What City College of New York (CCNY) accomplished on the basketball court during the 1949-1950 season had never happened before and will most likely never happen again. They did it representing the nation’s largest city, with cagers who learned their craft on the playgrounds of New York and a racial make-up that reflected that city. They were the first NCAA Champion to have an African-American starter, and they didn’t have just one, but two, Ed Warner and Floyd Layne.
The Head Coach was Nat Holman, his assistant, Bobby Sand. Sand was responsible for recruiting the team, which consisted exclusively of residents of “The Big Apple”. The starting guards were Alvin Roth (Erasmus High School) and Floyd Layne (Benjamin Franklin HS), forwards Irwin Dambrot (William Taft HS) and Ed Warner (DeWitt Clinton HS) and the center was Ed Roman (also of William Taft HS). The top reserves were Norm Mager (Lafayette HS) and Herb Cohen (Erasmus HS). The 6’5” Mager grew up in Brooklyn, as did the 6’4’ Roth, the 6’1’’ Cohen and 6’3’’ Layne. The 6’4’’ Dambrot was from the Bronx, as was the 6’4’’ Warner and the 6’6’’ Roman.
Norm Mager spoke of the chemistry on the team years later, “We had a good group of guys that just meshed. We weren’t the biggest team, but we were a smart club that had a cross section of all the qualities you would want in a ballplayer. Speed, jumping, moving without the ball, shooting. We were truly a team.”
The season started with five straight easy victories. Over the Christmas Holiday at Madison Square Garden came their first real test. In an eight-day period CCNY hosted Oklahoma, California and UCLA at the Garden. They beat Cal, but fell to both the Sooners and the Bruins. They then ran off seven consecutive wins, including a 54-52 thriller over then #1 St. John’s. They only won four of their last seven games to end the regular season, falling out of the top 20.
CCNY entered the NIT with a record of 17-5, 6-0 in the Metropolitan New York Conference. They were the 11th out of the 12 teams selected. Despite the impressive record the Beavers were not in the top twenty of the final Associated Press (AP) poll. The Beavers had only faced two teams who were in that poll. They had beaten their Madison Square Garden partner, St. John’s, during the conference season 54-52, knocking the Redmen out of the top spot in the poll (they would end the season ranked #9), and they lost at the Garden to #7 UCLA and John Wooden in December, 60-53. At the end of the season, St. John’s chose to participate in the NIT, while UCLA decided on the NCAA. Both tournaments were scheduled for Madison Square Garden, the NIT from March 11-18 and the NCAA from March 23-28.
Eight of the top twenty teams joined the Beavers in the 12-team NIT. CCNY opened with a surprisingly easy 65-46 win over #12 San Francisco. This set up a showdown with #3 ranked Kentucky. Kentucky coach Adoph Rupp made some nasty comments about CCNY before the game. Holman tried to calm the bad feelings, insisting his young men shake hands with the Kentucky’s starters. Rupp’s boys refused the gesture. Holman’s players responded by handing the Wildcats their worst loss in school history, routing them 89-50.
In the Semifinals was #6 Duquesne, and though it was closer than their first two, CCNY won by a convincing 62-52 score. That set up a showdown with #1 Bradley in the Final. 14 minutes into the game the Beavers trailed 29-18. That’s when Holman inserted Mager, who sparked CCNY back into the game. They were only down 30-27 at the half and they broke open a close game late pulling away to capture the title with a 69-61 win. That win earned CCNY an invitation to the NCAA tournament starting five days later.
It was not unusual at the time for schools to participate in both events. As long as the tournament did not over lap and the venue was the same for both events. The most significant example was 1944 just six years prior. Then it was the University of Utah. The Utes accepted a bid to the NIT Tournament only to be bounced by Kentucky in the first round, then get an unexpected bid to the NCAA when Arkansas was forced to withdraw from the Tournament. (This was due to an automobile accident that killed an assistant coach and seriously injured two players on their way to the West Regional in Kansas City.) With a second chance Utah went on to win the NCAA Tournament and then beat the NIT Champion, St. John’s, in the second of three yearly Red Cross Games between the champions of the NIT and NCAA Tournaments at Madison Square Garden.
In the early years of collegiate basketball it was not clear which of the two postseason tournaments had the better field. Only eight teams were invited to the “Big Dance”, but they included #2 Ohio State, #4 Holy Cross, #5 North Carolina St., #7 UCLA along with the NIT runner-up and #1 ranked Bradley Braves. Bradley and CCNY were the only two who participated in both tournaments.
CCNY opened against Ohio State, and survived a back and forth contest when on Roth’s two late free throws, 56-55. Next up was North Carolina State in the Regional Finals. In another tough battle, CCNY survived, 78-73.
Waiting for the Beavers in the Tournament Final was a rematch with none other than #1 ranked Bradley. Dambrot tallied 15 points, but it was another Mager basket late that put CCNY ahead for the last time. Bradley’s final attempt to tie the game was thwarted when Dambrot blocked their final shot, and the CCNY Beavers assured their unprecedented second championship with their 71-68 triumph.
Dambrot was voted Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the NCAA Tournament, and CCNY prepared to defend their championships in 1951. It didn’t happen.
Of course the CNNY isn’t in the history books for this win. It’s for their involvement in the point shaving scandal that broke in January of 1951 and nearly wrecked college basketball. Manhattan College, New York University (NYU), Long Island University, Bradley, Toledo, and Kentucky were six of the 7 schools involved. The three New York schools never recovered, Bradley and Toledo have not been a national power since. Only Kentucky continued to thrive, but not without far reaching affects. Kentucky chose to cancel their 1952-1953 season as a result of the scandal. Head Coach Rupp would refuse to enter the NCAA Tournament in 1954 even though they finished the regular season with a 25-0, the only undefeated season in Kentucky Basketball history.
In all, 32 players were implicated including seven from the seventh school involved, the defending NCAA and NIT Champion City College of New York Beavers.
On February 15, 1951 New York District Attorney Frank Hogan arrested Ed Warner, Ed Roman, and Al Roth for point shaving. Later Dambrot, Mager, Layne and Cohen were also arrested. The penalties were not severe, but the episode did destroy the CCNY basketball program. CCNY was permanently banned from playing in Madison Square Garden. The players involved were permanently banned from participating in college sports. The NBA followed suit and gave a lifetime bans to all players involved.
Warner was the only one to serve jail time (6 months) and was permanently banned from playing in the NBA, but the others did not get off without consequences. Roth was also given a 6 month sentence, but it was suspended if he agreed to join the U.S. Military. He enlisted in the Army. Roman, Cohen, Dambrot, Mager, and Layne were given suspended sentences, but their basketball careers were over, and their reputations permanently ruined.
According to an article written by the New York Times on March 20, 1996, “the CCNY players who were convicted had accepted bribes from gamblers not to throw games, but to keep them under the point spreads. The players received just a few thousand dollars for their efforts, which took place during the season, but not during tournament games.”
All seven earned degrees following their punishments. 6 of the seven lived long and productive lives. Only Warner never made good. After serving his six month sentence at Rikers Island he struggled to get his life back. He was sent back to prison in the 1960s for selling heroin. After his release, he was partially paralyzed in an automobile accident. He passed away in 2002. They are all gone now, and history has not been kind to them. Whether that is still justified is an open question.
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