What a year for Jefferson basketball. Head Coach Lawrence (Bud) Pollard, Shamorie Ponds, Rasheem Dunn, Curtis Smith, Malachi Faison and the rest of the Orange Wave treated New York City to a terrific season that started with a brilliant Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial showcasing the team’s hard work and ended with a New York State Federation AA basketball championship. The pinnacle, of course, was Jefferson’s 90-61 win over Lincoln in the PSAL championship game at Madison Square Garden on March 12th.
As referenced in many of the headlines reporting the Orange Wave’s 2016 PSAL title, Jefferson’s last and only other PSAL crown came in 1954. The 1954 footnote seems to have been buzzing in the background ever since Coach Pollard revived Jefferson’s program and restored its spot as a contender in the prestigious ranks of the powerhouse that is Brooklyn high school basketball.
Understanding that the references to Jefferson’s 1954 team will likely dissipate in light of the 2016 title, we decided to explore how good that team really was. Before we go there, let us point out that the stories reporting Jefferson’s 1954 title bear a curious similarity to the 2016 crown in that they suggest that it was long overdue. The headline of Gene Roswell’s story in the New York Post on Friday, March 19, 1954 read “Jefferson HS Wins PSAL Title at Last” and the first line of the article pinpointed the issue:
They’re taking it pretty big in Brownsville today, this business of Jefferson High, the school which produced so many individual basketball greats but never a team champion, finally going the whole way to the PSAL hoop throne.
Unbeknownst to the folks in Brownsville (and East New York), another 62 years would pass before Jefferson would win another PSAL title.
Back to Jefferson’s 1954 squad. On Thursday, March 18, 1954, Jefferson (then referred to as the “Tommy Jeffs”) defeated Benjamin Franklin (then referred to as the “Ben Jays”) 82-57 in the PSAL Championship Game at the “old” Madison Square Garden in front of 5,000 fans. Jefferson was lead by senior Nurlin Tarrant, who was the game’s high-scorer with 23 points, junior Harvey Salz, who scored 16 points, and senior Bernie Tiebout, who scored 15 points. These three players were the core of Jefferson’s 1954 “quintet,” but Tarrant’s performance drew the most praise.
Jefferson’s Head Coach Mac Hodesblatt went on the record to say that Tarrant was the best player he had ever coached, even better than Sid Tanenbaum, and better than Bob Cousy was in high school. While the comparison to Cousy, who played at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, pretty much speaks for itself, note that Sidney Tanenbaum was a Jefferson alum who became a two-time All-American at NYU and later played for the New York Knicks and Baltimore Bullets.
The high praise for Tarrant did not just come from his coach. Two other high school coaches who were in attendance at the 1954 PSAL title game (one of whom you may have heard of) also lauded Tarrant’s performance. In Roswell’s New York Post story, Lou Carnesecca, then the Head Coach of St. Ann’s Academy (the predecessor of Archbishop Molloy High School), described Tarrant as “[a]bsolutely great” and Jim Klingel, the Head Coach of Regis High School, “[o]ut of this world.”
The evidence also suggests that this was not a situation where a good player happened to have a great game on the big stage. In his write-up announcing Tarrant as a first-team member of the 1954 New York Post PSAL All Scholastic Team, Roswell indicated that Tarrant drew interest from the Harlem Globetrotters and further described his talents as follows:
Tarrant not only led a title team in scoring, but in assists too. No one could stop his dribble and time and again he broke up a zone by going through three or four defenders to the basket. Great ball sense, every shot in the book and a leech on defense.
While Tarrant’s role in leading Jefferson to the 1954 title is obviously impressive, the titles that his college team won had national historical significance. Tarrant attended Tennessee A&I University (now Tennessee State), where he played for John McLendon, a legendary coach and civil rights pioneer who, as a student at the University of Kansas in the 1930s, learned the game of basketball directly from the inventor of the sport, Dr. James Naismith. In 1957, Tennessee A&I won the NAIA title to become the first all-black college basketball team to win a national championship. This occurred almost ten years before Texas Western’s well-publicized win over Kentucky, which was featured in the film Glory Road in 2006 and celebrated its 50th anniversary at the 2016 Final Four, where Khadeem Lattin, the grandson of Texas Western’s David “Big Daddy” Lattin, played for Oklahoma. As referenced in a recent story by the New York Daily News, the 1966 Texas Western team also had a former New York City high school player in Willie Worsley, who led DeWitt Clinton to the 1963 PSAL title before heading to El Paso.
