O’Malley stood for more than basketball at SFU
Father Jack O’Malley considers it the finest moment of his time at Saint Francis College.
The Frankies had just scored a major triumph over Fordham in a tournament in Charlotte.
It was 11:30 p.m., New Year’s Eve, 1958, and the team was departing by plane for Pittsburgh and then on by bus to Loretto.
Problems with the airplane’s instrument panel, however, forced it to make an emergency landing at 3 a.m. in Winston-Salem.
Once there, the Rev. Sebastian Soklic, dean of students, who was accompanying the team, had to tell the traveling party that the white players were to be housed overnight in a hotel but that the Black players would have to go to a “new hospital for Negroes,” as there were no hotel rooms for them.
To that, Bobby Jones, one of two Black players in the party, is said to have quipped, “We’ll go in as guests and come out as patients.”
Then O’Malley, as team captain, silenced the priest and the others, and said, “Father, if all of us can’t go to a hotel none of us will go. We’re a team. We’ll stay right here.”
Skip Hughes, the team’s coach, responded likewise telling the rest of the traveling party, “I’m staying with my team, but you fellows can go into town and get some sleep.”
According to George Kiseda, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, the inside of “the terminal looked like a clearing house for incoming Iron Curtin refugees, with guys curled up in the unlikeliest places and unlikeliest positions” until the plane was cleared to leave early the next day.
Later, Kiseda, a journalist who championed civil rights issues, would write of the incident: “Saint Francis won its greatest game in Winston-Salem, not Charlotte, when it refused to bend to Jim Crow.”
Looking back at it now, O’Malley, who became involved in the civil rights movement thereafter, agreed calling it “the best thing that ever happened to our team and the best thing that our team ever did for St. Francis. It wasn’t the 40 some victories we achieved over those two years, it was the Carousel Classic when we were grounded on the airplane.”
“Before we came down, we read where Bill Russell had to stay at a separate hotel when his team played in Charlotte,” Joe Aston, one of the two black players on the team, revealed. “It didn’t seem right.”
Aston and his fellow teammates had met prior to the trip to North Carolina and agreed “we were coming back home…we weren’t going to play” if they met with any segregation.
As for O’Malley, he finished his career at Saint Francis, turned down a chance to try out for the Detroit Pistons of the NBA, and became a parish priest active in justice causes.
Long Branch, N.J.
(Moore is a Saint Francis historian.)