A little more than a year ago, Duquesne University alumnus and season-ticket-holder David Finoli was sitting at a Dukes basketball game. The Dukes were losing when he thought, “I wonder how many people know that Duquesne is the only basketball team in the city to have won a national championship?”
The thing you need to know about Finoli is that when he gets an idea for a book, he writes that book. He has written more than a dozen, mostly about sports, ranging from minor-league baseball in Altoona, and Forbes Field, to Pitt football between 1924 and 1938.
True to form, when Finolo looked up at the 1955 NIT Champions banner at the Palumbo Center, it was the inception of his book Kings of the Bluff: The Next Chapter, which he co-authored with Robert Healy, a visiting assistant professor at Duquesne.
Kings spends most of its narrative with a game-by-game breakdown of Duquesne’s 1955 championship basketball team. The squad was led by Sihugo Green and Dick Ricketts, who according to Finoli are the two greatest players in the history of the program. It also delves into the program-building that led to that championship.
Duquesne began recruiting African-American players in the 1940s, as many, but not all, northern schools did. “Duquesne was aggressively signing African-American players and every year, they would have two or three high-quality players that other people weren’t touching,” Finoli said when he sat down with City Paper recently.
It led to a memorable showdown with the University of Tennessee. Then coached by Chick Davies, the Dukes had African-American small forward Chuck Cooper on the roster. A Pittsburgh native and Westinghouse High School graduate, Cooper would later become one of the greatest players in the history of the program. He led Duquesne to its first national ranking (in 1949-50) and played in the NBA (as the first African-American player ever selected in the NBA draft). But at that moment, in the packed McKeesport High School gym in December 1946, Cooper was the sixth man, not yet vital to the team’s on-court success.
This was the height of Jim Crow and, as Finoli writes, “Tennessee coach John Mauer was demanding the Dukes not play Cooper.” With Cooper on the court warming up, and Tennessee in the locker room because he was on the court warming up, coach Davies and Sammy Weiss, of the Duquesne Athletic Committee, told Tennessee to stick it. Duquesne “won” the game by 2-0 forfeit. As Finoli said, “There was some integrity in what they were doing. There were 2,700 people in there. He blew the gate. Also, they were building a successful program. They were looking for the best.”
Duquesne’s integration led to success on the court.
A few years after the Tennessee incident, coach Davies retired. His replacement, Donald “Dudley” Moore coached the team during its 1955 National Invitational Tournament (NIT) title run. It is important to note the prominence of the NIT at this moment in history. From its creation in 1938 until the mid-’50s, the NIT was a more prestigious event than the now-colossal NCAA tournament. Before television (and before TV became the high-powered engine driving sports viewership), the fact that the NIT was held at Madison Square Garden in New York meant more media coverage and a greater stature. Also, the NCAA tourney invited only conference champions, leaving other quality teams and independent teams (like Duquesne) to play in the NIT. Simply, the NIT was a better show.
The Dukes team was led by Dick Ricketts and Sihugo Green.
Ricketts anchored the team and dominated the paint. He was such a gifted athlete that he went on to play both professional basketball (three years with the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks) and pro baseball (as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals). Green was a guy who played the game above the rim in an era when it was still played below. Finoli describes him as “a SportsCenter highlight.”
They were so good that Duquesne lost only one game all year when the pair were both healthy and on the court. Finoli’s book guides readers through each game of that championship season, providing box scores and context along the way.
Why was Duquesne basketball so important? Why did it catch on more than at any time before or since, beyond the simple fact that everybody loves a winner?
“In the 1950s, the Steelers were embarrassing. The Pirates … it was the worst era … If you look at the worst Pirate teams, a lot of them are from that era. Pitt football was pretty bad,” Finoli says. “So this was the king of sports. The Dukes were, well, they were the shit in the 1950s. When they won the NIT, the airport was crowded with fans. They paraded them back to Downtown. It was a celebratory time. The games were sold out.”