in sportsmanship.' "

All five starters on that 1951 team were eventually drafted in the NBA after their respective collegiate careers.

Led by All-Americans Mel Hutchings and Roland Minson, this Watts-coached team was loaded from every end of the bench.

Hutchings became the 1951 de facto No. 1 draft pick in the NBA when he went No. 2 to the expansion team Milwaukee Hawks. The No. 1 pick, Gene Melchiorre from Bradley, was banned from ever playing in the NBA after an investigation linked him to a point-shaving scandal. Hutchings ended up with a signing bonus of $7,000 — which is about as much money, not considering inflation, that a current NBA star makes before the first media timeout.

Minson was the No. 15 pick in 1951 to the New York Knicks. It was the first and only time in BYU history two Cougars were selected among the top 15 picks of the NBA draft.

The Rochester Royals selected Jerry Romney in 1952, and Joe Richey and Christensen were drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1953.

That 1951 team set many BYU records, including a mark for most wins over opponents ranked in the Top 20 (six).

That squad has kept close since they raised up the NIT trophy in Madison Square Garden. They've had annual reunions, everyone sends Christmas cards, notes and makes phone calls. Every player on the team has surpassed his 80th birthday, and while Watts was alive, and he was a mainstay at all the gatherings.

"I interviewed every living player on the team (10 are still living), as well as Jim Thorne, who passed away this last summer," said Steele. "All told, I interviewed 11 of the players from the team. I also interviewed several of their spouses and a couple of siblings. I spoke with the late Pete Witbeck a few years ago about this team as well. I also interviewed LaDell Andersen, who played against them."

This is an amazingly informative historical perspective on the faces, issues, triumphs and challenges in how the game was played in 1951 when BYU legends Hutchins and Minson led the Cougars to a remarkable but often forgotten NIT championship. This is a great contribution and window to the past.

The book is set for release on Friday with book signings at BYU's bookstore in both the morning and afternoon on Saturday in connection to the BYU basketball game with Baylor.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

Twitter: Harmonwrites

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