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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Davies dribbles his way into history
By Joe Goldstein
Special to ESPN.com


Everyone does it now. Pros do it now. College kids do it. Even some 10 year olds do it.

But once no one did it...not until March 19, 1942. Then Bobby Davies did it, in public. He dribbled behind-his-back.

He did it in the brightest spotlight, in the fourth annual National Invitation Tournament, which was far more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament, then in its third year.

The best eight teams in college basketball--Duquesne, Ohio University, City College of New York, Seton Hall, Rhode Island State, Westminster and Long Island University--met in the NIT in the old Madison Square Garden, the heart and soul of college basketball, on 49th Street and 8th Avenue.

In the first game of the tournament, Seton Hall beat Rhode Island, 70-54, its 43rd straight victory.

"The key man for Seton Hall was Bob Davies, a blond artist who made the ball obey him," wrote Arthur Daley of The New York Times, who later (1956) became a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist.

"He was," wrote Daley, "the closet approach to Hank Luisetti ever to show in the Garden and in some few times of court deportment was a trifle better than the peerless Stanford wonder. Davies tallied 19 points by himself and fed his mates for many more.

"The Davies personality completely captivated the crowd. He uncorked one behind-the-back dribble that had to be seen to be believed. He seem to hang in mid-air."

It's hard to believe that no one had ever done it before.

"I remember the instant it happened," recalls Andrew "Fuzzy" Levane, then a sophomore starter for St. John's and now, sixty years later, still active in basketball as a scout for the New York Knicks.

"It was a fast break situation, where Bobby was in the middle of the court," Levane said. "As he dribbled to the foul line, he was approached by Stanley "Stutz" Modzelewski. Stutz, an original New York Knick (1946), tried to stop Bobby, who went one dribble from right-to-left behind-his-back and went full blast, non-stop, to the hoop and laid it up in front of the basket clean.

"I remember it vividly, and the move caused pandemonium in a full Garden (there were 18,341 spectators, a record). Everybody was roaring. I roared, too. I never saw a behind-the-back dribble before."

Levane, who grew up in Brooklyn, where the best basketball was played, thought he had seen everything.

Levane's St. John's team wasn't in the NIT. He was there hanging sports reporters coats and running their copy to the Western Union operators behind the court. Levane remembers receiving $5.00 per night for his chores.

But he had the time to enjoy the games and see Davies' first ever behind-the-back dribble. Clair Bee, the coach of LIU, which won the NIT in 1939, also saw Davies' behind-the-back move. Bee was sitting with his guards, Ossie Shechtman and Sol "Butch" Schwartz.

Bee asked the pair, "which one of you guys will take him?" Then Bee supplied his own answer, "Butch, you'll take him, you're taller (by an inch, 6-2 to 6-1)."

The Basketball Writers luncheon preceding the March 22 match up of Seton Hall and LIU had Bee and John D. "Honey" Russell, the Seton Hall coach, as speakers.

Russell, a native resident of Brooklyn, said he would not employ the same style he used against Rhode Island, because "LIU was different."

Daley reported that "immediately Clair Bee, a quick citizen with a quip," bellowed, "I hope so."

Bee told Daley, when asked about checking Davies, the only solution was "a pair of handcuffs."

Bee found another solution: Tight defense. LIU beat Seton Hall in the semifinal paring, 49-26, with Davies gaining only one field goal and four points. Milton Gross, of the New York Post, a very keen chronicler (he was also a referee), wrote this after the Seton Hall-LIU contest:

"Seton Hall was limited to seven field goals, four in the first half and three in the second. Sol Schwartz who handled the inimitable Bob Davies, found the latter's behind-the-back dribble difficult on two occasions, but Davies, who had tallied 19 points in the first round, was held to one basket from the field. This dogged, furious guarding, it seems to the observer, held the answer. It went down the line."

Sixty years later and living in retirement in Pompano Beach, Fla., Schwartz, 81, remembers the game the same way. "He tried it on me twice," Schwartz recalls, "and both times I took the ball away from him. He scored four points, two fouls and one basket on me."

