Rob Oller | Surprising to some, Ohio State men's basketball existed before 1960
The oldest basketball photographs lining the walls of St. John Arena might as well be cave drawings, so foreign are they to Ohio State fans unaware of the school’s rich hoops history.
Many older fans know of the Buckeyes’ 1960 men’s basketball team that won the school’s first NCAA national championship. But pre-1960? Google, a little help? (If this were OSU football, historian Jack Park could rattle off all manner of minutiae, which speaks to the uneven levels of interest that no Park encyclopedia exists for a similar foray into Buckeyes basketball.)
Along those lines, If Ohio State football is the favorite family portrait placed on the fireplace mantle, the 1960s basketball Buckeyes at least adorn the staircase wall. For many, that team — featuring a starting five of Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried, Mel Nowell, John Havlicek and Joe Roberts, with Bob Knight coming off the bench — is where Ohio State basketball history begins.
Gene Brown knows it. A starting guard on the 1950 Ohio State team that lost 56-55 to New York University in an NCAA national semifinal — “Final Four” did not become a thing until 1975 — he agrees that not enough is known of OSU basketball teams from his era and before.
“Ohio State wasn’t just a football school, but football was king,” he said on Thursday. “We took a backseat to it. It’s also true that not many remember anything in basketball before 1960.”
That includes Brown, who was unaware until this week that Ohio State finished runner-up to Oregon, 46-33, in the first NCAA Tournament, in 1939 in Evanston, Illinois.
At age 92, Brown is forgiven if his memory too often shoots an airball, but he is certain Ohio State’s reputation as a strong basketball school played a part in his wanting to play for the Buckeyes after graduating from Dayton Stivers.
Ohio State played in three consecutive NCAA Final Fours in the mid-1940s, losing to Dartmouth in 1944, NYU in overtime in 1945 and North Carolina in 1946.
“We had pretty good ball clubs, and would have been better,” he said, explaining that before the 1950 season the Buckeyes lost talented big man Bob Raidiger when during the prior summer the player was struck by a car and killed while he changed a tire on State Route 23.
“Fred (Taylor) came in and did a real good job, but he was a little undersized for a center,” Brown said.
Many fans do not realize Taylor played basketball (and baseball) for the Buckeyes, knowing him only for coaching Ohio State to the 1960 national title. But many of his players on that team became national household names — Lucas and Havlicek for their pro careers, Knight by becoming a coaching legend at Indiana.
Before them Robin Freeman was an OSU two-time All-America at guard who became the first player in Big Ten history to average 30 or more points per game (31.5 and 32.9) in consecutive seasons, 1955 and ’56.
Any Ohio State fan worth his scarlet and gray-colored bathroom should know about Freeman, because not to would be like shrugging “who?” at the mention of Howard “Hopalong” Cassady.
I caught up with the original Hondo on Thursday to flesh out Freeman’s greatness. Frank Howard, 84, was Hondo before Havlicek, earning the John Wayne nickname after being named National League rookie of the year with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Howard is best known for baseball — he was a four-time major league All-Star — but also played basketball at Ohio State, where he was a 6-foot-7 All-America power forward/center drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA. He chose to play baseball instead.
In later years, as a roving scout for the New York Yankees, Howard was attending a Columbus Clippers game when Freeman’s name came up during a conversation with Cassady, a first-base coach with the Clippers.
“Hop and I were sitting on the bench and I say to him, ‘Hop, I’ve seen a lot of great athletes … but Robin Freeman, that guy was amazing,’ ” Howard said.
There was a lot of amazing going on in basketball before 1960 — the program actually began in 1898 — but much of it happened in the shadows, or at least in an old barn. As Ohio State football played its games starting in the 1920s in an 80,000-seat stadium, the basketball program was relegated to the Fairgrounds Coliseum, where 6,000 or so spectators either froze or roasted, depending on the seating chart.
“I remember the old pot-bellied stoves that kept the place warm,” Brown said. “If you sat in the first six rows around that thing you were sweating, but if 15 rows up you bundled up in your top coat.”
When St. John Arena opened, in 1956, it felt like basketball had finally arrived, but the feeling was a fooler. Unfortunately, most still think it didn’t begin until 1960.