Richie (the Cat) Regan was watching television this week when he heard the words he could hardly believe.
“Little old Seton Hall?” he said. “Little old Seton Hall? “
Those words did not sit well with Regan, who got his nickname during his playing days at Seton Hall in the early 1950s--"Quick as a cat, you know. But they don’t say that anymore.”
He has spent more than half of his 58 years at Seton Hall as basketball player, assistant coach, coach, assistant athletic director, athletic director and now as head of athletic fund raising. He may be the man on campus whose chest is swelling fullest these days: It was Regan who hired Coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1982.
And he would like to tell you about little old Seton Hall.
Seton Hall may be the only newcomer to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament, but it has a proud basketball history--and that’s without benefit of any exaggeration by Dick Vitale, who went to Seton Hall himself.
In 1953, when the NCAA tournament was 15 years old and the old Madison Square Garden was still about the grandest place one could hope to play a basketball game, Seton Hall won the National Invitation Tournament with a team co-captained by the Cat and Walter Dukes, whom Regan calls “one of the first legitimate 7-footers.”
Dukes scored 861 points that season and had 737 rebounds--22 rebounds a game. Both marks remain Seton Hall records 26 years later.
The coach of that team was John (Honey) Russell, who coached at Seton Hall from 1936-43 and again from 1949-60. Along the way Russell had a stint as the first coach of the Boston Celtics, from 1946-48, and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., before his death in 1973.
Among the other luminaries in Seton Hall’s proud history--not much of it very recent--are Bob Davies, another member of the Naismith hall of fame who some people say was a role model for Bob Cousy; Bobby Wanzer, also a hall-of-famer; and Chuck Connors, who played baseball and basketball both at Seton Hall and professionally before gaining fame in the television series “The Rifleman,” which ran from 1958-63.
During the 1940s, Seton Hall was the second-winningest team in the country, with a 128-23 record and an .848 percentage. (The school didn’t field teams in the war years of 1944, ’45 and ’46.) During the 1940s, only Kentucky, with a 240-41 record and an .854 winning percentage, did better.
Little old Seton Hall.
At the end of the 1939 season, the Pirates began a winning streak that would last until the end of the 1941 season, when it was broken at 43 games in a loss to Long Island University in the NIT semifinals. In 1940, Seton Hall went 19-0. In 1941, the Pirates went 19-0 during the regular season and won one NIT game before losing to Long Island and then losing a consolation game to the City College of New York.
It was during a 1941 game at Madison Square Garden that Davies unveiled the move that helped stake his claim as the best player in Seton Hall history--the behind-the-back dribble.
Stanford’s Hank Luisetti, who has been credited in the late 1930s with being the first to use the one-handed shot, is also said to have been the first to dribble behind the back. But Davies and his contemporaries say Davies was the first to dribble behind the back in a game.
“Luisetti did it, but he did it in an exhibition, not in competition,” said Davies, 69, who is retired and lives in Coral Springs, Fla. “I used it as an offensive weapon in Madison Square Garden. Of course, people thought it was the greatest thing going. Now little 13-year-old girls do it.”
Les Harrison, who coached Davies when he played professionally with the Rochester Royals, is one of the people who calls Davies, “the Cousy of his era.”
“Bob Cousy, when he joined the NBA, he told me that the player he copied was Bob Davies,” said Harrison, another member of the hall of fame.
The glory days of Seton Hall basketball coincided with the halcyon days of the NIT and old Madison Square Garden, which closed in 1968 and was torn down, replaced by the current Madison Square Garden.
Although the NCAA tournament began in 1939, it was not until the 1950s, as it expanded from eight teams to 16 to 22, that it began to surpass the NIT in prestige.
In 1953, when Seton Hall won the NIT, Indiana won the NCAA.
“We were one and two, nip-and-tuck all year,” Regan said.
“That was just about the time the NCAA started making major inroads. We turned down NCAA bids. The NIT was paying more money. And it was in Madison Square Garden. It was a local thing for us.”
For Seton Hall, playing in the Garden was the pinnacle.
