It was two in the morning at the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan and the nine players who made up the 1944 University of Utah basketball team weren't asleep.
Only hours before the Utes had lost their opening game in the NIT in Madison Square Garden, a 46-38 defeat to Kentucky, and now they had been rousted from their beds and summoned to the room of coach Vadal Peterson, who had an offer he thought they might want to refuse.
Officials from the NCAA basketball tournament had just called, he told his players, and they needed a last-minute replacement for the University of Arkansas, whose team had canceled because of an automobile accident that had killed an assistant coach and one of the players.
The problem was, the opening round NCAA game, against Missouri, was scheduled two nights later in Kansas City. That meant the Utes would have to catch the first train out of New York the next morning; there would be no time for Broadway shows and visiting the Statue of Liberty and riding to the top of the Empire State Building.
"We've made a good showing here, and we've made some money," Peterson told his players. "Now we have a chance to see New York. What do you think?"
The coach's tone implied that he thought it might be a good idea if they called it a season then and there. And not without good reason.
In 1944, the University of Utah basketball team was hardly the most feared in the land, and certainly not the best known. The Utes had been the last team invited to the 8-team NIT and now they were getting the last call to the NCAA tournament. They had accumulated a 17-3 regular season record but as with most records during the war years it was suspect.
The Utes didn't have a home gymnasium their fieldhouse had been converted into an Army barracks. They had played only three college teams all season long Colorado, Weber State and Idaho State. The rest of their games were against service teams. Their three losses were to Fort Warren, the Salt Lake Air Base and Dow Chemical. Only because Keith Brown, the team's graduate manager, had sent clippings weekly to Ned Irish, president of Madison Square Garden, had they worked their way into the NIT's consciousness and wrangled that tournament's final bid.
When they arrived in New York they were the epitome of the gangly country kid with his hands in his pockets gaping open-mouthed at all them tall buildings.
If somebody had offered, they'd have all bought the bridge.
This was the makeup of the team: Nine players, seven freshmen, one sophomore and one junior. Their average age was 181/2. All were Utahns the majority Mormons who had grown up within 35 miles of the U. of U. campus.
They'd have all been in the service except for the fact that the seven freshmen weren't 19 yet and therefore not eligible for the draft, the sophomore was center Fred Sheffield, who was in medical school; and the junior was Wat Misaka, a Japanese-American who, at that stage of the war, couldn't be drafted.
In a year, virtually every member of the team, including Misaka, would be off joining the war effort.
But in March of '44 they had other fronts to conquer.
Which is what they told Vadal Peterson, their coach, when he suggested they turn down the NCAA tournament invitation in favor of a sightseeing tour of downtown Manhattan.
In their 2 a.m. meeting they voted unanimously to get right back on the train and accept the NCAA bid in Kansas City. If they got out of Kansas City alive, they could return to New York for the NCAA final game.
With the brashness of teen-agers, they told the manager at the Belvedere as much when they asked him not to let out their rooms; that they'd be right back.
At Kansas City, they beat Missouri 45-35 in their NCAA Western Regional opener and next faced an Iowa State team that had beaten Pepperdine 44-39.
Iowa State, like all the teams Utah faced in its postseason play, was older and more experienced than the Utes. Utah did not have any armed services programs, like the Navy's V-12 training program, in its curriculum, and consequently did not have servicemen on campus who were still free to play college basketball.
Iowa State was a heavy favorite in the Western Regional title game. So heavy, in fact, that Reaves Peters, the tournament director, came to Brown, the Utah manager, before the game and tactfully explained that the winner would have to catch a New York-bound train at midnight and he'd already checked Iowa State's players out of their hotel rooms and if it was all right with the Utes they'd be leaving their luggage in Utah's rooms.
As it turned out, after Utah beat Iowa State 40-31 the Cyclone players stayed that night in Utah's rooms, and the Utes slept in Pullmans, on their way back to the Empire State.
By now, Utah's players were losing their anonymity. In particular, a slender 6-foot-4 blond-haired freshman named Arnie Ferrin. He had scored 12 points against Missouri and another six against Iowa State and was the heart of Utah's attack especially so after Sheffield, the defending NCAA high jump champion and the Utes' starting center, sprained an ankle in practice in Kansas City and was rendered ineffective the rest of the way.
In the NCAA championship game in Madison Square Garden the affair was a Final Two back then Utah was up against Eastern Regional champ Dartmouth, yet another seasoned squad made up of soldier-athletes. Many of the Dartmouth players had been transferred by the military and hadn't even been on campus at the beginning of the school year. Among the team's best players were Harry Leggat, a former NYU star sent to Dartmouth by the Marines; Bob Gale, formerly at Cornell; and Dick McGuire, a proven star at St. John's now assigned to Dartmouth by the Navy V-12 program.
The morning of the final, Pete Couch, Utah's assistant coach, overheard a breakfast conversation among the Dartmouth players. They were suggesting that they should play an intrasquad scrimmage before the game, so the people could get their money's worth.
This information Couch passed on in the pregame locker room.
Only a week had passed since their first experience in Madison Square Garden when they lost to Kentucky in their NIT opener but the Utes were now adjusted to life in the big city. The 15,000 fans who came to watch the title game establishing a new single-game NCAA tournament record did not unnerve them. Indeed, the New Yorker's penchant for siding with the underdog was an added plus.
Dartmouth could not break loose from the freshmen, and with a minute to play in regulation the Big Green found themselves down by four, 36-32. Gale got a field goal to cut the deficit to two and then, with two seconds on the clock, McGuire made a set shot that sent the game into overtime.
Ferrin, who had scored 18 points in regulation and was on his way to the tourney MVP award, took charge in the overtime, scoring four points as the teams drew to 40-40. He drove for the game-winner in the closing seconds, but the ball bounced loose near the free throw line, where Utah's Herb Wilkinson picked it up and made an offbalance shot that just beat the buzzer, and Dartmouth.
Now it was time to see the sights . . . almost.
The New York newspapers had arranged for a Red Cross benefit game two nights later, also in Madison Square Garden, pitting the champion of the NCAA Utah against the NIT champion, St. John's of New York.
No one had to hype this game. A crowd 18,125 strong filled the Garden to raise $35,000 for the war effort and see if Utah, a first-round NIT loser, had accumulated enough steam to beat St. John's, a team that had beaten Kentucky (the team that had ousted Utah) to win the NIT.
Ferrin scored 17 and Wilkinson 11 as the Utes, now known in New York newspapers as the "Blitz Kids," won going away, 43-36.
They were the toast of the town. Parties were held in their honor everywhere. Their money was no good in any of New York's finest restaurants and theatres. They saw Finian's Rainbow and the Ice Follies. They ate at the Copa Cabana. They were feted at the Waldorf-Astoria. They were on Kate Smith's CBS radio show and Senator Elbert Thomas invited them to Washington, D. C. to dine.
But this was one invitation they turned down. They caught the train going straight back to Salt Lake. There they were paraded through the city streets in convertibles as they told tales of their trip back East, where not only had they managed to see the sights, but they'd been one.