Hoop dream: Ireland fan shoots to get coach into Hall
Dr. Paul Smulson of Wilmette, once a Skokie neighbor of former Loyola Basketball Coach George Ireland, wants to see Ireland and his team inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts. | Dan Luedert~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2013 6:46AM
When Dr. Paul Smulson visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., he had little idea the experience would set him on a tireless course for the next three years.
Nowhere in the building was there a trace of Loyola University Coach George Ireland and his 1963 championship team.
“There was 1961 and 1962 and then 1964,” Smulson said. “But what happened to 1963? It wasn’t there.”
In his campaign to get Ireland and his ’63 championship team into the hall, the Wilmette oral surgeon has been driving the lane over and over, looking for his shot.
It could come next month during the NBA All-Star Game when the latest inductee into the hall is scheduled to be announced at half-time. Smulson admits he is isn’t terribly optimistic – he’s experienced too much defense leaving him a bit weary – but he will be glued to the set and ready to celebrate.
“When I started this, I thought it would be a cakewalk,” said Smulson. “I never expected this to still be an issue.”
In the last three years, Smulson has collected 10 full notebooks of clippings making a case for the local coach who died in 2001.
Ireland helmed Loyola’s basketball team for 24 years, many of them while living in Skokie. That’s when he met the teenage Smulson, a neighbor on Kostner Avenue. Following the famous ’63 season, when Loyola captured the national title by topping Cincinnati in a thrilling overtime game, Smulson visited the coach’s home, marveling at his trophies, banners and Loyola memorabilia.
Smulson loved basketball, went to Loyola games and saw Ireland’s teams compete on the Loyola floor on the North Side of Chicago.
“He was not only a hero to me, but I wanted to be a coach just like him,” he said.
He became closer to the grand coach who considered Smulson his best friend by the time he died.
Yet, Smulson is reluctant to talk about their tight friendship because he doesn’t want to convey that a personal connection is all that drives him.
“I don’t even bring up that I was friends with George Ireland when I make my case,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with why he should get in.”
There are many reasons why he should, even beyond his four 20-victory seasons during the ’60s, the four times he took the Ramblers to the NCAA tournament and the one time he took the team to the NIT. The ’63 championship saw Loyola coming back from a 15-point deficit to beat a two-time defending champion in one of the most memorable games in history.
The 1966 Texas Western basketball team fronting an all-black starting lineup against an all-white Kentucky team in the finals receives much credit for the integration of college basketball. Yet, Smulson and other Ireland fans note that Loyola quietly took major steps forward on that court a few years earlier.
“At a time when the 1960’s civil rights struggle was still emerging, when segregation had yet to be broken, when college basketball was still predominately a white sport, Ireland had four black players in the starting lineup of his 1963 title team,” read the New York Times obituary of Ireland, one of the many clips in Smulson’s library.
Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, a Loyola University graduate student in the ’60s, agreed to Ireland’s request to tutor some of his players.
“I remember (Ireland) was a big, barrel-chested guy who commanded your attention,” Van Dusen said. “I was sort of in a corner, and I just said yes, feeling I should do something for the school.”
Smulson came to see the mayor, requesting that he send a letter to the hall to support Ireland, which he did.
“What touched me was how much he cared for the success of his students,” the mayor wrote. “This was no easy time for coaches like Ireland. It was during the Civil Rights era, and it’s forgotten the courage it took to put African-Americans on a basketball court.”
Why other coaches have received more attention for helping to integrate college basketball and graduating their players is open to conjecture.
Ireland “spoke his mind,” Smulson said, and maybe that’s a reason; he could be blunt but he certainly cared greatly for the welfare of his players.
The Skokie mayor is one of many whom Smulson has recruited in support of getting Ireland and his team the ultimate recognition. Politicians, sports figures, owners and other important people have been contacted by Smulson and have joined the campaign in one way or another.
Ed Kelly of the Chicago Park District called him “a pit bull,” an apt description echoed by Smulson’s wife, Robin.
“He doesn’t stop,” she said. “He said he would stop several times but he keeps doing more.”
Jerry Harkness, the Loyola starter under Ireland who went on to play in the NBA, insisted Smulson was going to be the one to get the team in. Harkness was part of history when in a 1963 game against Mississippi State he shook the hand of a white player, a monumental moment because of the time in which it occurred.
In 2012, nearly 50 years later, the two teams played again for the first time and paid homage to “The Game of Change.”
To Smulson, Ireland was a coach of change.
In October, Smulson visited the hall again to make a case for Ireland. While the hall has shown interest in an exhibit on the Loyola coach and his team, there has been no guarantee about induction.
“I was told that no one seems to know who this Loyola team is,” Smulson said.
He believes his efforts these last three years played a part in the hall creating several new committees to better scrutinize who deserves induction, and now a veteran’s committee will decide Coach Ireland’s fate.
In the meantime, Smulson tells anyone who will listen why his friend should be a permanent member. Smulson will know how his game ends on Feb. 17 when East meets West. The ball is in the air and he is hoping for nothing but net.