In his illustrious NBA career, the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points, which remains the record for most points scored in a professional basketball career.
He was also a six-time NBA champion and six- time NBA MVP. Clearly, the name “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” is synonymous with winning.
The same was true when his name was Lew Alcindor. As a youth, Alcindor was an unstoppable force wherever he played, and his teams were perennially ranked among the best in the city.
That’s why the 1961 Our Lady of Angels (OLA), Bay Ridge, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Grammar School division team is still being talk- ed about today more than 60 years later. This team beat the mighty Alcindor – and every other team they faced that season – en route to 55 straight wins.
The quest began with exhibition victories in September 1960. Even as eighth graders, OLA would routinely scrimmage high school freshmen teams and rack up the wins. They also played in several local high school tournaments, naturally winning each one.
The team was comprised of neighborhood kids who all had a passion for excellence on the court. The five starters were Steve Gardell, Billy Bell, Frank Scoblete, Doug Bernhard, and 6-foot 8-inch Patrick Heelan. Coming off the bench were Ken Pederson, Joseph Atanasio, Charlie Hasselgren, James Cronin, Louis Dottrina, Bob Murray, Ken Kratchman, Richard Morris, and Bill Jacobson.
Heelan was the team’s leading scorer followed by Scoblete, who dubbed this team the “Real Dream Team.” Game after game, OLA did every- thing right and found themselves in a position to win and – more often than not – win big.
The team’s coach, Brother Barnabas, O.S.F. – who was only referred to by this one name after joining the order – worked his team hard in practice. They constantly practiced the full-court press, the fast break, and mixing up their offensive and defensive schemes as to not be predict- able to their opponents.
In the city at the time, two grammar school teams stood out as the best of the best: St. Cecilia in the Bronx and St. Jude in upper Manhattan – the team featuring the 6-foot 10-inch Alcindor.
St. Cecilia, which had three players who could dunk as eighth graders, won 30 straight games and was ranked No. 2 in the city before playing OLA in the St. Francis Prep, Williamsburg, Tournament. OLA was 17-0 heading into that game and soon made it 18-0. A full-court press on defense and a 16-0 run to start the game on offense eventually led OLA to a dominant 42-point win – leading them to take over the No. 2 ranking.
Next up was Alcindor’s St. Jude squad, the No. 1 team in the city. A month after beating St. Cecilia, OLA entered the LaSalle Academy, Manhattan, Tournament and faced off against the undefeated St. Jude in front of a standing-room-only crowd – given the hype surrounding the matchup of the city’s two best teams in this age group.
“At that time in the season, people knew that we were really good and that St. Jude was really good, so when we got there, the place was packed,” said Bernhard, a guard/forward on the team who still lives in Bay Ridge and is still a parishioner at OLA.
“When we went out on the court and saw how big he (Alcindor) was, it was kind of a shock to us, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t fear anybody. We didn’t even know we’d be playing him. We did what we had to do. We did our regular thing.”
Heelan picked up three fouls in the first quarter and had to sit out with the score tied. When he re-entered in the third quarter, OLA was up 10 thanks to their tenacious attack on both offense and defense, especially how they triple-teamed Alcindor at times. When the dust settled, OLA notched a 15-point victory – which surprisingly was their lowest margin of victory for the entire year. A new No. 1-ranked team had arisen.
“I tell my grandkids that I was on a team that beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and I show them the trophy that we got,” Bernhard said. “I still have it.”
In addition to these signature wins, OLA of course captured the CYO Brooklyn borough championship as well as the diocesan champion- ship. The following year, most of the same group returned to capture the Tyro division diocesan championship – though in not as dominating fashion as in 1961.
Bernhard said he has not remained in contact with his former teammates. Over the past six decades, they all went their separate ways and carved out their own life paths.
Yet no matter where they are, they share the profound memory of that magical season of 55 consecutive wins over the city’s top talent, including one of the best to ever play on the game’s highest stage.
Given his extensive list of career accomplishments, maybe Abdul-Jabbar wouldn’t remember that one game of the 1961 LaSalle Tournament. You can be sure though that 14 players on OLA have never forgotten that game or, better yet, that entire season.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.