Bradley carrying past on its back

Oakland Regional

March 23, 2006|By CHRIS DUFRESNE | CHRIS DUFRESNE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OAKLAND, Calif. -- More important than, "Will it play in Peoria?" as it pertains to Bradley basketball is the question: Will it play in Indianapolis? A half-century has expired since the Peoria-based Braves ventured this deep into the NCAA tournament. Two more wins and Bradley is in the Final Four.

It's been so long you could forget Chet "The Jet" Walker starred at Bradley, Hersey Hawkins won a scoring title there, the Braves raised four National Invitation Tournament championship banners and twice finished second in the NCAA tournament.

Famed play-by-play announcers once fought for elbow room on Bradley's press row: Jack Brickhouse, Bill King, Tom Kelly, Ralph Lawler.

Before he came west, Francis "Chick" Hearn worked Bradley games: "Smith does the bunny-hop in the Peoria pea patch!" But that was a drive-in movie ago.

Not even current Bradley players remember it.

Daniel Ruffin, a Peoria-raised sophomore guard on this year's team, said yesterday he never attended a Bradley game until the school recruited him.

That Bradley would reappear now as the lowest-rated team left in this year's NCAA tournament after finishing fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference, only to knock off Kansas and Pittsburgh, makes it the best NCAA story this side of George Mason.

Tonight at Oakland Arena, 13th-seeded Bradley faces top-drawer Memphis in a regional semifinal.

The origin of "Will it play in Peoria?" are not entirely clear - some attribute it to a Groucho Marx vaudeville-act utterance - but it evolved to evoke America's middle-ground sensibilities.

If it was good enough for Peoria - 154 miles from Chicago and 165 from St. Louis - it was good enough for everyone.

In 1950, Bradley lost both the NIT and NCAA championships to City College of New York. The NCAA defeat still irks some Bradley followers, who believe their man, Gene Melchiorre, was fouled on a drive to the basket late in the game and Bradley down by one. Both CCNY victories were later sullied by a point-shaving scandal that effectively took the school out of the basketball business.

Bradley returned to the 1954 NCAA final (defeating Southern California in the semis, 74-72), but was no match for a La Salle team led by 6-foot-7 Tom Gola, who scored 19 points in a 92-76 win.

Bradley won two tournament games in 1955, but had only managed one other NCAA victory until posting last weekend's double.

It appears a team America can wrap its arms around.

Seven-foot center Patrick O'Bryant, who scored 28 points in the Braves' upset of Pittsburgh, is a budding chef, interning last summer at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Peoria.

He's become a teammate's dream.

"I just made a cheesecake one day and everybody heard about it so they asked for some," O'Bryant said.

Chris Dufresne writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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