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The Story Of St. Lawrence's Upset Over The NBA's Syracuse Nationals11:32
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On March 6, 1950, the basketball team at St. Lawrence University took on the NBA's Syracuse Nationals. (From left to right: John Lawrence, Warren Elmslie, John Moro, Bill O’Rourke and Roger Lawrence.) (St. Lawrence University Archives)MoreCloseclosemore
On March 6, 1950, the basketball team at St. Lawrence University took on the NBA's Syracuse Nationals. (From left to right: John Lawrence, Warren Elmslie, John Moro, Bill O’Rourke and Roger Lawrence.) (St. Lawrence University Archives)

At 2:41 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, St. Lawrence University archives technician Paul Haggett received an inquiry from the athletic department. This sort of thing happens all the time.

"They need a picture of so-and-so, or, 'What day did the basketball schedule start on whatever year?' " Haggett says. "But when this particular question crossed my email, I just sort of totally dismissed it and went, 'No way. That’s ridiculous.' "

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The question, which was sparked by a tip from an Only A Game listener, was whether the St. Lawrence University men’s basketball team had played — and won — a 1950 exhibition game against the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals.

"So I thought, 'OK, a bunch of college guys are gonna beat a professional basketball team?' That just seems preposterous to me," Haggett recalls. "I went, 'Nah, there's no way this is true.' "

Haggett has worked at St. Lawrence for a decade — at this point, he’s not often surprised when it comes to the university’s history. Still, he decided he’d better check into it.

"So I walked back into our vault where we keep all of our archival records," he says.

He pulled out a box with men’s basketball records and found the folder for the 1949-50 season.

"And right there on top is a narrative of the last 15 or so minutes of the ballgame," he says. "I couldn't believe it."

'A Powerful Team'

“The Syracuse Nationals, winners of the Eastern Division of the National Basketball Association, will be seen here in Canton Monday night,” the St. Lawrence student newspaper announced ahead of the March 6, 1950, matchup.

Proceeds from the game would go to the Canton Youth Commission, which was raising money for a bus to shuttle local kids to a nearby beach.

"So it was a fundraiser," Haggett says, "and somebody had the genius idea of bringing in a professional basketball team that was in the throes of a pretty darn good season."

"This was a powerful team in the infant NBA," says sports columnist David Ramsey, who's researched and written about the Syracuse Nationals. "These guys were fiery, nasty basketball players."

Syracuse Nationals forward Dolph Schayes (left) was a 12-time NBA All-Star. (Peter J. Carroll/AP)
Syracuse Nationals forward Dolph Schayes (left) was a 12-time NBA All-Star. (Peter J. Carroll/AP)

In terms of their physicality, the Nationals weren’t so different from the rest of the league at the time. But a player they’d recently picked up out of New York University stood out.

"Dolph Schayes was a man before his time," Ramsey says. "Fast. A big guy who didn’t just stand under the basket. I think it’s inarguable that Dolph Schayes was one of the top 50 players ever."

The Underdogs: St. Lawrence University 

So that was the Syracuse Nationals. On the other side, you had St. Lawrence University, which had just finished its season with a 13-5 record against other small colleges like Clarkson, St. Michael's and Brockport Teachers.

And while the Nationals had multiple players over 6-foot-6, St. Lawrence’s tallest player stood at 6-foot-3.

"We were a small college team that had an average, decent record against other small college teams," says 90-year-old Warren Elmslie, who started at forward for St. Lawrence.

"Do you remember what it was like leading up to that game against Syracuse? Did you guys talk bout it at all? Were you excited?" I asked him.

"I don't want to downplay it, but we didn't really play it up before the game," he says. "Let's say we were not awed by them."

Haggett hints at a possible reason for the team's poise:

"I think if you look at the team photos, you can tell that there are a couple of guys there that have a little life experience behind them that a typical collegiate basketball player today wouldn’t," he says. "They have a more mature look."

"We had several veterans on the basketball team," explains Elmslie, who joined the Navy at 17 years old, just as World War II was coming to an end.

Bill O'Rourke, St. Lawrence's top scorer, served in the Marines.

"He fought in the South Pacific, Guadalcanal, other pretty bad places," says O'Rourke's son, Bill O'Rourke Jr. "There was hand-to-hand combat. They weren’t only fighting the enemy but fighting — you know, you got malaria there. He got jaundice. He got a skin condition called 'jungle rot.' He was right in the middle of it."

Another starter for St. Lawrence had also served in the Pacific as a radioman.

"The war veterans on the team were not going to be intimidated by playing a pro team," O'Rourke Jr. says.

"Yeah, it wasn’t like we were just 18-year-old kids out of high school," Elmslie says.

(In fact, when the Syracuse Nationals came to town, Bill O’Rourke Sr. was 26 years old, making him five years older than Syracuse star Dolph Schayes.)

'It Was Old'

The game was to be played at Brewer Field House.

"It was, even then, in 1950, it was old," Elmslie says.

According to Elmslie, the gym was so small that you had to be careful of crashing into the wall after driving for a layup.

The field house only seated a few hundred — and fans sat in a ring of bleachers a level above the court.

Before the Brewer Field House crowd, Warren Elmslie takes a shot in a game against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (St. Lawrence University Archives)
Before the Brewer Field House crowd, Warren Elmslie takes a shot in a game against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. (St. Lawrence University Archives)

"And, of course, basketball season’s in the middle of winter — lots of snow, lots of ice — so the story goes that the students would take great delight in sitting over top of the visiting bench and letting their wet shoes drip on the visiting team," Haggett says.