“It was great, the old Garden,” Regan said. “I get really sentimental. It was sort of central to everything. Let me tell you it was central to the bars, too. But when you went to the Garden, the experience was (as if) you knew everybody there.”
Another standard of Seton Hall’s best years was its relationship with the Rochester professional team, which later became the Cincinnati Royals, then the Kansas City Kings and now the Sacramento Kings.
Harrison, who at 84 is still working as an organizer for the Rochester Basketball Classic, a Division III tournament, was not only the coach of the team, but also the owner and general manager.
Davies graduated from Seton Hall in 1942 and then spent several years in the military during World War II. After playing briefly for Brooklyn and New York, he signed with Rochester of the National Basketball League. Later the NBL would become part of the National Basketball Assn. Davies would play 10 professional seasons including seven NBA seasons, all with Rochester, before retiring from playing at 35.
He was a four-time first-team NBA all-star, and he was on the 1951 Rochester NBA championship team, as were Wanzer and Frank (Pep) Saul, who also played at Seton Hall in the ‘40s.
Saul would play on four NBA championship teams during a six-year career with Rochester, Baltimore, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
“Bobby Wanzer was the complete offensive and defensive player,” Harrison said. “Davies was the spectacular athlete who brought you, the people, in.”
It was because of Davies’ association with Rochester that Dukes went to Seton Hall. Davies saw Dukes when he was a 6-foot-6 10th-grader, and helped arrange for Dukes to attend Seton Hall Preparatory on the college campus, and eventually play for the Pirates. Dukes later played for the New York Knicks and the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBA. Although Regan and other players from that era say they had lost track of Dukes in recent years, they recall that Dukes surprised them by coming to Seton Hall’s opening practice exhibition this year.
Both Davies and Regan would return to Seton Hall. Davies coached for one season--1947-48.
After his playing years, Regan returned to Seton Hall, first as an assistant, and then as coach for 10 years, beginning in 1960.
But in Regan’s first year as a coach, two players--Art Hicks and Henry Gunter--were caught in a point-shaving scandal. The players were never prosecuted--"The DA let them off,” Regan said--but Seton Hall basketball would not recover quickly.
The school de-emphasized basketball, deciding not to play outside of its conference, not to play in big arenas such as the Garden, and not to participate in postseason tournaments.
During the early 1960s, a player named Nick Werkman kept things going, averaging 32 points a game over three seasons ending in 1964, when the Pirates had a 13-12 record. After that, Seton Hall didn’t have another winning season in the decade. Bill Raftery, now a television basketball analyst, replaced Regan as coach in 1970, and in 1974 guided the Pirates to a 16-11 mark, their first winning season in 10 years. Raftery’s best season was 1977, when the Pirates went 18-11.
Raftery was replaced by Hoddy Mahon in 1981; and in 1982, Regan brought on Carlesimo, the son of his friend Peter A. Carlesimo, who until recently was the head of the organization that runs the NIT.
Carlesimo went 6-23 in his first season, and didn’t win 20 games until last season, when a 22-13 record took the Pirates into the NCAA tournament for the first time.
And now this season. The Pirates are 30-6 and play Duke in the Final Four Saturday.
They have been talking about the team, the players from those teams of the 1940s and ‘50s.
They admire the defense that has helped the Pirates make their way to Seattle.
“The way they have been playing, if they keep that up, there’s no reason they can’t go the whole way,” Davies said. “Basically the reason I say that is their defense is so strong. When you can put a defense like that with the offense they have . . .”
They are proud of Carlesimo. Many of them have known his father for years.
“We’re very pleased P.J. has finally made it as an outstanding coach. We’re all proud of him,” Davies said.
And they respect the ways in which the game has changed.
“We all had two-handed set shots,” Regan said.
Davies and Connors, who made his way to Hollywood as a baseball player with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, talked soon after Seton Hall beat Nevada Las Vegas to win the West Regional; and Regan sat in his office in South Orange, N.J., this week as the phone rang off the hook.
“I don’t know whether it’s good or bad being in the Final Four,” Regan said.
Don’t let him fool you.