Old Time Sports Columnist
Now that I have introduced you to my new friend Jennings Culley, let's continue with what I originally intended to write about earlier. I am cognizant of the fact that I get long winded at times but most story tellers do. Some might call it an occupational hazard, others say we just become enamored with our own words. I'm not sure which it is in my case. It's probably like most "either" or "or" things, somewhere in the middle or a little bit of both.
What prompted Mr. Culley to write his story was the announcement that the Las Vegas Invitational Tournament, one of the most prestigious high school basketball tournaments in the country, had selected Valley High School in Las Vegas as the site for their tournament. You may have read some negative publicity about the fact that the tournament was being held in Las Vegas on the strip and the image created in people's minds of a connection between gambling, LV's life blood, and basketball. No specific charges were made of a connection between the two but, as we know, oftentimes, the perceived connection is just as damaging as the real thing itself. Those in charge concluded it was time to create some distance between the two, so a decision was made to hold the tournament away from the strip even though it probably would be a huge draw there. The site selected was Valley High School which is located several miles from the strip. The Valley High School Gym seats approximately 2200.
The announcement triggered memories in the mind of Mr. Culley of the 1953 game between the University of Richmond and UNC in the Benedictine High School Gym in Richmond. This was Frank McGuire's first year and he had the Heels playing well. They were 15-4 coming into the game and were ranked 12th in the nation. A far cry from the previous season under Tom Scott when the Heels finished 12-15 and in 11th place in the Southern Conference. UNC had beaten Richmond earlier in the season in Chapel Hill by 16 points.
But there was something involved in the game with Richmond that McGuire and the team were not prepared for. The game was played in a high school gym where the court was not regulation sized and this allowed Richmond to employ a zone defense to their considerable advantage. The smaller court apparently had more of a psychological advantage than a physical one because measurements later showed that the court was only 1 foot short of regulation size in length. To my knowledge, It was never publicly divulged how the width of the court compared with regulation requirements.
The gym at Benedictine seated 2000 fans. All those seats were filled on February 3, 1953 when Carolina came to town and, believe it or not, 3000 fans were turned away. You may have guessed by now that Richmond beat Carolina that night (87-82) in double overtime and McGuire was enraged. He was quoted after the game as saying, "It's a pity the game had to be played on such a court. It was so small it played right into the hands of their zone defense. We couldn't drive on such a court."
The principal effect of the game, the Richmond win and the large number of people who were turned away had a significant effect on basketball in the city of Richmond. It signaled a new interest in basketball and pointed out for the city and the world to see that inadequate facilities existed for big time basketball in the capital of the Commonwealth. It was similar to the recent debacle involving Michigan State and UVA in the Richmond Coliseum where the game had to be cancelled because of moisture on the floor caused by ice underneath the playing surface.
Shortly after the game, city officials arranged for a street car barn to be converted into a basketball arena appropriately named the Arena. Rising popularity of the game led to a long run for the Southern Conference Tournament to be held there. Keep in mind that the ACC was formed in 1953 so the SC Tournament, after the creation of the ACC, was not nearly the attraction that the ACC Tournament was in Raleigh in Memorial Auditorium. but it still attracted capacity crowds with such teams as West Virginia, Davidson, VMI. Citadel, and others. The Arena was torn down several years ago.
Richmond employed a 50's version of the four corners to beat the Tar Heels and down the stretch hit 7 free throws to cap the win. The celebration after the game was wild and I'm sure some of those who could not gain entry were still hanging around and participated. Richmond had a good team that year and finished 20-7, good enough to earn them a spot in the last Southern Conference Tournament to include the teams that eventually formed the ACC. The ACC began its tournament the following year also in Raleigh.
It will be interesting to see how long the Las Vegas Tournament continues at Valley High School if above capacity crowds show up or the games. I guess the next step would be to play the games at UNLV but for some, the association with the Running Rebels, would not be a significant upgrade from associating with the strip. Whether we like it or not, we are judged by the company we keep.
After I wrote the above article and sent it to my web master I exchanged e-mails with Lennie Rosenbluth. I told him I had written the article and asked him if he ever heard Tony Radovich mention the '53 game in Richmond. Rosenbluth's first year with the UNC varsity was '54-55 and Radovich was the only player on that team who had been on the team at the time the Richmond game was played. Lennie said he never heard Radovich mention the game but did say that he had played on the court in question while at Staunton Military Academy and that it was small.
