1942 WVU national title team 'had the heart'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trailing 32-24 at halftime, the Mountaineers roared back to tie the game 40-40 with eight minutes left. Western Kentucky pulled ahead by one point. Only 50 seconds remained.
Deafening noise rattled the rafters at Madison Square Garden. A record capacity throng of 18,250 jumped and clapped and hollered, hearts in their throats.
WVU tied it again on a free throw. With 20 seconds to go, the Mountaineers got the ball back and forced a foul.
A scrappy little Mountaineer named Shorty Hicks stepped up to the foul line. Ten seconds left.
Feverish tension engulfed the storied arena. A national championship, the coveted NIT trophy, rested in the hands of the skinny kid from Moundsville.
Back in Morgantown, at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, Hugh Hicks stared at the radio, straining to hear. Shouting fraternity brothers crowded around him.
It was like that all over town.
"Every radio was covered up with people," Hugh Hicks said. "You couldn't find an unoccupied space anywhere near a radio."
His stomach churned, but he also felt a certain calm. That was his brother at the foul line.
"I wasn't concerned," he said. "Shorty was one of the best foul shot shooters I've ever seen, including a lot of pros. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I knew he would make it."
Shorty Hicks put the Mounties ahead, 46-45.
Before the buzzer, another WVU player hit a foul shot to make the final score 47-45.
Phi Delts stormed out of the frat house. They didn't burn couches back then. Instead, students literally danced in the streets.
"Morgantown and its 3,000 WVU students broke loose with a wild, tumultuous celebration after their team's 47-45 victory over Western Kentucky tonight," The Charleston Gazette reported the following morning.
". . . Thousands of students and townspeople rushed into the streets, singing, shouting and parading. Horns blew and guns were fired as the spontaneous demonstration burst forth seconds after victory was reported."
At 89 years old, Hugh Hicks remembers the scene as if it happened last night. "They were throwing everything and yelling. You would have thought the place had blown up. It was a city that went wild."
On March 25, 1942, WVU's Cinderella team won the National Invitation Tournament title in a three-game series that stunned the sports world. New York sportswriters heaped praise on the upstarts from West Virginia. Glowing accounts of the unbelievable victory appeared in top magazines across the country.
Ranked eighth in an eight-team tournament, the lowly Mountaineers started their storybook run with a shocking upset over top-ranked Long Island in the opening round on St. Patrick's Day. Long Island hadn't lost in 42 games, but they lost to WVU in overtime, 58-49.
"There wasn't any chance they were going to beat Long Island," Hugh Hicks said. "There just wasn't any way."
Pandemonium erupted in Morgantown. Students snaked through the streets until the wee hours. In a telegraph to the coach, loquacious Gov. Matthew M. Neely called the Mountaineers "the real General MacArthurs of the basketball world."
On March 23, the fired-up Mounties rallied in the second half to dispose of Toledo 51-39 and set up the showdown with favored Western Kentucky.
Seventy years later, the sweep to WVU's first national title remains one of the most fabled events in school history.
Before the rise of the NCAA, winning the NIT tournament was as good as it gets, Hugh Hicks said. "The NIT was the big tournament then. If you got invited to play in the NIT, you'd had a really good year."
Remembering Shorty Hicks
Hugh Hicks turns 90 on April 6. He lives in Kanawha City, long retired from his career as a state division manager with Aetna Insurance.
Dozens of mementos, including a 1942 Life magazine spread, keep details about the legendary team forever fresh in his mind.
In his dining room, hanging above his brother's portrait, a plaque commemorates the 2005 induction of Roger "Shorty" Hicks into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame. Family members went to Morgantown for the induction ceremonies.
The year his big brother played in the NIT, Hugh was a 20-year-old sophomore and one of three managers for the basketball team. Expense considerations kept him in Morgantown during the 1942 championship run.
The following year, as a full-fledged junior manager, he finally got to accompany the team to Madison Square Garden, where his brother had made WVU sports history.
The All-American Basketball Board named Shorty Hicks one of the country's 18 greatest college basketball players of the 1941-42 season. He also made the 1942 College All-Star Squad.
"Shorty could have played anywhere," his brother said. "He was a dead-set shooter."
A stellar student, he served as student body president, president of Phi Delta Theta, proctor of Men's Hall and coach of the freshman basketball team. He belonged to Mountain and Sphinx, men's honoraries.
As students together at WVU, Hugh accompanied Shorty to basketball practice. "The coach didn't come until 4, but Shorty and I would go to the Field House about 3:30. He would stand in a spot on the floor and shoot. I would stand under the basket and throw the ball back to him. I've seen him shoot 10 in a row without missing."
For 60 years, Shorty Hicks held the WVU free-throw percentage record, at 88 percent.
"Nobody from this team is still living," Hicks said. "Let me tell you about them."
Not many men
With so many young men off to fight in World War II, Coach R.A. "Dyke" Raese barely had enough players. Five regulars and three subs made up the team. "He took an extra sub to New York," Hicks said, "but Neil Montone wasn't even on the team.
"Montone was on the football team and had played some high school basketball. Raese took him to New York because he wanted someone with height to go in for a couple of minutes when a player needed to rest."
