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Penn’s Greatest Hoop Star

The record books—and this awed alumnus—say it’s Ernie Beck. By Nick Lyons


What I remember most from freshman tryouts are the unerring softness and accuracy of his shots, the grace of his movements, his deceptive speed. That was a full 52 years ago, the fall of 1949. I was a short, skinny kid from Brooklyn who had not played high-school ball but could run all day—and I was mad for the game; I was satisfied to find my name still on the list after each cut. Tom Holt C’53, who was quicker, in every way a better ballplayer than I was and had played guard on Ernie Beck’s West Catholic high-school team, was going to start. I wanted to stick—and watch our remarkable short center.

Ernie, at 6 feet, 3 1/2 inches, played a roving high post and could spin, turn swiftly, and throw up his amazing, soft jump shots and pumps, or keep going, a good step ahead of the defender now, and score from anywhere underneath. He started at center as a sophomore, under coach Howie Dalmar, who had recruited him after Ernie’s brilliant high-school career, and most of the records he set still stand. Beck’s was a perfectly stunning college career.

Ernie still holds the Penn record for most points in a career—1,827 (though he played only three years of varsity ball and the runners-up could play varsity as freshmen). His 673 points in the 1952-53 season have never been topped, nor have his records for most points in a game—47 against Duke on December 30, 1952—and, second most—45 against Harvard on February 6, 1952.

Despite the high scoring, Dick Harter Ed’53, who played on those teams and has since become such a superb professional coach, told me that Ernie was always an unselfish team player first. His passing was superb and his quickness often set up opportunities for others. Dick and I both remembered his finesse, intelligence, and durability.

I remember a particular game against Columbia, on Columbia’s home court. Ernie was paired against the gangly 6 feet, 6 inches Jack Molinas—subject of the recent Wizard of Odds, a brilliant, self-destructive, crooked ballplayer who by 43 had married a porn star and gotten himself killed by the mob. Playing tough defense, Ernie had picked up four personal fouls by early in the second half, but he kept playing Molinas tight and Dalmar left him in the game; he blocked three shots, scored sensationally, and Penn won. I had invited two friends from the New York area to the game; we had all played against Molinas out at Manhattan Beach. One of them smirked, before the game, and said, “Jack will chew him up.” After the game they both just shook their heads.

The records—all of which still stand—go further: 1,557 rebounds in his three-year career; 556 rebounds in 1950-51. He made up for his size, against much bigger centers, by remarkable timing and quickness; he was never fancy or flaunting or even spectacular—only sharper. He still has the most field goals in a career—704; the most free throws in a season—183 in 1952-53; and the highest career and single-season scoring averages—22.3, and 25.9 in 1952-53.

Dalmar built the short team around Ernie but Ernie never played the game for himself. Soft spoken, modest, he did what would work, what would win—though one effective play was always to let Ernie go one on one against any center, of any height. But it was his ability to respond electrically to the slightest chance and that quick, soft shot—he often shot better than 40 percent—that built the records.

I asked Dick Harter, now defensive coach for the Boston Celtics, about Ernie’s pro career. “He was the wrong size,” Dick said. “Too small to be up front, so Philadelphia turned him into a guard, which was wrong.” Ernie confirmed this to me. “The transition to the Warriors and the pros was not easy for me,” he said.

I saw Ernie one last time after we graduated in 1953. I had been in the Army, changed the direction of my life and gone back to school in upstate New York, and when I saw that the Warriors had a pre-season game scheduled in nearby Poughkeepsie, I drove over. There I witnessed something I had only slenderly seen before: Ernie on the bench. I, who held all records for bench-sitting, was bewildered and sad.

Ernie has not played serious basketball since 1965, when he played weekends after beginning to coach himself. He loves to play golf now, often with old teammates from West Catholic, sometimes with Tom Holt. He bemoans that he is “in the midst of a duck hook off the tee.”

Each sports era exists in its unique space. By the fifties, the deliberate game of the thirties and forties, with its fixed positions and long two-handed set shots, seemed antique to us. And the game today is in every way more dazzling. The players are vastly taller, faster, more aggressive, even in another state of evolution. But the fifties are when the modern era in basketball began, and Ernie Beck was one of the finest college players of his time—an All-American, surely the best in the Ivy League, and the best Penn has ever seen. Fifty years have not dulled for me the excitement of those quick turns and passes, and that lithe jump—legs splayed—and shots that turned a leather ball to cotton.

Nick Lyons W’53 has been a professor of English, author (of several dozen books), and book publisher. He has been married to the painter Mari Lyons for 44 years and they have four grown children.

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