BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — As we celebrate Black History Month in February, St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, kicked off the observance on the first day of the month.
For only the second time in the history of the men’s basketball program, the Terriers retired a jersey number. The No. 19 of the great Al Inniss now hangs next to the No. 22 jersey of the “Face of St. Francis” himself, Dennis McDermott, inside the Peter Aquilone basketball court of the Daniel Lynch Gymnasium.
Inniss was honored during a halftime ceremony as the Terriers took on Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. The jersey retirement cements his legacy as one of the top student-athletes to have ever played hoops at St. Francis
Born in Harlem, Inniss spent countless hours playing any and every sport growing up, which allowed him to develop his athletic ability early on.
“Growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, street ball was the thing,” he said. “We’d play punchball, we’d play stickball. Touch-tackle football was in the winter, and stickball and punchball were in the summer.
“I was always running, jumping or doing something. When I was in second and third grade, I ran against guys in fourth and fifth grade and was beating them.”
Inniss attended Brooklyn Technical H.S., Fort Greene. Despite his later success on the basketball court, he wound up playing in only a handful of high school games. Instead, he learned the game by playing against top college players on street courts throughout the Big Apple.
As Inniss puts it, winding up at St. Francis College was a “funny thing.” He had received scholar- ship offers to play down South, but he had a friend, Danny Smith, who went to St. Francis and told him about what it would be like to play college ball in New York. It wound up being a terrific fit.
From 1954 through 1958, the 6-foot, 7-inch center was a dominant force for the Terriers. He was the team’s leading scorer in both the 1956-1957 and 1957-1958 campaigns, as he averaged 18.4 points per game in both seasons. Additionally, Inniss is the Terriers’ all-time leading rebounder with 1,667 career boards.
During his sophomore year of 1955-1956, the team posted a 21-4 record, which included an 18-game winning streak en route to a berth in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). The Terriers advanced to the semifinals, which is the furthest any team in program history has reached in the NIT.
In a memorable first-round tournament victory on March 17, 1956 at Madison Square Garden, Inniss pulled down an astounding 37 rebounds against Lafayette College, Easton, Pa. The number stands as a single-game record for St. Francis and the Garden.
When his college career ended, he was the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,503 points, which currently places him sixth on the school’s scoring list. The tri-captain as a senior is also the only Terrier who is a three-time All-Metropolitan Basketball Writers’ Association selection.
In the 1958 NBA draft, the Minneapolis Lakers used their No. 1 overall pick to select Elgin Baylor, who starred in the pros for more than a dozen years and was eventually inducted into the Naismith
Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977. Several picks later in that same draft, the Lakers took Inniss with the first pick in the sixth round.
Though he was a center in college, he profiled as more of a forward at the next level. But he was used to playing with his back to the basket. The Lakers sent him a plane ticket to report to their training camp, but instead he signed a contract to play professionally in Pesaro, Italy.
“That one year in Italy was one of the best years of my life,” Inniss said. “I really enjoyed it. Matter of fact, I was so immersed in the culture there that I spoke pretty fluent Italian. I still even remember a few words.”
When he returned to the U.S., he worked in the NYC Civil Service as an assistant accountant before he was promoted to assistant controller in the NYC Health and Hospitals affiliate. Inniss later worked in Washington, D.C., for the federal government and spent 20 years domestically and internationally as a financial officer before retiring in 1995.
The St. Francis Athletics Hall of Famer (inducted in 1968) now resides in Springfield, Mass., just a 10-minute drive from the Naismith Hall of Fame. During his jersey retirement ceremony, he also received the first annual Levi Bough Trailblazer Award, named in honor of the first African-American basketball player in St. Francis’ program’s history.
“My father would have been very proud,” Inniss said. “My mom always said, ‘Ball, ball, ball! That’s
all you do is play ball!’ I said, ‘Yes, but I’m getting an education, too.’”
Now, his jersey will forever hang in the St. Francis gymnasium as an example to the next set of Terrier looking to make an impact as student-athletes in Brooklyn Heights.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.