Jan. 23, 2013
When Jack Heldman (1950-52) was being recruited by Vanderbilt basketball coach Bob Polk, history was being made. Heldman was part of Polk's first full recruiting class for Commodore basketball. Polk was in his second season at Vanderbilt.
"I was from Jasper, Indiana and decided to go to Notre Dame when I was a junior," Heldman said recently from his Nashville home. "Coach Polk was from Tell City, Indiana. He knew quite a lot of my family. Those towns aren't too big and everyone is neighborly. When Polk got that job he contacted one of my relatives who in turn talked me into going down to Vanderbilt, which I never heard of nor could spell.
"My high school coach took me down there [Nashville], dropped me off and took the other four seniors on our team to Ole Miss. Three of them went to Ole Miss. My high school coach was one of the leading coaches to send Indiana boys into the SEC. Everybody on our team were pretty good. Everybody that graduated even our sixth man whom was a senior all got major scholarships."
Joining Heldman in that scholarship class were Gene Southwood, Dave Kardokus and George McChesney. Polk was Vanderbilt's first full-time basketball coach and struggled to secure the ingredients it took to make Vanderbilt basketball competitive.
"When Polk was recruiting us, he had Jim Buford the guy from administration to show us plans for the new gym," Heldman said. "We were told we'd be playing in a new gym. That never did happen. He told us about the gym going to be built and we'd be playing in it as sophomores. A few other little tidbits he told us were not true. When you were at Vanderbilt, and you didn't have anything going for you, you have to tell a little fib every now. And he told us quite a few of them."
In Polk's first year at Vanderbilt (1947-48) the Commodores were 8-14 (4-11 SEC). In this era of college athletics, freshmen were ruled ineligible for varsity competition. Though the freshman practiced everyday with the varsity, a team was formed for the first year players to gain experience and to prepare for their sophomore season.
"Smokey Harper, who was the trainer for the football team, was our freshmen coach," said Heldman. "We played Oakland College, junior colleges and high schools like MBA and BGA. We won them all. Our best competition was the varsity. That wasn't too good because we never lost to the varsity in scrimmages.
"We practiced in the old gym. It had these doors that opened on the sides. Whenever it was noted that we were going to scrimmage the varsity, people were looking in those doors because the gym was too crowed for anyone else to get it. We had more people watch our practice games with the varsity because they heard we were beating them every time we played.
"I will never forget when we were freshmen. We were playing down in Martin, Tennessee. We were pretty good freshmen and they were beating us at the half. In the dressing room, Harper at halftime, said to Kardokus, `you are letting the guy shoot over you and making all these points. You've got to play defense.' He said, `Coach Smokey, I don't know if you know it or not but that guy is cross-eyed and I don't know when he is going to shoot or pass the ball.'"
As a sophomore (1949-50), and Heldmen's first year on the varsity, the Commodores were 17-8 (SEC, 11-3). The second game of the early season was played in New York City with an upset victory in overtime against New York University. Billy Joe Adcock, Vanderbilt's first all-American was senior captain of that team. Heldman scored 10 points in the game against New York University that was played in Madison Square Garden.
"When we were being recruited, Polk said he was going to take us somewhere that was in real basketball country," Heldman said. "That was one of the things Polk told us that he did do. Against New York University I took a shot at the last second and it didn't go in. I rebounded my own shot at the foul line, threw it back up and it went in to tie the game. That put us into overtime.
"My high school gym seated 5,000 people and it was full every night we played. We went to the Boston Garden the next year and played Holy Cross, but got beat. George Kelley took the ball out of bounds, threw it towards me. A guy intercepted the ball and scored. We lost by two points. So playing in front of large crowds was not new to me.
"As a sophomore I was a starter in every game throughout my entire career with the exception of the one where I got sick at Tennessee and couldn't play. At one time a Nashville newspaper sports writer told me I had more playing time in my three years than any of the rest of the players. I don't know how he knew that, but he was big on statistics. I played the majority of every game. He hardly took me out. I couldn't understand it. I was proud of that."
Heldman, 82, was a solid, dependable and hustling starter for the Commodores as he entered his junior season. The team was 19-8 (10-4 SEC) and finished the season as SEC Tournament champs. Captained by George Kelley, the road to that historic ending was difficult having to face Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats. In the tournament the Commodores defeated Tennessee, Georgia and LSU to be matched with the Wildcats for the title.
"I was looking forward to playing Kentucky," Heldman said. "My good friend Dave Kardokus [First Team all-SEC] and others didn't think we had much of a chance. I never had that attitude. I was very positive no matter who we played. We were losing to them at the half and came back. Towards the end of the game we were leading and Kelley was at the free throw line. I was standing back and just knew we were going to win this game.
"I was so convinced of that even though there were a few minutes left in the game. It just seemed it was going our way. Little Bob White, from my hometown, intercepted a pass and secured the game. It was then we knew we had it. One thing that surprised me in that game is Al Weiss [Second Team all-SEC] who was a good scorer for us. He was our center and had a hook shot. He didn't score any points in that game. He guarded [Bill] Spivey and most of the time I stayed in front of him."
