Villanova’s top ranking brings back tough memories for Jewish players who lost to the Wildcats during Penn’s most-winning season decades ago.
College hoops fans in the Delaware Valley are coming together to cheer on Villanova in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The Wildcats, opening against Lafayette on Thursday, have secured the No.1 seed in the East Region — the first team from the area to do so since Villanova last did it in 2006.
But for some fans with long memories, seeing Jay Wright’s team making another “March Madness’’ run stirs memories of the team they beat on their way to playing in the 1971 national championship game. Along the way, they crushed the hopes and hoop dreams of the 1970-71 Penn Quakers, the last team in this city to have a strong Jewish presence.
Those Quakers were 28-0 before inexplicably falling apart, 90-47, against their Big 5 rival, with a spot in the Final Four in Houston on the line. Nevertheless, the Quakers left a proud legacy that’s never come close to being matched at Penn.
Featuring two-and-a-half Jews — guards Steve Bilsky and Dave Wohl (whose father was Jewish) along with reserve Alan Cotler — the team rampaged through the Ivy League and the rest of the schedule into what was then a 25-team NCAA Tournament.
The Quakers were a force to be reckoned with. Coached by Dick Harter, a no-nonsense former Marine officer who would later have success at Oregon and as an NBA assistant coach, the Quakers were a poised, veteran group that made the most of their ability.
“That team had all the ingredients,’’ said the 6-foot-4-inch Cotler, who played sparingly coming off the bench that season, but earned Penn’s Most Improved Player award in 1972 when the Quakers went 25-3 under new coach Chuck Daly.
“It had balance, defense, rebounding and two quick guards who could control the tempo of the game — especially when we got ahead,” said Cotler, now a Center City litigator. “I believe that was the best team ever at Penn.’’
While star forwards Bobby Morse, a lights-out shooter; defensive specialist Corky Calhoun — who played eight years in the NBA — and center Jim Wolf did the work up front, the two guards were the heart of the team. Wohl was more of a scorer, a skill he parlayed into a seven-year NBA playing career, before becoming a coach and later an administrator. He is currently general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. Bilsky, the heady point guard, had the knack of making the clutch play and frustrating opponents with his deadly foul shooting at the end of games.
Together, Bilsky and Wohl formed a formidable duo on a powerhouse team, which survived a few early-season scares to run the table. “Although not all of us were superstar recruits, we were really good basketball players,’’ said Bilsky, a member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, who retired last year after a 20-year run as Penn’s athletic director. “We all bought into a system that required playing smart and disciplined.”
Two years before the fateful NCAAs in 1971, Bilsky and Cotler were all set to compete in another tournament — the 1969 Maccabiah Games in Israel — until they became unwilling pawns in a power struggle.
The NCAA and AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union, then a rival of the NCAA, “were at war with each other,’’ explained Cotler, a native of Flushing, N.Y., who had been recruited to Penn by then-assistant coach Digger Phelps. “The AAU sanctioned the game and the NCAA said if we went, we would lose our amateur status and eligibility.
“We decided not to go,’’ he said simply.
Upon graduation, Bilsky got a second chance. “I played in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv for a year,’’ said Bilsky, who remains active as executive director of the Big 5 in addition to being a part-time scout for Wohl’s Clippers. “That was a great experience from a historical and religious standpoint. To live there during that period — between the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War — was a wonderful cultural experience.’’
One bonus of playing in Israel: No one asked him what went wrong that fateful March 20, 1971 day, in Raleigh, N.C., against Villanova. Penn had advanced by virtue of beating a rugged Duquesne squad in hostile Morgantown, W.V., then triumphed over South Carolina in the second round.
Cotler suggests that the cumulative toll of those games against skilled, physical opponents left them vulnerable against All-American Howard Porter and the Wildcats, whom they’d already beaten.
“That team could’ve won the whole thing, but Villanova happened,’’ said Cotler, who, like Bilsky, says he never encountered any anti-Semitism during his career. “We were a machine, but machines can break down — and we had a complete breakdown.
“Everybody was at their worst for our team and Villanova was at its best. We’d already expended physical and emotional energy getting to that point. Once we fell behind, we didn’t know how to react.’’
“The first half of the game, they looked just as confused as we were,’’ said Bilsky, whose day got worse when the team had to rearrange its travel plans and fly back home on the same plane as Villanova, then saw its bus break down on the ride back to campus. “They didn’t believe it, either.”
Forty-four years later, that pain still lingers. “It’s always there,’’ said Cotler, mindful that Villanova would ultimately make it to the championship game, before falling to UCLA.
“Even when we get together and don’t talk about it, you know it’s there. It becomes part of your DNA.”
Jewish College Hoopsters in History
Here is a by-no-means comprehensive list of some of the other Jewish college basketball players of note over the past 50-plus years:
• In 1957, Lennie Rosenbluth led North Carolina past a Kansas team anchored by a precocious Wilt Chamberlain for the NCAA crown.
• Another UNC alum, Larry Brown, who played for the Tar Heels from 1960 to 1963, has brought his SMU Mustangs into this year’s tournament in just his third season with the team. Brown, a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, is also the only man to ever coach both college and NBA championship teams.
•Duke’s Art Heyman was voted the 1963 Player of the Year.
• Florida’s Neal Walk was the No. 2 pick in the 1969 NBA draft — selected right after Lew Alcindor, who is today better known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
• By the time he graduated in 1977, Ernie Grunfeld was Tennessee’s all-time leading scorer. He went on to have a lengthy NBA career and was the longtime general manager for the New York Knicks before landing his current position as GM of the Washington Wizards.
• Jon Scheyer helped lead Duke to the 2010 NCAA championship over the fan favorite Butler Bulldogs.
• Zack Rosen, who led Penn to its last winning season in 2012, is currently playing for Maccabi Ashdod in Israel’s Winner League, where he recently won the 3-point shootout in the All-Star game for the second straight year.