An article appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch recently that I thought Carolina fans would enjoy. It was by Jennings Culley formerly with the Richmond News Leader and now part-time columnist for the Richmond Times Dispatch after the merger of those two newspapers. He writes a column each Sunday generally about sports events of the past.
I have talked several times by telephone with Mr.Culley and, in addition to being a splendid writer, he is a very pleasant person and willing to talk with strangers who might come his way. I first talked with Mr. Culley when I was trying to research the circumstances of Jackie Jensen's death and burial site several years ago and he cheerfully provided me with the information I was seeking.
To give you a little background on the Jackie Jensen story, one day several years ago, I received a telephone call from a former work associate who now resides in Amherst, Va. He is a Virginia Tech alum and staunch Tech fan but he is also very knowledgeable about a wide range of sports. I always enjoyed talking with him about sports and each of us respected the other's allegiances and never "trash talked" about the other's school. He actually attended several games in the Dean Dome as my guest.
So when he said simply, "Come up here, there's something I want you to see", I didn't ask any questions. I knew it would be something unusual and something in which I would have an interest.
In a couple of weeks, my traveling companion/ former boss and I went up to Amherst which is near Lynchburg to see what my friend wanted me to see.
When we got there, he led me over to a cemetery that was located adjacent to where he lived. He still didn't say what we were looking for but soon we came upon a headstone that read as follows: Jack E. Jensen, U.S. Navy, date and place of birth (can't remember dates but I do remember the place of birth was San Francisco, Cal and place of death was Scottsville, Va. I couldn't believe what I was seeing at first but it things quickly started coming back to me. This was the grave site for Jackie Jensen former All-American football player at the University of California and later the right fielder for the Boston Red Sox. Oddly enough, there was no mention on his headstone of his athletic exploits. For some reason, most old timers remember two things about Jackie Jensen. One was that he once was married to former Olympic swimmer Zoe Ann Olsen and the second was that Jensen was mortally afraid of flying. I later learned that Jensen was the only man in history to have played in the College All-Star football game, major league all-star game and the World Series. Sort of like a Ronald Curry at the college level. My friend knew I would be interested because he was aware of the fact that I have been a life long Red Sox fan.
When my friend found the grave one day just walking through the cemetery, he tried to find out something about the circumstances of Jensen's burial from the manager of the cemetery. The manager was relatively young and couldn't provide much information but he did say something that caused me to begin a research project. The manager said he had been told that Jensen had been buried at midnight but he knew none of the details as why this was done. That was enough for me.
I called Mr. Culley and asked if he could shed any light on this situation and he said he didn't know anything about a midnight burial but he did remember there was something strange about the burial and asked for a few days to check the newspaper files.
Several days later, he called me and said that his research did not confirm the midnight burial but he did determine there had been some controversy about the burial since Jensen's widow had asked that the burial be private and some outsiders had shown up at the burial. He said Jensen's wife was from nearby Scottsville and that the cemetery plot was owned by her family. Jensen and his wife were running a Christmas Tree farm near Scottsville at the time of his death and he actually died in the ambulance on the way to the University of Virginia Hospital in nearby Charlottesville.
At the time of his death, Jensen was working on a volunteer basis with the Fork Union Military Academy baseball team and one member of the staff said he seemed perfectly normal the afternoon before he suffered his fatal heart attack. Jensen had a history of heart trouble but apparently thought he had it under control.
My friend and I went to Scottsville to see if we could find anybody there who knew Jensen and we hit pay dirt on the first stop. The owner of the service station at the main intersection in Scottsville said he knew Jensen well and proceeded to tell us about his fear of flying. He said Jensen had tried everything including the use of alcohol to overcome his fear but never did lose his fear of flying. He told us that Jensen would hire someone, at times, to drive all night so he could be at the game location the following day. He probably couldn't get by with that today with the dispersion of teams throughout the country and the longer distances between game sites.
We talked with the owner of a restaurant in Scottsville and she said that Jensen's widow came by her establishment frequently. In fact, while we were talking, she said, "There she goes now", and pointed to an automobile that drove past her restaurant. She urged us to go to her house and assured us that she would be glad to talk with us, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I am usually not timid about talking with strangers but there are certain situations where I am reluctant to invade an individual's privacy. This was one of them.
I may reconsider meeting with Mrs. Jensen and if I do, I will share what transpires with you.
This is not the UNC story I had planned to write today but I have gone on enough for now. When I do write the UNC article, it will be about Carolina's basketball game with the University of Richmond in 1953 when only 2000 people could crowd into the high school gym here in Richmond where it was played and 3000 were turned away.
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