Gimme five: Early stars

Sports columnist Mark Bradley picks his five best players of the early era.

Arnie Ferrin, Utah

Further proof that there’s nothing new under the sun — the most outstanding player of the 1944 NCAA tournament was a freshman Ute named Arnie Ferrin. Utah lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT, which was then considered the bigger event, but stayed over in New York to face Dartmouth in the NCAA final a week later. Ferrin scored 22 points, and the Utes won 42-40 in overtime. The next freshman NCAA most outstanding player — Pervis Ellison of Louisville — wouldn’t come for another 42 years.

Bob Kurland, Oklahoma A&M

His nickname was “Foothills,” and he’s remembered as the first 7-footer in college history, the first to employ the dunk as a staple shot and the first to lead a team to consecutive national championships. But neither NCAA crown — the Cowboys, now known as Oklahoma State, won in 1945 and ’46 under coach Hank Iba — was Kurland’s crowning moment. That came in a 1945 Red Cross benefit game against NIT champ Minnesota. The Cowboys won as Kurland outscored George Mikan 14-9.

Ralph Beard, Kentucky

A 5-foot-10 guard, Beard was the best all-around player on a beautifully balanced team that would win NCAA titles in 1948 and ’49 under Adolph Rupp and would become known as the “Fabulous Five.” (The other four: center Alex Groza, forwards Wah Wah Jones and Cliff Barker, guard Kenny Rollins.) The entire Fabulous Five was part of the gold-winning U.S. team at the 1948 London Olympics. Beard and Groza would be banned from the NBA in 1951 for their role in a point-shaving scandal while in college.

Tom Gola, La Salle

The 6-7 forward was the most outstanding player of the 1954 Final Four, when he led his Explorers to the national championship against Bradley. Born in Philadelphia, Gola attended La Salle High School and went to college across the street. He was NIT MVP in 1952 as a freshman and is one of two men to play on an NCAA, an NIT and an NBA championship team. (The latter title, naturally, was taken with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956.) His 2,201 career rebounds remain an NCAA record.

Bill Russell, San Francisco

The greatest winner in NBA history — 11 titles in 13 seasons — was the biggest pre-UCLA winner in collegiate circles. His Dons went 57-1 en route to the 1955 and ’56 NCAA titles. (The one loss, incidentally, was to UCLA.) In the 1955 title game, Russell scored 23 points and took 25 rebounds as San Francisco thrashed reigning champ La Salle. In 1956, the Dons became the first unbeaten NCAA champ by beating Iowa to cap a tournament run most notable because of the absence of Russell sidekick K.C. Jones, who had been ruled ineligible.