'66-67 Knights still hold court

In February 1967, City finished its second straight 20-0 season. For the players and their coach, the memories haven't faded.

February 28, 2007|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

They met outside their alma mater, five aging men braced against the wintry cold but eager to bask in the glow of the past.

The point guard hugged the center. The forwards locked arms. And all embraced the hard-nosed coach who, 40 years ago, led City College to an undefeated season.

Never mind that the tiny gym where they once played has been replaced.

"I can still smell the old gym," said Leonard Hamm, captain of City's basketball team in 1966-67. "It's a smell of sweat, a good smell - the smell of success."

City's dominance in that era is legend: back-to-back 20-0 seasons and Maryland Scholastic Association championships. The team did not lose a game from December 1965 through February 1967, a period during which America had seven manned space flights, the Beatles had nine chart hits and Frank Robinson went from baseball discard to American League Most Valuable Player.

Last week, four star players from the '67 champs - a tad slower, wider and all pushing 60 - huddled with coach Jerry Phipps, 77, on campus for an anniversary photograph.

Four decades ago, the starting five of Hamm, Sam Brown, Chucky Blue, Gerry Owens and Marvin Bass made history. The first all-African-American starting team in City annals, they epitomized the school's nickname, the Black Knights. Phipps was their White Shadow.

It was a match made, if not in heaven, then in the confines of City's bantam-sized gym. There, on the dark oaken floor, the coach shaped a team that lit up the town.

Public schools and parochials - City torched them all that season, winning its first 18 games by an average margin of 25 points. Then the Knights swept Mount St. Joseph in a best-of-three series for the MSA title. Those games, played in what was then called the Baltimore Civic Center (now 1st Mariner Arena), were broadcast live on WBAL-TV and WFBR radio.

On Feb. 27, 1967, City swamped Mount St. Joseph, 65-44, for its 40th consecutive victory and the city championship. The jubilant Knights threw their coach into the shower, after which a sodden Phipps told reporters what they already knew:

"We haven't been really tested in some time."

Forty years later, the players wonder how long they would have kept winning had that club remained intact.

"We didn't bludgeon teams, we dissected them with a surgical precision," said Hamm, now Baltimore police commissioner.

Said Phipps: "That team won with grace. And they would have lost with dignity - had they ever lost."

How'd they do it? City had no player taller than 6 feet 2. Other schools had guards who towered over Brown, the Knights' gangly 6-1 center.

But City's stamina, sure-handedness and savvy were second to none, a product of grueling practices. Even now, players flinch recalling the merciless drills of their day.

"What did we learn? Life lessons. Teamwork. Trust," Blue said.

"All the while, we were cussing [the coach] under our breath."

Swear aloud and you paid dearly.

"Once, Bobby Price said a cuss word in practice," Brown said. "Phipps ran him so hard that when Bobby got home that day, he was still sweating."

Surviving City's workouts was a feat itself.

"Our practices were magnificently brutal," Hamm said. Afterward, players would trudge to a sub shop on Kirk Avenue, sip sodas, compare skinned knees and burned thighs and sneak a smoke.

"Of course [Phipps] knew that we liked cigarettes," Brown said. "He would run that out of us at practice, too."

The Knights were the most fit team around.

"One time, against Towson Catholic, we had five consecutive five-on-none fast-break layups," Hamm said. "We'd get a rebound, kick the ball outside like we were the old Boston Celtics, fill the lanes and run."

`Men against boys'

Stop City? Forest Park tried and lost, 96-48. Patterson High scored the game's first bucket, then succumbed, 84-36.

"City vs. anybody was like men against boys," said Jean Fugett, a basketball star at Cardinal Gibbons before he played for the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins in the NFL. "There was a mystique about City, like they were better than the rest of us.

"We Catholic schools thought we were pretty good, but we couldn't match their firepower."

One team came close. Loyola led visiting City most of the game before losing, 77-72.

"I can still see all those priests in the stands and hear [Loyola's] bass drum banging," Blue said.

At halftime, City sought to ice Loyola's Tim Nordbrook, switching defenders on the Dons' top scorer, who blistered the Knights for 31 points.

"Nordbrook [who later played for the Orioles] had been lighting up Lenny Hamm, going behind his back and between his legs and making the ball sing," Blue said. "So we put Marvin [Bass] on him. Now, Marvin couldn't throw the ball in the ocean if he was standing on the beach, but he was our best defender."

City clawed back.

The turning point, Blue said, was when a Loyola player slipped and fell in the path of Hamm, who was driving to the basket.

"Lenny stepped on the guy's chest and made the layup," Blue said. "Things got quiet. It was all over then."

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