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Prof, The Man and His Philosophy
Pages 393 - 399
During Bobby Thompson's senior year, Blood believed he had the nearest to perfect high school team that he had ever coached. He didn't want to boast, but if he could train the same team for three straight years, he felt that they would be able to beat any basketball team in the world. 493,494 On another day, when Prof's cup of immodesty overflowed, he made a comment that would raise the eyebrows of many coaches today. At the time when the newly christened Wonder Team was at the sixty-third straight win mark, he nonchalantly mentioned that if he wasn't so busy, he would coach the high school's baseball and football teams to become second to none as well. 494 As strange as this may sound today, no one at the time doubted that he couldn't do it. As if it were a self-fulfilling prophecy, Blood coached St. Benedict's Prep baseball teams to several prep school state championships during the late 1920's.
The Miracle Man of basketball always preached that he learned something new about the game every season. He believed this to be essential to success whether you were a player, coach, or spectator. 496 Johnny Roosma, perhaps his finest player ever, called his old coach a student of the game. Before Blood's coaching dominance of the game showed signs of waning, there was the story of him attending a coaches' clinic facilitated by none other than Converse's Chuck Taylor. The ambassador of basketball was conducting one of his pioneering clinics for over two hundred coaches at Bloomfield High School. During the presentation, some noticed that Prof appeared to be the only coach taking notes. 497 Prof never stopped learning about the game, and he would not allow his competition to get an edge on him.
To know Prof Blood was to know that he loved to demonstrate, better yet, perform. His audience could be large or small; it didn't matter. At a reception for the basketball team sponsored by the ladies of the faculty at Potsdam Normal, Professor Blood dazzled his audience with one of his circus-like feats. "During the evening the electric lights were switched off and the guests were given a rare treat in watching Prof. Blood perform with lighted torches. The effect was beautiful and only to be thoroughly appreciated by those who saw it." 498
Blood not only had character, he was a character. A couple generations of players and students who were influenced by him never forgot the sight of him poised in the gymnasium with a basketball balanced on a stick. What would substitute for a stickball bat, Blood would hold in front of him parallel to the ground and have a ball perched upon the end of the bat. His strong shoulder, wrist, and forearm enabled him to keep the ball sitting on the stick. He made it look so easy. He would say that this was the delicate finger touch needed to consistently shoot and make baskets. 499 What made this stunt so memorable was that no else could do it. And as if balancing the ball weren't enough, he would slowly lift the ball up and place it in the basket. Try that sometime!
Legends are not made from one trick with a stick. Strength was part of Blood's legend. 500 His most famous stunt was the one he performed with a sixteen-pound shot put. What he liked to do with the heavy iron ball was to throw it up over his head and catch it squarely on the back of his shoulders at the nape of his neck. When things needed a little extra excitement, Blood would reenact his shot put maneuver. He would challenge some of the more accomplished athletes to try the odd stunt, but very few took the risk. Fritz Knothe remembered the day that Al Patlen (years later, Alden Patlen became a magistrate in Wallington) pulled off the impossible and caught the shot on the back of his neck. 501 Others would just knock themselves semi-unconscious.
In Blood's younger years, the barrel-chested strong man turned down offers to become an acrobat with one of the big circuses. His myriad of athletic talents extended into baseball. If the timing were different, he wouldn't have turned down offers when major league baseball teams beckoned. He also had an unquenchable appetite for watching sporting events. If there was a game within commuting distance, it was fairly certain that Blood would be there. When possible, he was known to see three or four games in one day. 502 Seldom finding time to eat, the Grey Thatched Wizard is remembered for the countless number of bags of peanuts he consumed. He always seemed to have his pockets stuffed with his peanuts-to-go. 503
Prof also had interests beyond basketball, as evidenced by his well-known love for animals. A little known detail about Passaic's record-breaking coach was that he was an avid stamp and coin collector. He possessed an assortment of rare stamps and old money, most of which was in vintage gold coins. After Prof's death, his treasure was speculated to have gone to his second wife, Myrtle Dilley Blood. (In 1948, Mrs. Margaret Thomas Blood passed away after a long illness at the age of 73. Little is known about Ms. Dilley.) Buying, selling, and trading was a serious hobby of Prof's that led him to become an active member of the New Jersey Numismatic Society. 504
Blood's time as the basketball coach in the Woolen City was cut short, as was the city's tenure in the national sports spotlight. At the time, a hero's welcome and a key to the city were never discussed-that would come later. A small handful of people, not the court of public opinion, was responsible for Blood's fate. Forcing him out illustrates what is possible during times of extremely bad judgement. The full extent of his loss to the city was immeasurable.
