Basketball

CIAA Tournament retrospective, Part II

Most know Earl Monroe by his nickname “The Pearl.” But he was also known as “Black Jesus” and “The Truth.” I call him the best ever. He dazzled crowds in the CIAA and at its tournaments in the 1960s with his unique talents, flamboyant style and showmanship. The tournament’s reputation grew as he and a host of others put their talents on display.

In part II of HBCU Gameday’s CIAA Basketball Tournament retrospective, we explore what many consider a decade of glory – the turbulent 1960s. It was punctuated on the CIAA hardwood by record-setting performances by transcendent players, electrifying games and outcomes and the first HBCU NCAA national championship. The end of the decade also produced a devastating shift as the league was nearly halved in size.

The great Cleo Hill

My older brother Jerry had regaled me with stories of the great Cleo Hill of Winston-Salem Teacher’s College (now WSSU). Jerry called him perhaps the greatest basketball player he had ever seen. Hill had been the CIAA Tournament’s Most Valuable Player in 1960 and 1961. 

Cleo Hill

“Cleo Hill was something,” Jerry would say. He averaged 27.7 points per game in the 1959-60 season and 26.7 ppg in the 1960-61 season. Hill finished his WSSU career averaging 25.4 points per game over his four years playing for Gaines. He graduated in 1961 as the leading scorer in school history with 2,488 points.

Hill, at only 6-1, 185 pounds, could shoot with either hand, drain hook shots from either corner, with either hand. He could jump like Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan. It is to my eternal regret that I didn’t get a chance to see Hill play. He is perhaps the greatest player I never got a chance to see. 

How good was Hill? He was good enough to be the eighth overall pick in the 1962 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks. He was the fifth African-American from an Historically Black College or University to be taken in the first round. What happened to him in the NBA is another, not so pleasant, story. 

An uneasy welcome to the ‘Gate City of the South’

One reason why the CIAA Tournaments are so memorable, is that there was so much going on at the time. It was surrounded by history-making events.

The tournament first came to a public arena in the South, to the Greensboro Coliseum, on February 25-27, 1960. It came less than a month after four NC A&T students on Feb. 1, sat-in at a downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter to challenge and protest segregated public accommodations. The brave and heroic act by these young men sparked and became a part of the nationwide Civil Rights movement.

Four NC A&T students pictured here (l. to r.) Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair and David Richmond)sat-in at a Woolworth’s Lunch Counter in Greensboro on Feb. 1, 1960, ess than a month before the 1960 CIAA Tournament was to be played at the city’s Coliseum. It was the tournament’s first public arena in the South

The city’s white fathers opened up the Coliseum, the city’s restaurants and hotels in what’s called ‘The Gate City of the South.’ The influx of black people came just as the movement was burgeoning. But the city only offered the CIAA a one-year contract. It then threatened to pull the affair after they accused black attendees of ‘stealing towels’ from the hotels during the event.

“Big House” and Cal

Clarence “Big House” Gaines

Gaines stepped in, according to Bobby Vaughn, who led the Elizabeth City State Vikings from 1949 to 1986. Vaughn was a member then of the tournament’s steering committee. Gaines convinced the city of Winston-Salem to host the tournament over the next three years (1961-63). The tournament was so successful there that Greensboro wanted back in. But this time, it was offering a three-year contract. 

The CIAA Tournament returned to Greensboro and stayed there for the next 12 years (1964-76). The CIAA has been working with three-year contracts ever since.

Cal Irvin

I came along at a time when Gaines and North Carolina A&T’s Cal Irvin had the dominant programs in the conference. The two, both graduates of Morgan State, travelled North together to Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York and places beyond offering top players from those areas a landing spot in the CIAA.

It was during that time that I became a fixture at the ‘C-I-double-A,’ as it was called. 

Gaines began his 47-year career at WSSU when the tournament was founded in 1946,. He won just two tournament titles in 1953 and 1957 before going back-to-back with Hill and his cohorts in 1960 and 1961. He and Irvin took turns bringing home tournament titles in the decade of the 1960s.

 Gaines and WSSU added titles in 1963, 1966 and 1970. Irvin’s Aggies, after winning back-to-back tournament titles in 1958 and 1959 in Durham, won again in 1962, 1964, and 1967, the latter two playing in front of their hometown crowd in Greensboro. The WSSU Rams (six) and NC A&T Aggies (five) won every tournament title from 1957 thru 1964 and captured 11 in 14 years between 1957 and 1970.