(This is the hostile environment the Syracuse Nationals faced on that Monday night in 1950.)

Four-hundred-and-fifty fans packed Brewer Field House – though it may have been 451, depending on whether Bill O’Rourke Jr. made it into the official attendance.

"I was only about three months short of turning 3, so I sat with my mom the entire game, probably sat in her lap for a lot of it," he explains. "But I was there."

The Nationals were without their player-coach, Al Cervi, but, according to newspaper accounts, they quickly took control of the game.

"The first half went strictly according to the script, as the Nationals … staged a smooth exhibition of court wizardry. They made little effort to drive under the hoop for layups and were content to score on medium distance pop shots or hooks from the sides."

"I remember my father said that — that they were kind of showing off and not really taking it seriously," says Steve Lawrence, whose father, Roger, also started for St. Lawrence.

"Neither did [the Nationals] make much effort to stop the Larries from shooting, but although St. Lawrence had numerous easy opportunities to score, they appeared to be nervous and were missing badly."

At halftime, the Nationals led 40-29.

But in the second half, St Lawrence adjusted its strategy. The Larries stopped making substitutions — instead sticking with their starting five.

"After we got going, we were kinda surprised it was a close game," Elmslie says. "Now, I’m not sure how hard Syracuse played, but we figured, 'Hey, we can beat these guys.' "

A Comeback

St. Lawrence started chipping away at the Syracuse lead — and with nine minutes to go, they tied the score at 55.

"From there on, the affair ceased to be an exhibition and became a legitimate basketball game."

Steve Lawrence says his father could feel the difference when the Nationals started to take the game more seriously.

"He remembered going up for a layup one time, and some guy came down and really crashed down on him just to prevent him from doing it," Lawrence says. "He said, 'Oh my, God. I’d never been hit so hard in my life.' "

But with less than two minutes to go, the score was still tied.

Warren Elmslie got to the foul line and sank two free throws to give St. Lawrence the lead — but Syracuse answered with a basket to even the score at 67.

It was St. Lawrence ball with less than a minute to go.

"And my dad said, one of his teammates took a shot. Missed," O'Rourke Jr. says. "And my dad said he got an offensive rebound, up-faked one of the Syracuse players and then put in the winning basket."

The final score: St. Lawrence University 69. The NBA’s Syracuse Nationals 67.

"I think everybody was sort of dumbstruck that we won," Elmslie says. "You know, and we were. Come on now. This is one of the top professional teams in the country, and we won."

The Aftermath 

Elmslie finished with a game-high 18 points — eight more than Dolph Schayes. It was Elmslie’s best game of the season.

"I guess I just had a lucky game," he says.

"So tell me what happened after the game," I say. "Because I’m imagining huge parties, parade through town..."

"No, not at all," Elmslie says. "I know I didn’t do anything. It was a school night. You know, we had classes the next day."

That was Warren Elmslie’s last game for St. Lawrence. Aside from playing in some adult rec leagues, it was also the end of his basketball career. He went on to work in the banking industry.

As for Bill O’Rourke Sr., St. Lawrence’s top player?

"He said that Syracuse offered him a tryout because they liked what they saw," O'Rourke Jr. says. "And my dad did not accept the tryout because he already had a firm offer to teach ninth grade social studies and coach varsity basketball. You know, it was a solid offer. And he had my mom and me to support."

O'Rourke Jr. thinks his father could have played in the NBA.

"I’m not just saying this. I’m being very objective here," he says with a laugh.

(The Nationals managed OK without him. About a month after losing to St. Lawrence, they reached the NBA Finals, eventually falling to the Minneapolis Lakers, 4-2. A few years later, Dolph Schayes led the Nationals to an NBA title).

O’Rourke coached the varsity team at Webster High School in New York for 28 years. During his lengthy career, O'Rourke befriended Al Cervi, the former Nationals player-coach who had missed the game at St. Lawrence; Cervi always maintained that his presence would've altered the outcome.

When O'Rourke Sr. retired from coaching Webster, his son took over the job for another 35 seasons.

"So somebody named Bill O’Rourke coached the varsity in Webster for 63 straight years," O'Rourke Jr. says with a laugh.

The Legacy Of An Upset

Bill O’Rourke Sr. died in 2006. Steve Lawrence’s father, Roger Lawrence, passed away in 2001. But throughout his life, Roger Lawrence loved telling the story about the time he and his college teammates beat the Syracuse Nationals.

The 1949-50 St. Lawrence University men's basketball team. (St. Lawrence University Archives)
The 1949-50 St. Lawrence University men's basketball team. (St. Lawrence University Archives)

"It was one of the highlights of his life," Steve Lawrence says. "Every time he talked about it, you can see the look in his eyes. You know, my sisters and I probably heard the stories about a hundred times — we would always let my father finish the story because it made him so happy."

As for Warren Elmslie, he didn’t talk about the game much. His own children hadn’t even heard the story.

"We all felt good about it, of course, but what were we gonna do? Go around with a sign on that says we played the National Basketball — ?" he asks. "It just kinda came and went, and that was it.

But now that Paul Haggett and the rest of the folks at the St. Lawrence University archives are onto the story, Elmslie won’t have to worry about spreading the word himself.

The 70th anniversary is coming up – maybe it’s not too late for a parade?


Thanks to St. Lawrence University for opening up its archives for us — and thanks to listener Philip Morey whose tip sparked this whole thing. If you’ve got an idea for Only A Game, please email us at oag@wbur.org

This segment aired on August 4, 2018.

Martin Kessler Twitter Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.

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