PHILADELPHIA — Somewhere, as his former team prepares to face La Salle on Thursday in their unlikely West Regional matchup, the late Gary Thompson must be thankful the NCAA conducts its tournament at neutral sites.
In Philadelphia basketball’s long and rich history, it’s doubtful any coach ever enjoyed a visit here less than the late Wichita State mentor.
After his No. 2-ranked Shockers were upset by St. Joseph’s in the 1964 Quaker City Tournament final, Thompson called Palestra fans “horrible,” the officials “atrocious,” and the whole experience “a damn farce.”
Now, as Wichita State’s NCAA date with La Salle nears, the school and Thompson, 49 years after his tirade and three years after his death at 78, have reentered Philadelphia’s sports consciousness.
Thompson did more than vent on the night of Dec. 29, 1964. He vowed he’d never bring another team to the Palestra. He never did. Nor did many other big-name coaches influenced by his unusually shrill outburst.
For years after Thompson’s criticisms, according to former Big Five director John Nash, “the power teams were afraid” to play in the arena where Big Five teams scheduled most of their home games.
Thompson immediately became a villain, an outsider trying to rewrite the familiar fairy-tale narrative about Philadelphia basketball and its Palestra. His crime was voicing what many more timid colleagues could not: the belief that the Big Five benefited from home cooking.
“I could say a lot,” Bob Powers, a Wichita reserve for that game, said. “Let’s just say the officials were extremely hard on us. We got no respect.”
This weekend in neutral Los Angeles, of course, neither team should have to worry about an officiating bias.
“Let’s hope not,” said Powers, “because that night in Philadelphia I felt like I wasn’t watching the same game as the referees.”
‘Pick it apart’
That game was the conclusion to a Christmas tournament Bulletin writer Bob Vetrone called the “greatest three nights of basketball the Penn gym has ever hosted.”
Unbeaten Wichita State, with 6-foot-7 all-American Dave Stallworth and 6-10 center Nate Bowman, were already being touted as national title contenders.
Meanwhile, Jack Ramsay’s Hawks, which would lose just once that regular season, were better than anticipated, having added a sensational but little-known sophomore in Cliff Anderson and a ballyhooed transfer in Matt Guokas Jr.
The Hawks had beaten Illinois in their semifinal, and Ramsay, on the morning of the highly anticipated title game, summoned them to a campus practice.
“We weren’t even in uniforms, didn’t have shoes on as I recall, and he walked us out onto the court,” recalled Don DiJulia, the St. Joe’s athletic director who was a reserve player. “He told us that Wichita State played the same kind of zone press Lehigh did, and we had just beaten Lehigh. Then he said, ‘We’re going to pick it apart. We’re going to beat these guys.’ ”
They did, by a 76-69 score before a raucous sellout of 9,257. Marty Ford had 27 points, guard Billy Oakes 21. Stallworth, the tourney’s MVP, led the Shockers with 25.
Everything irked Thompson. The hurled streamers whose cleanup delayed the game. The too-close fans who screamed at him and his players. And, in particular, the two East Coast Athletic Conference officials, John Stevens and Jim Lennon.
They called 23 fouls on Wichita, just 10 on St. Joe’s. Though both teams made 28 field goals, the Hawks shot nearly twice as many free throws, 29-15.
“It was a long time ago, but I don’t remember anything unusual about the officiating,” said Oakes, who became an NBA referee.
Stevens died in 1981, Lennon in 2011.
“I know they weren’t happy about the referees, but I really can’t think of any plays where I recall saying, ‘Wow, that was awful,’” said DiJulia.
Not surprisingly, Thompson saw it much differently.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been an obnoxious loser,” he told reporters afterward. “No wonder your local teams have won this tournament four years in a row. I’d just like to get them out in Kansas once.
”The conditions were ridiculous. Our treatment on the floor by the officials, and off the floor by all those horn-blowing, bellowing St. Joe’s fans, was atrocious. It was a damn farce.“
Asked what was being yelled, Thompson, 32, a first-year head coach, said, ”I won’t repeat it. It was horrible.“
A few hours later, still hotter than the coffee he nursed, Thompson sat silent and steaming in a Philadelphia restaurant.
”He was so mad he just sat there and stared at the table,“ said Powers, 72, who operates a Wichita financial services company. ”He was still beside himself. I’d never seen him that way.“
Both teams advanced to the 23-team NCAA Tournament that season. Providence eliminated St. Joe’s in the second round. Wichita State, which lost arguably its two best players at midseason — Bowman to academic woes and Stallworth because his eligibility was up — made it to the Final Four, where the Shockers were defeated by eventual champion UCLA.
”I haven’t seen La Salle yet,“ said Powers. ”But I think if our players all focus, we have a good chance.“
Depending on the officiating.