My C-I-double-A experiences

It was in 1964 that I attended my first tournament. I can still hear the echo of the Aggie faithful chanting “Let’s Go Aggies” followed by five rhythmic claps in the cavernous Greensboro Coliseum as they downed Johnson C. Smith for the championship. The Aggies’ 6-3 guard Maurice McHartley was the tournament Most Valuable Player. 

McHartley, originally from Detroit, played with a toothpick in his mouth. Can you imagine how cool and odd that appeared to a 10-year old. McHartley went on to play eight years professionally in the ABA for five different teams.

Norfolk State in 1965 under head coach Ernie Fears introduced the CIAA to a new style of play – the run and gun. His Spartans, led by center Richard “Pop” Pitts and dynamic tournament MVP James “Hook Shot” Grant, dethroned A&T in the championship game 100-87. It was the 11th game of the season that NSU topped the 100-point mark. Gaines’ and Irvin’s teams would take the next two titles.

“The Pearl”

Regardless of what my brother said about Cleo Hill, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was the greatest basketball player I had ever seen, or have seen since.

Earl Monroe at WSSU

In 1966, “The Pearl” was the MVP of the tournament as Winston-Salem State knocked off Fears’ Norfolk State charges in the championship game, 87-81. WSSU had lost to the high-scoring Spartans twice in the regular season, 89-79 and 115-90. Monroe would have none of it in the championship game as he whirled and slashed his way to 42 points (17 of 34 from the field) and the MVP trophy. 

Monroe was a dynamic scorer at 29.8 points per game as a junior. He could score in so many ways, inside and outside, and he was a magician as a ballhandler and passer. One of his go-to moves was a patented spin dribble, where he would spin one way and back the other to get off his shot. But he was just as deft scoring close to the basket where his feathery jumpers would just clear the extended hands of frustrated defenders and tickle the twine. 

CIAA Tournament no, NCAA yes for WSSU

In ’67, Irvin and the Aggies led by burly CIAA tournament MVP Teddy Campbell (17 points, 13 rebounds), returned to the championship circle as they defeated an upstart team from Howard 76-73 for the title.

The subplot to A&T’s championship run was that they handed WSSU and Monroe, the undefeated (25-0) No. 1 team in NCAA Small College Basketball and its incomparable star who was averaging 41.5 points per game, their only defeat of the season in the tournament’s semifinals.

The Aggies 1-2-2 defense forced Monroe into double teams on either side of the floor with guards Carl Hubbard (from Danville) George Mack and Soapy Adams providing the pressure. The Aggie defense, designed by the cerebral Irvin, held Monroe to 20 points on 7 of 26 shooting in the 105-82 win in the semis. 

On to the nationals

By virtue of its high ranking, WSSU advanced to the NCAA Small College Division playoffs. They eventually became the first HBCU to win an NCAA championship as they defeated Southwest Missouri State 77-74 for the title. Gaines, Monroe and the Rams finished 31-1 on the season. Monroe, scored 53 points in each of the first two games of the playoffs, 49 points in the regional final and 40 in the championship game.

“After I got to 40, I decided to stop shooting for the last three minutes of the game” Monroe said.

To no one’s surprise, he was named small college national player of the year.

He became the first CIAA player to win the national scoring title. That year, Monroe bested the Div. 1 Player of the Year Elvin Hayes of Houston’s 36.8 points per game and the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 26.2 ppg. Monroe totalled 1,329 points that season. His 2,935 career points is still the best in CIAA history. 

Monroe followed up his national championship at WSSU with an NBA Rookie of the Year performance in 1967-68. The Baltimore Bullets drafted him second overall in the first round behind Jimmy Walker of Providence (the father of future Michigan and NBA starndout Jalen Rose). Monroe later became a key figure in the backcourt with Walt Frazier on a New York Knicks 1972-73 NBA championship team that also featured HBCU and Pro Basketball Hall of Famer, center Willis Reed of Grambling and former Tennessee State star Dave Barnett. 

CIAA Tournament 1968: The game of games

It only took just one more season for the CIAA Tournament to have another brilliant finish.

