John Baum remembers seeing people from Florida with packed bags for an extended stay in New York at the 1969 National Invitation Tournament.
Baum was the captain of Temple, considered an afterthought in the 16-team field. Florida, with center Neal Walk, was the Owls' first-round opponent at Madison Square Garden.
“I remember seeing people from Florida checking their bags at the hotel, and they looked like they were ready to stay for two weeks,” Baum said earlier this week. “When we won, we saw them checking out.”
Baum also remembers a comment from a Florida fan after Temple’s 82-66 win over the Gators.
“After the game, I was told, ‘Don’t go to Gainesville soon, because you won’t be liked very much there,' ” Baum said, laughing at the thought.
After Temple’s magical run that March, the Owls wouldn’t have been liked in Jersey City; Knoxville, Tenn.; or Chestnut Hill, Mass., either.
After the win over Florida, the Owls beat St. Peter’s, 94-78; Tennessee, 63-58; and then Boston College for the championship, 89-76, the final college game for BC coach Bob Cousy, the NBA Hall of Famer.
This is the 50th anniversary of Temple’s 1969 NIT championship, and the team will be honored Saturday during the Owls’ Big 5 game against Penn at the Liacouras Center.
Temple, which went 22-8 that season, lost its chance to earn an NCAA bid when St. Joseph’s scored a 68-67 upset of the Owls in overtime in the Middle Atlantic Conference title game, giving the berth to the Hawks. That came after the Owls had beaten St. Joseph’s, 79-59, in the regular season.
After the loss, Baum and his senior teammates thought their college careers were over. Unlike today, when there is a selection Sunday for the NIT, Temple wasn’t informed that it had earned a berth until four days later. Back then, the NIT announced a few teams each day, and Temple was the last one announced.
“I really believed my college career was over,” said Joe Cromer, a former South Jersey standout at Sterling who averaged 19 points in the four NIT wins and 15.7 for the season. “My best memory of that year was being told we were in the NIT.”
The Owls were expected to have a quick exit, opening against Florida and Walk, who became the second player selected in the 1969 NBA draft. The first was the legendary Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Walk did his part, scoring 26 points and adding 17 rebounds, but Temple center Eddie Mast had 20 points and nine rebounds.
“Over about the last six games of the season, Eddie was unbelievable,” Cromer said.
In the second-round win over St. Peter’s, Baum had 31 points and 23 rebounds and Cromer added 23 points. The 6-foot-5 Baum was especially motivated to face St. Peter’s Elnardo Webster, who the year before in the NIT scored 51 points in a 102-93, double-overtime win over Marshall.
“All the talk before our game was how Elnardo Webster was going to shut down John Baum,” Baum said. “I was thinking about that and didn’t sleep well the night before the game.”
He slept well after, especially since the 6-5 Webster shot just 4-for-15 in scoring 14 points.
The closest game was the five-point win over Tennessee, when Temple used just five players.
According to Baum, Temple coach Harry Litwack told the players they had to stay in the game and couldn’t foul. Temple committed just seven fouls the entire game.
Mast had 24 points and 12 rebounds. Cromer added 15 points, and Baum had 11 points and 10 rebounds. The other two starters were point guard Tony Brocchi, who had nine points and seven assists, and backcourt mate Billy Strunk, who had five points, five rebounds, and four assists.
“Eddie Mast played the game of his life, and I believe from that game, he got drafted by the New York Knicks,” Baum said. The 6-10 Mast was selected by the Knicks in the third round and played three NBA seasons. He died in 1994.
In the championship game, Baum put the Owls in front for good with a 10-foot bank shot with 6 minutes, 36 seconds left. Temple dominated from there.
The game wasn’t without controversy. Baum, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds in the final, shooting 10-for-17 from the field, was not named MVP of the tournament. That award went to BC’s Terry Driscoll.
“I was shocked I didn’t get MVP,” Baum said. “The headline in a New York paper the next day called it “The Great Train Robbery.”
Driscoll averaged 24 points and 14 rebounds in the four NIT games. Baum averaged 21 points and 13.5 rebounds, but in the final game, it was no contest. The 6-7 Driscoll, who was the fourth player selected in the 1969 NBA draft, by Detroit, had 18 points and 16 rebounds in the final but shot just 6-for-19 from the field.
Word was that the MVP voting occurred with eight minutes left in the game, and at that point, the outcome was still in doubt. “I don’t buy that,” Cromer said. “John dominated the whole game.”
Baum, the current radio analyst for Temple basketball, went on to play two seasons in the NBA and another three in the ABA, but the NIT championship remains among his biggest thrills. He says the 1969 Temple team tries to get together about once a year.