The school administration's inability to see the big picture can be contrasted with Prof's influence on the evolution of basketball. During the 1920-1921 season when the Wonder Team moniker was first used, the popularity of the team exploded. When too many fans and curiosity seekers wanted to see the team play, a facility larger than the high school gym had to be found, and the Paterson Armory five miles away became the site of choice. Of the three thousand people who made up a capacity crowd at the Paterson Armory, many were high school and college basketball coaches. Many came from miles away to learn what Prof was doing that produced such remarkable results.
The committed coaches of the 1920's were similar to the diehards today; they would do whatever it took to get an edge. Those who actually saw the Wonder Teams play in person can no longer be sorted out, but hall-of-famer Claire Bee, who has been recognized by his latter-day contemporaries as the one coach most likely deserving of the title "genius," admitted that Prof and his teams were an inspiration to him. Bee was a master strategist who frequently observed the innovations and techniques of the Passaic's professor. 505
Bee incorporated a few characteristics of Prof Blood's teams into his own coaching. For example, Bee's technique of suddenly changing defenses to confuse his opponents and a passing style of offense that allowed the ball to do the work were effective strategies that Prof had been using since his Y and Potsdam days. Although Blood's teams always played man-to-man defense, his defense had different levels of intensity.
Blood orchestrated the variations of the defense with signals to his captain. Claire Bee may have derived his idea of switching defenses from Prof. Bee is credited with originating the 1-3-1 zone defense that he used with a great deal of success at Rider College and later at Long Island University.
Another concept that Bee observed Blood's teams using was the short passing offense. A decade later, Bee's offense became famous for its passing by utilizing all five players and maintaining possession of the ball. While this was the cornerstone of Blood's system, the notoriety for inaugurating the team style of passing offense is credited to coaches who later used it successfully on the collegiate and professional levels.
Another early icon of New York City basketball who would later become a disciple of Claire Bee's was James "Buck" Freeman. During Buck's senior year in 1926, he captained the St. John's College team when they played West Point. That Army team was coached by Blood and led by Johnny Roosma. Using a variety of lineups against the Redmen, Army toyed with them and easily won 30-18. The ease with which the Army team passed the ball coupled with how difficult it was to defend must have impressed Freeman.
The following year, Captain Buck Freeman was appointed head coach of his alma mater. After one year of rounding up city talent, he assembled a team that became known as the "Wonder Five." The St. John's Wonder Five used many of the Passaic trademarks. Between the years 1927-1931, the New Yorkers registered an 86-8 mark with half of those losses coming in their first season. Freeman's teams where successful because they cleverly passed the ball until they were able to take a high percentage shot (lay-up). Nat Holman, the Original Celtic great and coach of the CCNY team, called them "the smartest college club in the country." 506 The pass, pass, pass strategy soon became known as the eastern style of basketball.
A former player and coaching protoégé of Buck Freeman's was another coaching great, Frank McGuire. Frank took his guru Freeman and what he learned from him to successful stints at St. John's University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors, and to the University of South Carolina. The coaching talents of Bee, Freeman, and McGuire had legions of high school and college coaches mimicking their ball control strategies.
Would it be called a coincidence that Frank Keaney (1921-1948) at Rhode Island State College eventually caught the nation's attention with a fastbreaking, high scoring, full court pressing style of play that produced teams scoring "2 points-a-minute"? Keaney really didn't get his system up to full speed until after the Passaic Wonder Team years, but he is still considered the progenitor of racehorse style basketball. Or was the real coincidence the appearance of Bill Mokray, a 1925 Passaic High School graduate, at Rhode Island State College? Bill, who had seen most of Blood's games, stayed at Rhode Island State as a publicity agent after he graduated in 1929 and helped Keaney exploit the prolific offensive prowess of his team. 507 Again, Prof was not credited with popularizing this style of play even though his teams had been pressing and fastbreaking for years.
Inventions and/or innovations in the game are difficult to trace back to their origins. They often evolved in different places and piece by piece over a period of time. Borrowing among coaches is just as rampant today as it was during Blood's time. Blood's handicap as far as getting recognition for his innovations was his status as a high school coach. He did his creative work before basketball received much newspaper attention, especially on the high school level. Nevertheless, the early titans of the game studied the style and methods of the Blood-coached Wonder Teams to further their own coaching careers.
The coach by whom modern-day basketball coaches are measured is John Wooden of UCLA fame. The unprecedented winning of ten of twelve NCAA Championships has immortalized his place in basketball history. Although Wooden's 88-game win streak fell 71 games short of the Wonder Team's mark of 159, his dominance of college basketball may never be equaled. Under closer inspection, it is astonishing to learn how similar he and Blood were in talent and philosophy.
