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Book remembers BYU's forgotten 1951 NIT champions

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 14 2011 8:21 p.m. MST

PROVO —

"The Forgotten Champions."

It is a book title that fits the tale of the late Stan Watts' squad and its glorious 1951 National Invitational Tournament championship. A majority of BYU fans living today have no personal connection to that team, and only a few are alive today that personally witnessed plays by the stars of that era.

Rocky Steele's new book, "The Forgotten Champions," will be released this week. It is about time somebody put to ink an in-depth look at the remarkable ride of 1951. That NIT title was the first national championship achieved by any BYU team, and it would be 20 years until any Cougar athletic team (track and field) got another.

Interestingly enough, BYU plays No. 6 Baylor in the Marriott Center on Saturday, and it was a last-second loss to Baylor that ended the 1950 season and set BYU players up for the emotional drive of their 1951 magical championship season.

It is the first and only comprehensive look at this great team, with a forward written by former BYU coach LaDell Andersen.

It is a team fondly remembered in the '60s, often talked about in the '70s, and a fading memory to many BYU fans in the '80s and '90s. A generation of Cougar faithful born after the opening of the Marriott Center have little clue to the fame and glory of this crew who grew up with World War II stamped upon their souls.

For this reason, Steele's work is valuable as a definitive historical piece of sports journalism, and while the Gonzaga law student has done it primarily as a labor of love and respect, it will be filed as a major contribution in recalling a remarkable basketball team.

The theme of the book is two fold.

First, to establish that the NIT back in the early '50s was considered more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament, which has now overtaken the granddaddy NIT with the lucrative and popular March Madness. Back in 1950, BYU's NIT title was considered a true national championship.

Second, it was a remarkably talented team that established many firsts in Cougar hoops lore, including a preseason trip to South America, the first of its kind for exposure to BYU athletics and a key theme of today's athletic department.

Steele said he discovered a single thread that typifies players on that team.

"There is a common thread — their sportsmanship and chivalry. They had class on the court, and they continue to have class," said Steele. "Their unity was legendary."

Watts said that it was his most unified team, and that is why they were so successful.

Loren C. Dunn, an emeritus LDS Church general authority, was on the team, and Harold "Chris" Christensen served as a mission president.

During the '51 Cougars' early season game against Niagara, a Purple Eagle player hit the deck hard when he got tangled up with a teammate. Richey had been at the edge of the collision, and was headed up-court to take advantage of the missing defender, but turned back to help the fallen player up, thereby relinquishing the edge he had briefly held over the man who was supposed to be guarding him. The Niagara player who had fallen happened to be a black athlete.

Today, there would probably be no mention of differing races if a player from one team lent a helping hand to the other. But this took place in December of 1950, which was, in many ways, an entirely different racial climate than we enjoy today. It was significant enough that the local paper mentioned it in the following morning's coverage of the game.

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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