Just eleven years ago--a year before Davies died at the age of 70 in April, 1990--Davies attended a dinner of old time basketball players in Southern Florida. Davies said, " The game with LIU in the 1941 NIT was the worst game I ever played and that was because Butch Schwartz guarded me so well."

Schwartz said he was amazed with the play Davies made on the behind-the-back dribble against Rhode Island State. "I couldn't believe it," he remarks 60 years later." Schwartz, whose nickname came from his father operating a butcher shop, developed his basketball skills (he was on two LIU NIT winners) on the courts in Lower East Side settlement houses, schoolyards and Seward Park High School, and says he never saw a behind-the-back move until Davies sprung it on Rhode Island State 50 years ago.

The blond-mopped Davies certainly made an impression on coach Bee. In the 50's and 60's, Bee wrote the Chip Hilton series of juvenile fiction. Bee told many people that Bob Davies was the inspiration for Chip Hilton, who was also flaxen-haired and dashing.

After losing to LIU 49-26, Seton Hall met City College of New York in the third-fourth place game. The game matched Davies with the late Red Holzman, the sophomore City College guard, who would eventually be Davies' Rochester teammate, including the 1951 season when the Royals won the NBA crown.

Holzman didn't recall ("how do you expect me to remember a detail of so many years ago, when I can't remember what happen yesterday?") the Seton Hall-Rhode Island State game and Davies' heralded maneuver.

Holzman did recall the City College-Seton Hall game that both he and Davies scored 11 points. The box scores show this is accurate. However, Levane saw this game, too, and says Davies didn't try the innovation this time.

Holzman recalled Les Harrison, the owner-coach of the Royals, discouraging Davies from employing the device with the Royals, whom Davies joined in 1945-46, after Navy Service, for National League play.

Holzman elaborated that at the time in pro basketball "you couldn't get away with this gimmick consistently in pro ball of the period when you were so closely guarded. Bobby would infrequently dribble behind-the-back in the pros. He was a great player (later a Hall of Famer) and didn't have to depend on the behind-the-back dribble."

Levane supports this view. "Bobby very rarely tried the behind-the-back dribble with the Royals," Levane observed. "He did it, but not very often. You just couldn't do it in pro ball in those days. Today you can take steps and double dribble. And the game is all offense," concludes Levane, "with loose guarding."

I talked with Davies in the spring of 1988, a year and a half before he died of cancer. Davies said he practiced the behind-the-back maneuver while in high school in Harrisburg, PA. Davies also recalled seeing a film, "Campus Confessions." Hank Luisetti was in this Paramount film with Betty Grable, Thurston Hall and William Henry. The director was George Archinbaud.

Davies was positive Luisetti dribbled behind-his-back in the film, but insisted he brought the behind-the-back to college competition in the 1941 NIT test with Rhode Island.

However, there are some indications he might have tested the ploy a few times in games on his home court at Seton Hall in South Orange, N.J., but New York was so provincial in 1941 that South Orange might as well have been in Utah.

Addendum

It is sometimes written that Bob Cousy was the first behind-the-back dribble magician. This isn't the case and Cousy has never made the claim--quite the opposite.

Cousy was thirteen when Davies played against Rhode Island State in the 1941 NIT. He doesn't recall any memory or influence, but credits Davies with first doing it.

Dave Anderson, also a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, saw Cousy perform his first behind-the-back dribble in 1948. Anderson recalls, "It was against Loyola of Chicago in the Boston Garden. It was a last second shot, where Cousy dribbled right, left-handed the ball off the dribble, let go a hook shot and won the game."

In a history of the "first CIAA Championship," written by John McLendon, credit for introducing the maneuver of the country's oldest black college athletic conference is given to Jim Dilworth in 1946.

Dilworth, a resident of Queens, New York, told Newsday reporter Leon Carter in 1989 that he was in junior high school in 1941 when he saw Davies perform the initial maneuver in the first NIT Game of that tournament. That was his inspiration and it took him a few years to perfect the move.





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