The volume level dropped as Lou Rossini walked into the Lou Gehrig Lounge on Saturday evening. His former players and their families got a little quieter. Over the softer murmurs, Frank Lewis CC '51 called to his coach, "Hey Lou, how many teams can have a 50th anniversary and have their coach show up?"
Columbia honored the 1950-51 basketball team at halftime during Saturday's 65-55 triumph over Harvard. The 1950-51 Lions went 21-0 in the regular season and won the Eastern League (the precursor to the Ivy League, which included all of the current Ivy teams except Brown). That team went to the NCAA tournament, losing to University of Illinois in its only defeat of the year.
The season proved the team's resilience, as it bounced back after losing its coach before the start of the regular season.
Gordon Ridings suffered a heart attack before the season started. His replacement, freshmen coach Lou Rossini, was already well-liked by the players, and the transition was seamless.
Ridings would have worn a smile as wide the Atlantic Ocean had he been in Levien Gym on Saturday night. Not only was his team honored, but the defensive effort of the 2000-01 Columbia team would have called to mind the 1950-51 squad.
Ridings was remembered as one of the first great teachers of defensive basketball, with the story that Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics often came to Morningside Heights to learn how to coach defense. Rossini gave most of the credit for the season to Ridings at a reception before the game on Saturday night.
"It was a Gordon Ridings team," Lou Rossini said.
In fact, great defensive play preserved the perfect season.
In the season's closest games, Columbia was down late to Princeton when Bobby Sullivan, a senior guard, called an illegal timeout. Columbia was assessed a technical foul, but Princeton missed its free throws. And after a legal timeout, Sullivan stole Princeton's inbounds pass and scored the decisive lay-up.
Rossini remembered that timeout, and how he told Sullivan to play defense so as not to foul and get into position to steal the inbound pass.
"After that, I knew no one was going to stop us," Lewis said.
And no one in the Eastern League did. Columbia breezed through most games that year.
"The first team complained a lot that we came out too early," starting forward Bob Reiss CC '52 said.
The team was also special for its cohesiveness and for what it did for the school, both then and now as a model for the basketball team.
Lewis probably best expressed the feeling of the night.
"There are a lot of great memories," he said.
Current men's basketball Head Coach Armond Hill marveled at the palpable feeling of warmth at the event.
"That's what is wonderful about being a team," Hill said. "That's what I'm trying to pass on to my guys."
Bob Snyder, president of the Class of 1951, came back for the reception. He remembered the way the campus regarded the team as "electric."
"Everyone was in love with this team," he said. "I'm glad I could be here to participate."
The 1950-51 Columbia Lions won 21 games, 23 if games against an alumni team and the New York Athletic Club are counted. This was a team that did not allow over 70 points until its loss to Illinois. The team finished, depending on who is counting, second or third in the nation. Three players averaged in double figures, and its best player, John Azary CC '51, sacrificed his own scoring totals so the team could win.
But people who followed that Columbia team knew that this was a team in the best sense of the word, and that nothing was going to keep it from success.
"These fellas were winners from the beginning," Rossini said.