Mel Hutchins was a muscular rebounding machine, a defensive pylon, and folks say guarding Roland Minson was like herding a cat; he was a basketball ghost.
Minnie and Hutch.
For most of a magic week in New York City in March 1951, they rocked Madison Square Garden back in the day when it was America’s premier sports palace. This weekend, these two men, now featuring snowy hair and lines in their faces, took a well-deserved, long overdue bow as their jerseys were pinned to the rafters at the Marriott Center on Saturday night.
This dynamic duo, now in their 80s and unknown to many BYU fans, brought their legendary faces front and center over the weekend on campus. Hutchins (No. 14) and Minson (No. 11) took to the court one more time Saturday night and met a giant ovation. The moment culminated a weekend in which BYU officials gave them the ultimate athletic salute.
“These players helped put BYU basketball on the map,” declared BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.
Hutchins and Minson were giant cogs on BYU’s 1951 NIT championship team. It is way past debate that this honor is late in coming, 62 years after they made news reels that were traditionally shown in movie theaters across America. At the time, the NIT and the NCAA had almost equal status and Minnie and Hutch simply tore it up. BYU’s 1951 NIT title was the first national championship ever for the Cougar athletic program.
“It’s kind of amazing,” said Minson, “I didn’t think they had files that old that were still legible.”
Indeed, Minson, they actually do.
Both were top-15 NBA draft picks. Hutchins was the defacto No. 1 NBA pick by Milwaukee and Minson went No. 15 to the New York Knicks in the NBA draft. Both were collegiate All-Americans and record busters in Cougar uniforms.
The 6-0 Minson was the 1951 NIT most valuable player after averaging 26.7 points a game with 26 points, 15 rebounds, 7 steals and 2 assists in the championship, a win over Dayton.
The 6-6 Hutchins, the 1951 College All-Star Game MVP, remains, after 62 seasons, BYU’s all-time leading rebounder (471). Hutchins and Wilt Chamberlain are the only two NBA players to lead the league in rebounding their rookie years.
“They were tremendous basketball players,” said former Utah State and BYU coach LaDell Andersen, who played against Minson in high school and college. “In my opinion, that 1951 BYU team was the best basketball team the school has ever had.”
Indeed, that 1951 team never played a game on campus, never had the home-court advantage others enjoyed. Because the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse was under construction, the team played at Springville High and then the University of Utah for league play. Yet, the 28 wins in 1951 stood as a school record for 59 seasons until the Jimmer Fredette-led team won 30 in 2010.
“Hutch was a great defender and Minson was an unbelievable shooter. He mastered the 15-foot shot and was very hard to stop,” said Andersen. “They were great young men and superstars of the era. I think, when I was at Utah State, I played against them 12 times and we were 2-10. I played high school ball against Roland, who was from Idaho Falls; I played for Malad. He is still a great friend.”
Ed Pinegar, only a teenager at BY High in 1951, remembers Hutchins and Minson in the prime of their college careers, living in the basement of his family’s Provo home.
“They are great guys and terrific ball players, but most of all, they were great gentlemen. Both of these men served missions for the (LDS) Church and have been outstanding representatives of their faith,” said Pinegar.
“Minnie has an unstoppable drive and jump shot while Mel was smooth as silk. Some sports writers called him “The Elf” for his basketball moves. I’m grateful BYU is honoring two of the greatest ball players who ever played for the school. More important, they are great examples we can all follow.”
The remarkable thing about Hutchins’ rebounding is that his BYU record was set during an era without the shot clock when teams could hold the ball and stall, thus there were fewer possessions. Hutchins still averaged 12.7 rebounds per game for his BYU career. The second closest BYU effort in the books was by Brett Applegate, who had 352 career rebounds when he finished in 1984.
Hutchins earned NBA rookie-of-the-year honors in 1952 after averaging 13.3 rebounds a game, best in the league. He was a five-time NBA all-star.
ESPN’s David Ramsey once called Hutchins one of the greatest defenders in NBA history.
While Hutchins’ NBA career took off with a big splash, Minson never played in the NBA, although the Knicks kept after him. He broke his leg skiing after the 1951 season. It was during the Korean War and his draft board in Idaho couldn’t wait for his college days to end. This week he told me he felt an obligation to serve his country and ended up in the Navy where an admiral put him to work playing for the Navy basketball team.
“I never had the desire to play in the NBA,” said Minson, who scored 1,407 career points at BYU, a mark that stood for 22 years before broken by Hall of Famer Kresimir Cosic in 1973.
The accomplishments and exploits of Hutchins and Minson can be found in a book entitled “The Forgotten Champions,” by Rocky Steele.
It was research by Steele that triggered a major move to retire their jerseys, according to associate athletic director Duff Tittle, who admitted it took a long time and was way past due.
Banquet tickets for Saturday’s official ceremony on campus ran out quickly, especially for Minson. He had relatives from all over the country wanting to be at the banquet and at the Cougar game against Portland. BYU organizers told honorees they’d have room for about a hundred guests each. The school ended up setting up an overflow area where a TV feed broadcast the banquet to those who couldn’t be in the Harmon Conference Center.
Minson’s first guest list was more than a hundred. It grew to over 170, then to 270 the week of the event. “I’ve got grands and great grands from all over, from Colorado, Tennessee, Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming. “It will be like a big family reunion.”
“When you get older,” said Minson, you start living off your memories, especially if they can be exaggerated. This just brings it back into focus.”
Both men have had many reunions with their teammates from that 1951 team and all remain very close to this day. One characteristic of that squad was their genuine friendship with one another.
Minson commented, "The thing about it is that most all the players on that team were recruited by many other schools. Hutch had a scholarship to play football at Harvard. He came to BYU to play basketball instead of football. I had committed to the University of Utah because they’d won the NCAA and NIT, but it just didn’t feel right when I made the decision and I was never comfortable with it.
“That we all got together, played together and had this experience with coach Stan Watts was kind of a miracle, it really was,” said Minson.
As you get older, said Minson, you want to give advice to everybody. “That’s what old people do.”
The first thing he’d tell BYU students is to choose well, especially in marriage.
He said his 1951 teammates found some “unsuspecting coeds” who would marry a bunch of “flaky” basketball players. “Now, after 63 years, we’re still married, they’ve stayed with us, and our wives have helped us grow up.
“Second, as you get older, you still think you have something on the ball, but the thing is, you don’t have the strength to bounce it any more.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].