Tennessee A&I followed its 1957 NAIA title by winning both the 1958 and 1959 NAIA crowns, becoming the first college basketball team ever to win three consecutive national championships. These teams were led by eventual NBA and ABA stars Dick Barnett and John Barnhill. Barnett, by the way, played on both New York Knick NBA championship teams in 1970 and 1973. To put into perspective how good these Tennessee A&I teams were, figure this: Tarrant, the player who was touted as being better than Cousy in high school and was sought by the Harlem Globetrotters, never cracked the starting lineup!
Tarrant passed away in December 2007. In his obituary, Howie Evans of the New York Amsterdam News referred to Tarrant as “one of the greatest guards in the history of New York City basketball.”
Salz was a second-team member of the 1954 New York Post PSAL All Scholastic Team and was named a first-team member in his senior year at Jefferson in 1955. After Jefferson, Salz went on to play for Frank McGuire at North Carolina on the Tarheels’ 1958, 1959 and 1960 teams.
It is not clear whether Tiebout played in college, but we did find his name on the 1959 roster of the Scranton Miners of the American Basketball League.
To sum up the strength of this team, consider the first paragraph of Sam Goldaper’s article reporting Jefferson’s 1954 PSAL title in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
Scholastic basketball observers today rated the Thomas Jefferson High quintet, newly crowned city Public School Athletic League champs, one of the greatest aggregations in P.S.A.L. annals.
So, how good was Jefferson’s 1954 title team? Apparently pretty damn good. From the media accounts, scary good may be a better description. Believe it or not, Jefferson did lose one game that year, finishing 19-1. That loss came early in the season to Jamaica High School when Jefferson was missing Tiebout and big-man Gerry Stuckleman, who scored 15 points in the PSAL title game. As a side note, Alan Seiden, a future St. John’s standout, was a junior on the Jamaica squad that handed Jefferson its only loss in the 1954 season. Jamaica would go on to win its only PSAL title the following season in Seiden’s senior year.
Jefferson made it to the PSAL final again in 1957, this time boasting senior Tony Jackson, one of the best players in New York City high school basketball history (and the current namesake of Jefferson’s home court), and junior LeRoy Ellis, who played 14 seasons in the NBA. This time, however, Jefferson fell to Boys High School 53-44, continuing the “many great players, but few championships” hex that would continue until 2016. Interestingly, Jackson and Ellis both went on to play for St. John’s and Jackson and Seiden were teammates on the Redmen’s 1959 NIT championship team.
We close with some final thoughts on Tarrant. In a 2006 article by Ed Miller of the Virginian-Pilot shortly after Glory Road was released, Tarrant was quoted as saying, in reference to the NAIA championship teams he played on at Tennessee A&I, “I’ve always felt like we were overlooked.” Unfortunately, Tarrant’s contribution to Jefferson’s 1954 title team and his part on the championship teams at Tennessee A&I have also gone somewhat unnoticed. When Jefferson advanced to the PSAL final in 2012, the New York Daily News ran a story commemorating Jefferson’s 1954 championship team. Except for references to Tarrant in a 1954 press clipping, the article did not mention his name and there was no reference to the Tennessee A&I championship teams.
Tarrant’s talent and his eventual part of national basketball history is the most compelling facet of Jefferson’s 1954 championship team. We are thankful that Jefferson’s 2016 PSAL title provided us with an opportunity to recognize Tarrant not only for leading a great Jefferson team to the 1954 PSAL title, but for his part of national basketball history at Tennessee A&I.
Gene Roswell, “Jefferson HS Wins PSAL Title at Last,” New York Post, March 19, 1954.
Sam Goldaper, “Hail Jefferson as All-Time Cage Great–Crush Franklin To Garner City P.S.A.L. Honors,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 19, 1954.
Gene Roswell, “The Post’s All-PSAL Quintet,” New York Post, March 30, 1954.
Breaking Through, John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer, Milton S. Katz, October 1, 2007.
Ed Miller, “Another All-Black Team Was the First on ‘Glory Road,’” Virginian-Pilot, January 28, 2006.
Howie Evans, “Nurlin Tarrant passes away in Las Vegas,” New York Amsterdam News, December 13-December 19, 2007.