Practicing at the Field House with only three substitutes, Coach Raese had a tough time putting an opposing team on the floor for scrimmage, Hugh Hicks said. "The coach and I would play to make it five."
Besides Shorty Hicks, other starters were Rudy Baric, the captain; Lou Kalmar, Dick Kesling and Floyd "Scotty" Hamilton. Walter "Lefty" Rollins, Don Raese (nephew of the coach) and George Ricky backed them up.
Financial aid back then went to the football team. None of the basketball players had scholarships. They played because they wanted to.
According to their coach, that's why they won the tournament. "Those boys had the heart," Dyke Raese told a writer at the time. "Every boy on the team played his heart out. Yes, sir. That's what won it -- heart."
With only one 6-foot-3 player, they were a small bunch by today's standards. They made it up in grit.
"Our boys just out-gutted all of them," said then-WVU Athletic Director Roy Hawley. "I've never seen a team put forth such great effort against such great odds."
Meet the players
Scotty Hamilton, a junior guard from Grafton, was WVU's first basketball All-American. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he was consistently referred to as "roly-poly." Raese called him "the best fast-break middleman I'd ever seen."
"Scotty was a good friend of mine," Hicks said. "After basketball practice, we would go upstairs to the wrestling mats and wrestle for 15 or 20 minutes.
"He was a heavy guy. During the games, he would get worn out because he was out of shape. He'd call a time out, and I would go out and take him a bucket of water and a towel."
Baric, a center from Brentwood, led the team in scoring. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, he was the tallest on the team. Raese called him "a fabulous pivot man."
"When Coach Raese entered the military in 1943, Baric filled in as coach," Hicks said. "He was a big fellow and very quiet. There was no pizzazz about him. But he won many a game on his ability to rebound the ball."
Kesling, a forward from Clarksburg, was a wiry 165 pounds and could leap like nobody's business. He was a prime target for Hamilton under the basket.
"He was our high point man and the quietest one," Hicks said. "You never knew he was around except to watch him play basketball."
Kalmar, an Osage native, was a 5-11 guard who excelled in rebounding and defense. "He was the same way -- quiet as a mouse, but a great athlete," Hicks said. "He ended up in the banking business in North Carolina."
WVU took a 16-4 record to the tournament. At 24-2, Long Island was considered the best team in the nation. Coached by Grafton native Clair Bee, Long Island had won NIT championships in 1939 and 1941.
"When WVU got invited to the NIT as the eighth team, they had the least possible chance to win," Hicks said.
But that was on paper.
At halftime, Long Island had the Mountaineers by seven points. Hicks wasn't worried. "You didn't know these guys," he said. "They weren't going to give up."
With 10 minutes left and down by nine, WVU stormed to a tie at the buzzer. In overtime, Kesling hit for seven straight points. Walter Rollins scored four and Hicks scored two. Mighty Long Island had fallen. A writer for the New York Herald Tribune dubbed it "the upset to end all upsets."
Six nights later, the Mounties surprised Toledo (22-3) to earn a shot at the title.
In the final game, after Hicks hit the free throw that gave WVU the lead, Western Kentucky still had a chance. But Baric intercepted a pass and got the ball to Hamilton.
Hamilton "put on a dribbling exhibition," according to newspaper accounts, then drew a foul as the game ended. "West Virginians there went ecstatically crazy."
Beyond the glory
The following day, Hicks cheered as his brother rode by on the back of a convertible during a big parade along High Street in Morgantown. "It was really loud," he said. "Everybody was yelling and calling out to the players."
In a telegram delivered to Coach Raese the previous evening, Gov. Neely said: "In my opinion, no other athletic team in the history of the nation ever in a similar length of time earned greater renown for its alma mater than yours has earned for West Virginia in the series of thrilling battles gloriously completed in Madison Square Garden tonight.
"That success as surpassing as that which you now enjoy may attend all of you to the end of your days is my sincere hope and earnest prayer."
Sadly, with America's entry into World War II on the horizon, several players didn't live longer than a couple of years beyond their glorious victory.
Two years after his game-winning foul shot, Shorty Hicks died in action in France as a lieutenant in Gen. George Patton's Third Army. A member of the ROTC at WVU for four years, he was serving as an instructor at Fort Benning, Ga., when he volunteered for combat.
"He didn't have to go," his brother said quietly.
George Rickey died fighting in North Africa. Don Raese, an Air Force pilot, was killed on a training mission shortly after the war.
Of the others, Kesling retired as a personnel director for Owens-Illinois in Fairmont. Hamilton was a high school and college coach and served as athletic director at Marietta College. Rollins was a funeral director in his hometown, Ceredo-Kenova.
Wounded in France, Baric ended up coaching and teaching in New Jersey. Kalmar, a Navy officer, earned a Silver Star for bravery during the Normandy invasion. He went on to an executive position in an Atlanta-based canning company. The last surviving member of the 1942 team, he died in 2002.
A week after the championship game, Dyke Raese reported for naval duty and worked with the Navy basketball program. Father of Morgantown businessman and gubernatorial candidate John Raese, he joined Greer Industries, a steel, limestone and media conglomerate started by his wife's family. He died in 2000, at 91.
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.