Memphis versus Bradley: It was this same matchup in the finals of the NIT in old Madison Square Garden that first made this city Tiger basketball crazy. So crazy, in fact, that even though the Tigers lost to Bradley, 84-83, in the NIT championship, WREG-TV stayed on the air past the then-normal off-the-air time of midnight in order to televise the arrival of the team at the old Memphis terminal.
Fans today have a hard time understanding just how important the NIT was in those days when the NIT and NCAA were viewed as equals. (In the 1957 NIT, NBA Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor were early round departees.)
Memphis State had had a successful season, even getting voted into the AP Top 10 a couple of times, but as I recall it, the Tigers closed the season losing to Centenary in Shreveport on a Saturday night. The team had been "on the bubble" for the NCAA; now it seemed that bubble might burst. I was then the school's first sports information director. I got a long-distance call Sunday morning from Coach Bob Vanatta informing me he had sent a Western Union telegram to the NIT selection committee, signing my name to it, informing them I had inside information the NCAA would be offering the Tigers a bid at noon Monday. Coach V was putting pressure on the NIT to get their invite in ahead of the NCAA's.
It worked. A couple hours later, the invite came, and Dr. C.C. Humphreys, then athletic director, accepted. Most people expected Memphis State to serve as cannon fodder to Utah, their first-round opponent on Saturday. But the Tigers, without a player over 6'5", won 77-75.
On Monday night, the Tigers played the local favorites, Manhattan. Again they were underdogs, and again Memphis won, and it was on to Thursday night's semifinal against St. Bonaventure.
By now, Tiger fever had swept Memphis. Chartered buses rushed to Gotham. Some 200 cheering fans arrived at the Garden only minutes before tip-off. Memphis State won in overtime to advance to the finals against Bradley. Mayor Edmund Orgill led an entourage of Memphis dignitaries to the finals. By now, the Tigers were the talk of New York City. A Cinderella team. UPI assigned two photographers to follow us everywhere we went.
Bradley, with All-Americans Barney Cable and Bobby Joe Mason (later to become a Harlem Globetrotter), jumped out to a huge lead in the first half, and it looked like Cinderella's bubble had popped. But Vanatta told the team that the game would be determined by the first five minutes of the second half. The Tigers came out of the locker room fired up and went on a 16-0 run that gave them a one-point lead. It stayed close to the very end. It was the closing moments that created most of the controversy.
Memphis grabbed a defensive rebound and freshman forward Orby Arnold broke free near half-court. He got a long pass and seemed headed for a sure two points, but the Bradley defender body-blocked Orby to the ground. No foul was called, and Bradley was given the ball on a traveling call. Then, inside a minute to play, as Cable drove for a layup, Jake Butcher ever so slightly touched Cable's wrist while he was shooting. Cable sank two free throws to move Bradley ahead 84-83.
Memphis' final chance came on a long jump shot from Bob Swander. I was sitting on the bench, and I could see almost immediately his shot was off slightly to the left.
Bradley won, 84-83. The Tigers' Win Wilfong was voted NIT's MVP. As we left the dressing room, one of the referees from the Tigers-St. Bonnie game came up to me and said, "The referees screwed you guys." This, from a referee!
That night, a generous Tiger fan took the whole team to Mama Leone's for dinner.
The arrival home on Sunday night (actually, Monday morning) was at that point the biggest moment in Memphis sports history. The following week, Time magazine actually editorialized about the way the officials had stolen the game from Memphis State.
So -- at least for those of us who were around in 1957 -- Thursday night's Sweet 16 game between Memphis and Bradley offers a long-overdue chance at payback. Go, Tigers!