A basketball buzz has returned to Rhody. On Sunday, March 12, the men’s team won the 2017 Atlantic 10 Championship, securing a bid to the NCAA tournament. Rhode Island was the talk of hoop analysts throughout the early part of the week on CBS, ESPN, CBS Sports Network, and the Sports Illustrated website as one of the hot, dangerous teams in the tourney.
In the University’s 125-year history, the Rams have often been the topic of national basketball chatter. There was the 1977-1978 season when the Rams beat Providence two out of three times, the last victory coming in the ECAC tourney, which put them in the 32-team NCAA field for an opening-round game. Then, there was the 1987-1988 team that made it to the NCAA Sweet 16, followed by the 1997-1998 season, marking the greatest run in Rhody’s NCAA history, as the Rams made it to the Elite 8, and came within a hair’s breadth of making the Final Four.
In the historic Frank Keaney era, the legendary Rhody skipper led Rhode Island hoop squads to a 401-124 record from 1920 through 1948. That great run included four appearances in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), the premier tournament at the time, and led to Keaney being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960, the hall’s second year.
But it isn’t just that Keaney won—it’s that he won while revolutionizing the game as the inventor of the fast break. He quoted Shakespeare, entertaining students who jammed Rodman Hall for practices and games. Keaney coined classic phrases such as the “Old Gazazza” (lots of hustle, plenty of pepper), “The Dribbler from Dribblersville” (pass the ball) and “For Git Sakes” (never use the Lord’s name in vain, or any profanity for that matter).
Keaney, who dreaded the slow pace of basketball early in his career when teams would often score no more than 30 points a game, got his inspiration for the fast break when he attended a Boston Bruins game in 1928 at the old Boston Arena. Keaney loved the aggressive forechecking and constant motion of hockey, and on the train ride back to Kingston, was already scheming to turn Rhode Island into a running, passing, and attacking squad. Basketball would never be the same, and soon sports writers were using terms like Rhode Island’s “Firehorse Brand of Basketball.”
Those who knew Keaney and those who have heard countless stories about the basketball, football, baseball, track and cross country coach, and athletic director, see him as one of the greatest innovators in URI’s glorious 125-year history.
While running from the gridiron to the baseball diamond and from the track to the basketball court, he was developing the color “Keaney Blue” in his chemistry lab, teaching students chemistry, and installing a ring inside the standard basketball hoop to improve shooting. He put smudge pots filled with burning tobacco in Rodman Hall to get his teams ready for tournaments at smoky Madison Square and Boston Gardens.
All that energy, innovation and creativity led to one of the greatest seasons in the Rams’ history when they posted a 21-3 record in the 1945-46 campaign and nearly won the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. At the time, the NIT featured the top eight teams in the country. In the opener in 1946, Pawtucket’s Ernie Calverley, a man Keaney thought was too frail to play, hit a 62-footer at the buzzer to send the game against Bowling Green into overtime, ending in a Rams’ win. A victory over Muhlenburg put the Rams in the final where they lost by one point to Adolph Rupp’s famed Kentucky team.
Still, the New York media fell in love with the Rams, including Pulitzer Prize winner Red Smith, who wrote a column about Calverley, called “A Case of Malnutrition” because of the player’s build. Smith, who said in the column that he would rather “drink a Bronx Cocktail than speak well of basketball,” wrote of Calverley, “He is a gaunt, pale young case of malnutrition who’d probably measure up as a fairly sizeable gent in your living room, but looks like a waif among the goons who clutter up the court.
“But when he lays hand on that ball and starts moving, he is like a whole troop of Calverley, including the pretty white horses. The guy is terrific, colossal, and also very good.”
Dick Young, of The New York Daily News, referred to Calverley as “the boney Sinatra of the court.”
With great memories of court heroics over the ages, the current Rhody Rams riding a hot streak, and plenty of the “Old Gazazza,” fans are cheering this year’s A-10 champs and hoping for more to come.
With thanks to William Woodward and his book, “Keaney, If you Don’t Love to Play, Pivot and Go Home,” the book, “The Red Smith Reader,” edited by Dave Anderson, URI Athletics Media Relations, and Roger Lavallee ‘48, captain of the Rhode Island State College cheerleaders.