The college basketball season starts this week for most NAIA teams. Next weekend, most NCAA teams will join the fun. This is an anniversary year for the team I rooted for as a youth, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
It is the 60th anniversary of the most amazing upset in Nebraska basketball history. On February 10, 1958, the University of Kansas beat Nebraska in Lawrence 102 – 46. A well-known giant led the Jayhawks that night. Wilt (the Stilt) Chamberlain scored 46 points. The headlines read, “Wilt 46, Nebraska 46.” Just to rub salt in the wound, Wilt played almost the entire game despite the score.
That’s not the anniversary Nebraska will celebrate. Twelve days later, Kansas came to Lincoln for the return game. The old Coliseum was packed with 8,000 screaming fans. Because of the presence of Chamberlain, the game held so much interest, the local CBS affiliate broadcasted the game.
I watched the game from my grandparent’s house in the country just outside of Clatonia, Nebraska. I was a black and white set with rabbit ears. They helped with the reception.
I spent many nights at my grandparents, but this time was out of necessity. My mother was in the hospital. I thought she was having a baby. I didn’t know just how serious things were in that Lincoln hospital.
The day before the game in Lincoln, Charlie Starkweather went to see his 13 year old girlfriend, who lived on the edge of Lincoln. Charlie was 20 years old and was employed by a garbage hauler.
His young girlfriend, Carol Ann Fugate, was restricted from seeing Charlie. Charlie liked to think of himself as a James Dean-like person. His hair was like Dean’s in the movie, Rebel with a Cause. His behavior was much worse.
Angered by Fugate’s parent’s decision, he broke into the house and killed Carol’s mother, father and two-year old sister. No one knew it at the time, but his killing spree had started two months earlier during a filling station robbery. Charlie and Carol would hide at the house for several days before they would continue to kill and terrorize Lincoln.
Not one of the 8,000 people crammed into the Coliseum knew that the Charlie Starkweather killing spree had taken off. All the cared about was revenge on Kansas and a glimpse at the best basketball player in the world, Wilt Chamberlain.
Not a single person in the crowd even considered that a 5-10 guard by the name of Jim Kubacki would slay the giant that night. Kubacki had spent most of the week in the college infirmary. His knee was injured and the trainers couldn’t get the swelling down.
Tony Sharpe, the Nebraska baseball coach, was also the Nebraska assistant basketball coach. He didn’t want Kubacki to even suit up. He had an upcoming try-out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kubacki only averaged 3.9 points per game on the basketball team, but he was a great baseball player. He left the locker room during warm-ups in street clothes.
Jerry Bush was the Nebraska head basketball coach. He agreed that Kubacki should not play. Even if he was healthy, Kubacki probably wouldn’t play much a role in the game’s outcome.
Bush was shrewd with motivation. He used the fact Chamberlain had played the entire game in Lawrence, the headlines in the paper and statements made by the Kansas players to motivate his team. No one thought Nebraska had a chance except for their coach. He had his team convinced of this, too.
His game plan was to double team Chamberlain with Nebraska’s two tallest players. While Chamberlain towered over seven feet, the Nebraska defenders were only 6-4. To give the help, Wilson Fitzpatrick and Herschell Turner, the only two black players on the Nebraska team, were to sag off their players to help on Wilt.
The strategy worked. A frustrated Chamberlain decided to pop out to catch the ball. He was not as effective out there and he was a horrible free throw shooter. The Huskers never let him get on track. Playing a slow-down game, the Nebraska led most of the game by the slimmest of margins.
Did you know that Samuel Ransom was the first black basketball at a white college in America? Ransom played at Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1905.
The second black player at a predominately white college was Wilbur Wood at the University of Nebraska. He played from 1907 – 1910. He also coached the freshmen team in 1911.
Not another black basketball player took the court at Nebraska for the next 48 years. During the 1957-1958 season that changed. Herschell Turner came off the freshmen team and Wilson Fitzpatrick was discovered by Bush playing town team basketball in Lincoln while he finished his military obligation at the Lincoln Air Base.
There was a white player for Kansas that felt that Nebraska should not have played black athletes. During the first half, he used the N-word when yelling at Turner. Chamberlain, who was black, heard what his teammate said. At halftime, Turner heard Chamberlain scold the white player for his racist comments. Dissention on the Kansas team gave Nebraska even more hope.
The white player didn’t follow Chamberlain’s advice. In the second half, he directed his verbal, racist assault at Fitzpatrick. It so angered Fitzpatrick that he followed the white player into the Kansas locker room after the game. They got into a shouting match before it was broken up.
Nebraska held a tiny lead into the final 10 minutes of the game. A problem was arising for the Huskers. One of the players guarding Chamberlain was cramping and there was no one on the bench to replace him. Kubacki saw the situation and begged Bush to let him go to the locker room and suit up.
It took a while, but Kubacki finally wore his coach down. Bush relented and the senior guard limped to the locker room to put on his uniform. No one knows why, but Kubacki appeared back on the bench with the number 14 jersey. He normally wore number 12.
With just under three minutes, Bush put Kubacki in the game. Wilt tied the game at 41 with just under a minute and a half to play. Nebraska would stall and play for the final shot.
Nebraska’s second leading scorer, Turner, had the ball as the clock ticked under five seconds to play. Wilt was lurking for the block shot, so Turner passed the ball to Kubacki. There was no time for another pass. Kubacki, injured and only averaging 3.9 points per game, put up a 15-footer. It was all net and all Chamberlain and his Kansas teammates could do was get out of the way of the 8,000 fans who stormed the court.
Here’s the question; should Kubacki have been allowed on the court? Did Bush put him the official score book, even if he wasn’t suiting up. Maybe. Even if he was in the official book, what number was he assigned. How could Bush have guessed he would wear number 14? No one has even questioned this part of the drama.
Early the next week, Starkweather and Fugate would emerge from Fugate’s home and kill seven more people over a three-day period. He would be caught, tried and executed within a year. Starkweather never saw his 21st birthday, but his fame would live on.
A week later, Nebraska would knock off Kansas State, the number one team in the nation and led by Omaha native Bob Boozer, 55 – 48. Sadly, that was their 12th and final win of the season. The Huskers lost 13 games. It was the best season of Bush’s 10 years at Nebraska.
Chamberlain would lead the Jayhawks to the national champion game where they were beaten by North Carolina. Chamberlain was angered when the state of Kansas made his coach Phog Allen, retire at age 70. Chamberlain would leave Kansas for the Harlem Globetrotters.
My mother would never leave the hospital alive. I spent most of my childhood at my grandparents. My mother was their only child.
Both Fitzpatrick and Turner would have enormously successful careers.
Both are still living. Fitzpatrick lives in Colorado and Turner resides in Michigan. The city of Grand Rapids declared February 24, as part of Black History Month, as Herschell Turner Day.
It was the perfect storm for Nebraska to defeat an opponent no one gave them a chance. The events of the day makes the February 22 a day no one alive then will ever forget.