Billy Fitzpatrick ’20
On Saturday, Jan. 25, over 100 students and alumni gathered in Seelos Theater for a viewing of a new documentary celebrating the championship-winning Holy Cross men’s basketball teams of the 1940s and 1950s and a panel discussion featuring a collection of College legends. The documentary, titled College Basketball’s Purple Reign, uses the 1947 N.C.A.A. Tournament-winning team and the 1954 N.I.T. Champion squad as bookends, recounting not only those famed seasons, but also painting a picture of Holy Cross’ lofty place in the college basketball landscape over a near-decade period.
The panel featured some of the most celebrated individuals in the history of Holy Cross athletics. It was comprised of Tommy Heinsohn (Class of 1956), Rev. Earle Markey, S.J. (Class of 1953), Togo Palazzi (Class of 1954), Ron S. Perry (Class of 1954), Ryan Hughes (the director of the film), and Dan Shaughnessy (Class of 1975 and Boston Globe editor and columnist).
The documentary includes extensive participation from many of its subjects, with Hughes interviewing over 40 individuals connected to the program in creating the documentary. From the teams of the late 1940s, George Kaftan (Class of 1947) and Bob Cousy (Class of 1949) provided animated and insightful commentary on the 1947 team’s construction and eventual march to an historic national championship.
While this team has come to be associated with Cousy, the Boston Celtics icon was eager to point out in the documentary that, in his first year of varsity ball as a sophomore, he was a mere role player on the 1947 team. In reality, Kaftan was the team’s leader on and off the court, carrying the Crusaders to unimaginable glory and winning the Most Valuable Player award in the N.C.A.A. Tournament for his efforts.
Cousy has lived in Worcester ever since coming to Holy Cross (even in his days playing for the Celtics), but he now spends his winters in Florida, and therefore was unable to attend the event. Kaftan, beloved by his peers and teammates, passed away in October 2018 at age 90.
Not to be outdone, the early 1950s teams boasted their own collection of legends. Heinsohn, a ten-time N.B.A. champion and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee as both a player and a coach, was a sophomore on the 1954 team that won the N.I.T., averaging a double-double in his first varsity season. However, much like Cousy playing second fiddle to Kaftan on the 1947 team, Heinsohn was the clear No. 2 option offensively in 1954. Palazzi was the standout player and an unstoppable force during his senior year. A second-team All-American, Palazzi went on to win Most Valuable Player of the N.I.T., culminating a dominant season in which he averaged 24.8 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, according to sports-reference.com.
Fr. Markey, who now serves as Associate Director in the Office of Admission and has been back at Holy Cross since 1976, played a prominent role both in Holy Cross basketball lore and the documentary. As a member of the Class of 1953, Fr. Markey missed out on winning a national championship, but his peers would attest that he had a large impact on the program. As a senior, he helped lead the Crusaders to the Elite Eight of the N.C.A.A. Tournament, where H.C. fell to L.S.U., led by N.B.A. Hall of Famer Bob Petit. Fr. Markey played a key role in mentoring both Palazzi and Heinsohn, as all three hail from Hudson County, New Jersey. Fr. Markey was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1953, but turned down the chance to play alongside Bob Cousy, joining the Jesuits instead.
One of the most influential individuals in the history of Holy Cross athletics, Perry was the starting point guard on the 1954 team as a senior. With the addition of Heinsohn to the rotation that year, Perry gracefully took on a greater distributor role and sacrificed shots for the betterment of the team. Palazzi and Heinsohn both stressed during the panel that, if he wanted to, Perry could score 25 points on any given night. With the ability to shoot from outside, Perry provided a complementary skill set alongside Palazzi’s post game and Heinsohn’s slashing and cutting. Without Perry’s willingness to concede some to Palazzi and Heinsohn, the Crusaders would not have won the N.I.T., his teammates vow.
Shaughnessy, one of the most accomplished sports journalists in the country, provided commentary as a basketball historian and Holy Cross fan, detailing what made each of his fellow panelists so special and important to their respective teams. His viewpoint was invaluable, as the players were often too humble to boast about their many accomplishments.
The panel was moderated by Jack Milko, Class of 2020 and the voice of Holy Cross men’s and women’s basketball for WCHC 88.1. Milko called the opportunity to share the stage with such a distinguished group of Holy Cross legends “one of the greatest honors of my life.” He invited each of the panelists to reflect on their time at Holy Cross and participation in the making of the documentary, which prompted lively discussion and nostalgic trips down memory lane.
The event, which was well-attended by alumni of all years, was part of Winter Homecoming Weekend and preceded a men’s basketball game against Boston University. Many in the audience remarked that they felt privileged to watch the documentary and witness what was essentially an intimate conversation between old friends.
Ron K. Perry, son of Ron S. Perry and a member of the Class of 1980, was on hand for the event. The younger Perry is the all-time leading scorer in Holy Cross men’s basketball history, with a whopping 2,524 points (23.2 per game). From the audience, he offered some words to end the panel discussion that resonated with everyone in attendance.
“Because of the folks up on the stage and those that were in this [documentary] we just watched… we have this tradition at Holy Cross. You can’t make up a tradition,” said Ron K. Perry. “Holy Cross is a very special place, with special people… It makes us quite proud to have the tradition that we have, and quite frankly, the people that we are here to check out today and that are in this room. So I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’”
Those on hand in Seelos Theater on Jan. 25 will not soon forget what it was like to be in the presence of Holy Cross legends.
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