In 1968, Ernie Fears’ Spartans of Norfolk State met Cal Irvin’s NC A&T Aggies in the championship game. That year Norfolk State was featured in a Sports Illustrated story by Curry Kilpatrick entitled “All Together Now – A Big Whompf For Norfolk State.” The article was about Norfolk State’s prodigious scoring prowess and the noise the crowd makes every time a Spartans’ shot gets to the rim. The team scored over 120 points ten times, topped the 130-point plateau seven times and surpassed 100 points in 19 of their 28 games during a 26-2 season.

Killpatrick wrote this in SI about Norfolk State point guard Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland and his teammates:

This high-scoring Spartan team under Fears came into the tournament averaging 113 points per game. It was led by future legends, recent Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Dandridge out of Richmond, Va., and Kirkland a New York playground and Rucker Park legend.

A match up for the ages

In a stat that I have not seen duplicated since, all five Spartans starters shot over 55 percent from the field and three of their four primary reserves shot better than 50 percent. All five starters scored in double figures. They featured three 20-point scorers – Bobby Dandridge (26.1 ppg.), James Grant (21.4 ppg.) and Charles Bonaparte (20.4 ppg.). Johnny McKinney (16.9 ppg.) and Kirkland (15.3) were the other starters. 

As well, the Spartans took their tucked-in shirts out of their shorts right after the game started making themselves comfortable for their frenetic, up-and-down the court style. How cool was that?.

Irvin countered with a hard-nosed team that included point guard Hubbard, tough wing players Soapy Adams and Darryl Cherry, two dynamic freshmen forwards from Philadelphia, Erv Staggs and Robert Brooker, and Teddy Campbell at center. The Aggies had to overcome rival and nemesis Winston-Salen State in the quarterfinals. They beat Virginia Union with NCAA Small College scoring leader Mike Davis, who was averaging 36.8 points per game, in the semifinals to face Norfolk State for the championship. 

This is how A&T student newspaper, The A&T Register, described the game:

            “At precisely 9:00 p.m., the buzzer sounded for the start of the game that many had waited all year for. The occasion was the bout between the Aggies of A&T (regular season runners-up) and the Spartans of Norfolk State (regular season champions.)

All eyes on Greensboro

The local daily newspaper, The Greensboro Daily News, reported that some 5,000 people had to be turned away at the gate of the sold-out game. Norfolk State scored on a basket with :06 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 100 and send it to overtime. In the first overtime, each team scored nine points. They matched 11-point outputs in the second extra period. In the third OT, Kirkland scored nine of the Spartans’ 11 points to pull out a 134-132 win for the ages and take home the MVP award.

Norfolk State had five players top 20 points with Dandridge leading the way with 38. Johnny McKinney had 26 points and 17 rebounds, Kirkland had 23 points and backcourt mate Charles Bonaparte had 24. Brooker led A&T with 34 points and 16 rebounds while fellow freshman, James ‘Erv” Staggs had 22. Soapy Adams threw in 27 points and pulled down 12 boards. Hubbard finished with 20 points while playing all 55 minutes. Teddy Campbell, A&T’s center and MVP from the 1967 championship, battled foul trouble, fouled out with over eight minutes left in regulation. He scored just two points.

Another dynamic team

In 1969, another dynamite team emerged. It was the Vikings of Elizabeth City State University led by head coach Bobby Vaughn and featuring stars Israel Oliver and Mike Gale. The Vikings beat Norfolk State for the tournament title 89-86 but could not prevent the Spartans’ Bobby Dandridge from winning the MVP award. Dandridge set a tournament scoring record with 50 points (20 of 26 shots from the field, 10 of 11 from the line) in a semifinal win over WSSU. He had 32 points and 24 rebounds in the finals loss.

The 1970 Tournament saw WSSU and Gaines again ascend to the top with a victory over Fayetteville State in the championship game. Allen McManus was the tournament’s MVP. Gaines won only one more tournament title (in 1977) for the rest of his coaching career that lasted until 1993.

After the ’70 CIAA Tournament, seven teams left to form the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference and move to Div. I. The CIAA has never been the same since.

But it has survived and thrived.

Part III of our retrospective will cover the last half-century of the CIAA Tournament just as the 2022 edition gets under way in Baltimore.

CIAA Tournament retrospective, Part II
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