The standstill in sports today is deafening in its silence: Stadiums lay empty, sports pages barren—thanks to the wrecking ball of the Coronavirus. But it’s worth noting there was another time when there was a blank spot in the arena of sports. That was nearly a century ago, before college basketball and the professional game rose to prominence. But then along came the backboard-banging ferocity of a once-famous and now lost figure in history.
His nickname: King Kong.
Think Seabiscuit—but instead of a thoroughbred, imagine a face chiselled with the rough-hewn look of one from the streets of Yonkers, just outside New York City. In a single game, that All-American guy—the unlikely Irwin “King Kong” Klein—transformed the college game and ushered in a little thing called March Madness.
Let’s back up a bit. In the shadow of the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarianism across the globe, college basketball was a decidedly local affair in the 1930s. A handful of teams from different parts of the country would anoint themselves the best of the best annually.
Not long after James Naismith, a Christian chaplain, invented basketball in 1891 with a wooden peach basket, the crowning of a national champion was done by a single person—an obscure man named Willrich R. “Bill” Schroeder. He was a collector of sports memorabilia and a failed former semi-pro baseball player, archival records show. Schroeder worked for what was known as the Helms Athletic Foundation in Los Angeles. There was no foundation; it lived only in name as part of the Paul Helms Bakery.
But then along came an idea born of a minor mishap.
It was in the early 1930s, and a bald, cigar-chomping journalist named Ned Irish couldn’t make his way through a throng of ticket holders clamouring to enter a small gymnasium in New York City. They had come to witness the notorious King Kong Klein, who was playing center for the all-Jewish Violets of New York University.
King Kong Klein was an almost mythic figure—at 6’-3” inches, considered big back then, and brawny, at over 200 pounds.
Irish, needing to cover the game for the World Telegram, climbed through an upper window to gain entrance to the sold-out game of about 5,000. But in the process, he ripped a hole in his suit.
The accident at the crowded gym got Irish thinking. His brainchild was this: He would invite college basketball powerhouses from all over the country to play against each other for bragging rights at the vaunted Madison Square Garden. The grand arena in Manhattan was struggling to fill its seats in the wake of the nation’s economic free fall. Irish would pay rent only if he could sell enough seats. The Garden agreed.
What followed soon after was the game that changed it all: King Kong Klein’s undefeated NYU team was pitted against the undefeated Southern powerhouse, the Kentucky Wildcats, on January 5, 1935.
The match up was a classic barn burner, a clash of styles between two great teams at their peak: NYU, reflecting its Northeastern roots, played a fast-break, quick-cutting game.
Kentucky employed a methodical approach, based on a handful of set plays. Each was designed around center, Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, a basketball prodigy who honed his craft from the cradle of basketball, small-town Indiana. Led by Cowboy, at 6’-5”, Kentucky employed moving screens, then an innovative strategy, to set free the big man for a thunderous score.
But this game wasn’t being played in the South, and the refs were calling fouls on the moving screens. Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach, was apoplectic as Cowboy and King Kong Klein wrestled in the paint of a tight game.
In the final seconds, Cowboy, driving to the hoop with what would have surely been the bucket to seal victory, was called for an illegal move against King Kong Klein, and Cowboy fouled out of the game.
The final score:
King Kong Klein’s play altered the game overnight, or, as the New York Post put it decades later, “It was his chest-to-chest battle with huge Leroy Edwards of Kentucky which changed the rules on contact in the court game.”
The NYU-Kentucky contest paved the way for the creation of the three-second rule, one of the most significant regulations that dictates play in the NBA today. That is, no offensive player can stay in the paint under the basketball for more than three seconds. The rule was instituted to keep the tussling to a minimum, to maintain a modicum of grace over brute force.
What’s more, the NYU-Kentucky game, widely covered by newspapers and radio of the day, sparked a furious debate about how to crown the national champion.
After the game, Coach Rupp told the assembled media that this one loss shouldn’t preclude his Kentucky team from being considered the national champs when the season came to an end. Rather, Rupp advocated for a tournament pitting regional powers against each other, culminating in a national championship match.
Prompted by Rupp’s remarks, that is exactly what would happen just a few years hence. In other words: March Madness.
“Now, that King Kong Klein,” Rupp recalled later. “I’ll never forget that guy; he’s bigger than Edwards! And they got under that basket and they just wrestled and wrestled and banged each other all over that place.”
Rupp did just fine, ending his career with four national championships. Cowboy became one the greatest basketball players of all time. And Irish, the impresario of Madison Square Garden, would go onto help invent the NBA, run the New York Knicks and be inducted into the professional basketball Hall of Fame.
For his part, King Kong Klein led his team to the national championship and then receded into a quiet life of obscurity. He’d go onto reffing high school games, but the NYU-Kentucky game left one other lasting legacy: Historians agree, it inaugurated the golden age of college basketball, transformed Madison Square Garden into the mecca of basketball and turned college basketball into a national sport before spurring the rise of the professional game.
Irwin “King Kong” Klein is a distant relative of the author, who has written a treatment for a screenplay about the once celebrated figure. Alec Klein is the author of the memoir, Aftermath, which is being published by Republic Book Publishers in May.