Heldman scored 11 points in that SEC title game. Kentucky went on to win the national championship. The next time the Commodores would win the SEC crown was in 2012 when Kevin Stallings' crew defeated Kentucky that also won the national championship.
The regular season SEC champion was selected as the conference's representative in the NCAA Tournament. There has been some mystery as to why Vanderbilt did not compete in the NIT. The NIT was a very prominent post-season college basketball tournament.
"At our meeting at the end of the year we had a chance to go to the NIT," said Heldman. "Polk put it up for a vote. I will never forget. I was so mad because I wanted to go. There were a few players that voted against playing. They voiced their opinion quite frequently in the years thereafter. They claimed that they were tired. I can't imagine anybody that loved basketball could get tired of playing."
In Heldman's three seasons as a Commodore, home games were played on the David Lipscomb College campus in McQuiddy Gymnasium. Memorial Gym was not ready until the 1952-53 season. As a senior, Heldman's Commodores were 18-9 (9-5 SEC).
"We should have had a better season than what we did," Heldman said. "When you look at it, the only one we lost was Kelley and then we had Dan Finch [First Team SEC in 1954] and Bob White who were good. We had game captains and at the end of the year we had a dinner. Polk had everybody choose whom they wanted for captain. I will never forget this. I was the one elected to be captain. For some reason thereafter I ended up being co-captain with Gene Southwood and I think Polk did that."
After graduating from Vanderbilt, Heldman worked at Southern Bell for two months then joined the Navy Reserves at Shelby Park. He also played basketball for the Bainbridge Naval Academy. Heldman said they had a tryout of 150 players and he was one of two to be selected. He started both years at Bainbridge.
It was customary that Vanderbilt had part-time assistant coaches. So, Heldman was surprised to receive a telephone call from Polk with an offer.
"I was sitting at my desk in the Navy, typing letters for the senior commander," Heldman said. "I got this phone call from Bob Polk and he said he wanted me to be his assistant. That was one of the happiness times of my life. I always wanted to be a coach. That was in March 1954. I got out of the service and went home to Jasper.
"I arrived at Vanderbilt to coach in September. So I came in the fall of 1954-55 and coached in 1955-56 and 1956-57. I really believed that the reason Polk hired me is because I was very good in basketball fundamentals. I knew what I was doing. When he was recruiting me he told me that I could get a coaching degree at Peabody. That was a false story. I never could."
Heldman became Vanderbilt's first full-time assistant basketball coach. In his time as coach, Vanderbilt was 16-6, 19-4, and 17-5. But Heldman was out of basketball after those three years.
"I didn't want to get out of coaching, but I was asked to leave," said Heldman. "In my second year as coach I received quite a few inquiries to interview for head coaching jobs. One was at LSU, Colorado and Loyola of the South [New Orleans]. I did have that job offered to me at Loyola. Polk and [athletic director Art] Guepe were not very good friends. Polk thought he should have been named athletic director when the position was open. Guepe got the job. Coach Guepe told me once, when Polk was not in the office, to pack my bags that he had a ticket for me to go to Colorado.
"They called him to say they wanted to interview me. I asked, `if it was okay.' He said he couldn't get in touch with Polk and to get on the plane and interview. So I did. When I got back I faced hell the rest of the time I coached at Vanderbilt. It was awful. Polk was upset that I went on the trip and told me not to do it again. Ever since then I didn't seem to be on his team anymore where he was concerned. I didn't let that bother me. I learned later that he didn't want me to leave that I was a good assistant. Later I learned that Memphis State wanted me to interview and Polk didn't tell me about that."
Heldman said he didn't take the job at Loyola because, "my wife didn't want to leave Nashville." He made a living in the food brokerage business. Heldman has many great memories playing basketball at Vanderbilt and is proud to have been a Vanderbilt Commodore.
"One of the things I am proud was the time we played LSU here," said Heldman. "I was a center and forward in high school and prided myself on my footwork. I bugged Coach Polk to let me play center and for sure he let me play center in the LSU game. I scored 14 points and was to guard [all-American] Bob Pettit in the front. That left another guy who was a left-handed sophomore for LSU shooting from the corner and he wasn't shooting too well. Pettit had his lowest scoring points of his whole basketball career in that game. I used to tease him about that."
On February 3 against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt will be honoring members of the 1993 women's only Final Four basketball team. That team was ranked No.1 for six weeks and finished the season 30-3.
On February 9 against Arkansas, the Rebounders (basketball alumni) will be remembering Coach Roy Skinner who passed away in 2010. Skinner (1959, 1962-76) is Vanderbilt's all-time winningest coach (278-135) and his wife Nathleene (Tootsie) will be on hand.
There will also be a presentation of the game ball from the 1949 Commodores' historic victory over New York University in Madison Square Garden. Members from that 1949-50 team will be there to present the ball to the athletic department.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber's new book "Vanderbilt Basketball, "Tales of Commodore Hardwood History" can be purchased online from Amazon.com and Nashville area bookstores.