1952-53 St. John’s Boys’ Varsity Basketball team was trying to make a name, learn how to win, find practice space, and get used to a brand new coach in his first stint out of college.
In the previous year the 1951-52 team had won their final game by defeating St. Thomas, the 1952 Catholic State Champions. Without a conference to compete in, the SJS ’52ers still were legendary. Rumor had it that Bob Coleman, the coach of the 20-2 team of 1951-52, tried to get games with some of the best 4A teams in the state and the Alabama-Coushatta Indian School. All teams turned him down except St. Thomas.
In the early morning hours of the day they played St. Thomas, Coach Coleman could not sleep. He drove over to school only to find two varsity players (Keene Ferguson ’52 and Fallon Gordon ’54) shooting baskets at 2:00 a.m. in the Parish Hall gym. He was furious, but despite the lack of sleep, the St. John’s bunch prevailed in overtime.
With the senior starting class of Keene Ferguson’52, George Bolin ’52, Chapin Burks ’52, Jack Cogan ’52 and Henry Clay Adams Jr. ’52 leaving a lasting impression on how a team should look-- a big man in the middle, speedy guards, and tough rebounders--the next team to take the floor of Parrish Hall had a gym rat in Gordon and two subs from the previous season (Carl Vogt ’54, and Fisher Reynolds ’54). Their new big man on campus, Henry Gissel ’54, had transferred from San Jacinto High School, but sprained his ankle before the football season started and was an untested athlete. Coach Coleman moved on with the class of ’52 and St. John’s hired a new coach out of the University of Minnesota to take over the reins.
There were a lot of question marks, but like the class of ’52, most of the players on the team also played football, and were athletic enough to fill the void, at least on paper. Gordon, described by many as one of the best athletes in St. John’s sports history, was captain of the football and basketball teams that year and was a shoe-in starter. Returning lettermen, Vogt and Reynolds, were slotted into the rebounding duties and forward play, and 6’ 5” Gissel healed up to be the big man in the paint. The supporting cast of Jim Greenwood ’54, Eugene Jackson ’53, Don Ruthven ’54, Joe Mayhew ’54, Bob Harris '54, Bill Bagby ’54, and Al Smith ’53, rounded out the squad, which as its predecessors had, filled the gym on Friday nights.
Coach Ken McGonagle, a three-sport letterman fresh out of University of Minnesota, led the charge along with assistant coach Mr. Robin Rogers.
“I was twenty-two years old at that time so I was not much older than the players I was coaching, but they were a great group of young men to work with,” said McGonagle. “I felt totally accepted by them. The first obstacle I encountered at St. John's was the fact that there was only one small gym in those days. The girls' basketball team practiced on one half of the court and the boys' team had only the other half for practices. I soon could see that this was totally unacceptable and, after the team had lost two games, I asked to meet with Phil Richards, the girls' basketball coach and Athletic Director, to try to work out a better arrangement. We agreed to delay the boys' practice until after the girls had completed their practice so each team would be able to hold full-court practices. We consequently won ten games in a row and the team really jelled.”
“He knew what he was doing,” said Greenwood, recalling the season.
Prior to a 10 game torrid run, St. John’s lost the first two games to the Pearland Oilers and Orchard. On December 16th, 1952, in the third game of the season, St. John’s traveled to Pearland for their second match up. Down by a score of 23-18, St. John’s fought back using a zone defense and accurate shooting which included the tying bucket by Ruthven with five seconds remaining. Gordon and Gissel each scored in the overtime for a one-point victory. That win officially started the streak that continued with victories over Tidehaven, Sugar Land, Cypress-Fairbanks, St. Mark’s of Dallas, Friendswood, Kinkaid, Lutheran, Sugar Land, and Concordia.
Between the Cy-Fair and the St. Mark’s victories, McGonagle’s first child, Timothy Kenneth, was born.
“A very satisfying weekend for a proud, young coach,” said McGonagle. “It was Ellis Chidsey, wife of Headmaster Alan Lake Chidsey, who waited with me while my son was being born. Both of the Chidseys epitomized the wonderful feeling of the ‘faculty family’ that was part of the St. John's tradition at that time. Most of the faculty attended all of the athletic events, plays and musicals plus the weekly teas that were held at the school. It was a wonderful place to start my career in teaching and coaching.”
Lutheran, whom St. John’s had defeated by 12 in their first match up, ended the streak when they defeated the boys in scarlet and black with a 52-50 overtime win. The eventual third game between the rivals would be for the championship.
Even though the St. John’s squad now had a full court to practice their transition offense and defense, the chemistry of the team began to develop inside the paint. At 6’5”, Gissel was the building block.
“Coach McGonagle taught me how to move inside,” said Gissel. “I developed a hook shot, fakes and more.”
As the season went on Gissel was averaging double digits in scoring per game, in part due to the unselfish guard play. When he was doubled down he would pass the ball back out to open shooters, and when he missed he converted second chances off the boards. Defensively, St. John’s relied on Gissel’s reach to block shots and start the break going the other way.
“Gissel controlled the boards and gave us a height advantage over many of our opponents,” said Greenwood.
St. John’s put the Lutheran loss behind them and began another streak beating St. Mark’s, Friendswood, Kinkaid, and St. Stephen’s before heading to Dallas for the inaugural Association of Texas Private Schools (A.T.P.S.) conference tournament. St. John’s opened up with a 66-39 Friday-night win over Oklahoma City Casady and beat St. Mark’s on Saturday 52-33 for the third time that season. The final match-up pitted the team against Lutheran. St. John’s prevailed 55-48 with what the St. John’s Review noted was “a better balanced team.”
Six of the players from the 1952-53 team were on hand Friday night at the SSAC to watch the 2012-13 St. John’s team play Kinkaid.
The Mavericks prevailed on a packed Liu Court 59-50, using a strategy similar to the one that propelled the ’53 champs: get the ball to the man in the middle. St. John’s latest 6’ 5” player, Justise Winslow ’14, led the Mavericks with 35 points and 17 rebounds, garnering another Chronicle Player of the week nomination.
How did these players from 60 years ago feel watching St. John’s latest basketball champions?
“If life is made of memories I think that we added a special one last Friday evening,” said Vogt. “Standing together at mid court with Fallon, Henry, Fisher, Jim and Joe was a unique moment. You were in our thoughts and we missed you Don, Bob, Gene, Al, Coach McGonagle and of course Bill. Those were important and golden years in our lives and a very special season, and I am glad we didn’t have to play the guys on the court tonight!”
“Amazing,” said Gissel, impressed with the 2013 Mavericks.
And how did it feel for the current team to play in front of the men who began their legacy?
Shooting guard Yusef Chabayta ’13 summed it up: “Cool!”
Sam Chambers - Athletic News