For starters, the birth dates of the two-basketball hall of famers are October 5, 1872 and October 14, 1910, respectively. Could the same astrological sign be credited for these other similarities? Is self-confidence an essential ingredient to becoming a successful coach? If so, then that explains the reason for their success, and their confidence was reflected in their teams' demeanor. Some of their other similarities included:
- Excellent, accomplished athletes-one of Wooden's two inductions into the hall of fame was for his accomplishments as a college and professional player.
- Great free throw shooters-Wooden once made 134 straight in professional game competition with the Kautsky Athletic Club, while Blood at age 74, sank 484 for 500.
- Physical conditioning devotees-with Wooden, it was an obsession.
- Clean living enthusiasts-adherence to clean living was a must.
- Teamwork advocates-adamantly stressed the importance of teamwork.
- Speed and quickness proponents-recognized the importance of speed and quickness as essentials.
- Crazy eaters-Prof was known to exist solely on large volumes of ice cream. He could almost always be counted on to have his pockets stuffed with peanuts to snack on. While Wooden's dietary routine is credited with his digestive troubles later in life. He was known to gulp down a bowl of chili and chase it with a hot fudge sundae.
- "Wizard" moniker-Blood was the Grey Thatched Wizard and Wooden was the Wizard of Westwood.
- Proponents of a controlled offense, fastbreak, and full court pressing defense.
- Gentlemen who were reserved in social situations.
- Neither man believed in charging a team up before a game. Both wanted a calm assurance in the dressing room and in the pregame warm-ups. 508, 509
Perhaps the most interesting comparison came indirectly from the great Green Bay football quarterback Bart Starr when he compared Wooden's winning to that of his coach Vince Lombardi. Starr mentioned this about the Wizard of Westwood: "Wooden equates basketball to the game of life. He says you have to be unselfish, that you have to play for the good of the team, that you have to be disciplined and do what he wants you to do as a team, that he will tolerate no individuality within that team. He wants you to play as a unit. This is what you end up doing in life because sooner or later you end up on a team." 510
Prof Blood certainly took pride in his team's ability to win and win, but the game always remained a means to an end-preparing the boys for the game of life. Before John Wooden ever took his first shot, Prof was equating basketball to the more important game of life. While reading John Wooden's book They Call Me Coach, you could substitute Blood's name for Wooden's, and you would accurately describe Blood's philosophy as well.
The major differences between Blood and Wooden were their eras of dominance (20's and 60's) and their arenas (high school and college). These led to the different places they hold in society's memory. Wooden has become a household name synonymous with basketball coaching excellence; Blood's story has never before been accurately told. His ideals, innovations, tribulations, and accomplishments remain faded, distorted, and lost in the annals of basketball.
There has never been a better time than the present to accurately resurrect the memory of a pioneer who stood for the epitome of idealism in sportsmanship and herald his story. Ernest Blood was a giant who walked the talk that is so missing in today's world of athletics. Let us never forget this trailblazer whose contributions and ideals were cast aside in the pursuit of winning. The rewards associated with victory usurped the true legacy of Passaic's Grey Thatched Wizard. All the reasons why winning was incidental were forgotten when winning for winning's sake became the goal.
Overlooking any personality peculiarity, Blood has been acclaimed as the best publicity man the city of Passaic ever had. No one before or since has brought the city as much fame as did this little basketball genius. 511
It is shameful that the school leaders didn't appreciate Blood's contributions at the time.
The great player from the Original Celtics and coach of City College of New York, Nat Holman put Prof Blood in his proper place when he said that he was "unquestionably the greatest coach of his time."512 Nat was obviously impressed with Prof because he took to heart some of the old master's most sage advice and imparted it to his own teams:
- Stay on the offense. The other team can't score when your team has the ball.
- Never argue with the referees; it's wasted motion.513
This bit of wisdom is just as appropriate today as it was when the Grey Thatched Wizard first insisted his teams follow it.
How long would Blood have been able to continue producing undefeated Wonder Teams? One thing is for sure, even under his tutelage, they would have lost eventually. When Prof took over at St. Benedict's Prep, he left Passaic with a plethora of basketball talent and with a system capable of replenishing that talent year after year. Passaic was a basketball city and remained so for many years. However, other ambitious coaches adopted his successful ways and, in time, the others would have caught up, and on one of those nights when fate steps in, one team would have defeated Prof's team fair and square as Union Hill High School did in 1919.
The little professor could coach, and he was a competitor. With a little luck, the uninterrupted parade of victories would have remained incidental for who knows how many more years. Was he a basketball genius? Relatively speaking, yes, but in reality, no. His ideas, methods, and philosophies were just years ahead of his time.