A Slam-Dunk Program

Wolf Pack Basketball has a right future and a proud history. Outsiders, and even some alumni, may not view Loyola as a school with a legendary basketball tradition. But the truth is the Wolf Pack has a rich roundball story, including a national championship, an upset over the fifth-ranked team in the country, and a coach who’s recently become the winningest in school history.

National Champs

New Orleans Advocate journalist and Loyola graduate Ramon Vargas ’09 (communication) chronicled the 1945 Loyola men’s basketball team’s NAIB (precursor to the NAIA) championship in his book Fight, Grin & Squarely Play the Game: The 1945 Loyola New Orleans Basketball Championship & Legacy. Vargas discovered the subject by accident when working for The Maroon. He wanted to know what it was like to attend Loyola in different eras, so he dug up old copies of The Maroon from World War II. The first page he opened to announced the Wolf Pack’s national championship. It’s the only national title any New Orleans basketball team has ever won. Soon after, he was digging up everything he could find on Loyola’s championship.

The team’s leading scorer was Leroy Chollet, who would go on to a career in the NBA and play in the NBA Finals for the Syracuse Nationals (the team that would become the Philadelphia 76ers). Jack Orsley was the coach. The season and championship brought joy and excitement to a university that had lost many students and alumni to World War II.

There is one mysterious side note to the 1945 team’s story: The trophy is missing.

While researching the book, Vargas asked former players about the trophy. None of them knew its location. Loyola officials graciously searched for the trophy with Vargas. But they never found it.

“Nobody knows where that trophy ended up,” Vargas says.

Shocking the Spartans

Another landmark Loyola basketball victory took place a little over 20 years later in December 1966 when Loyola’s men defeated the Michigan State Spartans, the fifth- ranked team in the country, 74-70. Charlie Young ’64 (journalism) covered the game for the States-Item. He still remembers it vividly.

The score was tied at 70 with 9 seconds left. Jim Jackoniski ’69 (business), a reserve who was in the game because starter Barry Geraghty ’67 (business), J.D. ’70, fouled out, sank a 15-foot baseline jumper to give the Wolf Pack the lead. Michigan State hurried up the court and missed a shot. Jackoniski came to the rescue again, securing the rebound and sinking two free throws to seal the victory.

Heading into the contest, Loyola was undefeated. Before the game, Young recalls a long line of people waiting on Freret Street to buy tickets. Over 5,300 fans showed up to cheer on Loyola. The atmosphere was electric.

"The noise was deafening,” Young says. “It was surreal. ... To see that kind of crowd was something else.”

While Jackoniski was the late hero, the end result was a balanced team effort. Ten people played, and eight of them scored. Charlie Powell was the team’s leading scorer with 16 points. Powell, an African American, was the first collegiate basketball player to break the color barrier in Louisiana.

“They played a very good Big 10 team to a standstill,” Young says. “It was just a hell of a game.”

The 1966-1967 Loyola men’s basketball team went on to play in the NCAA Tournament (now known as March Madness).

The Kellie Kennedy Era

Fifty years later, in the 2016-2017 season, Loyola Women’s Basketball Coach Kellie Kennedy became the winningest basketball coach in Loyola history. She has 195 wins and should easily clear 200 in the upcoming season. The women’s basketball team has won four conference championships in a row during her nine-season tenure. She’s humble about her success, attributing much of it to the athletic directors, assistant coaches, and players she has worked with over the years.

“You don’t do it alone,” she says. “All the players who have come through the program have been a big part of my success. I’ve had great assistant coaches, too. Coaching collegiate sports is a hard job. When you have people who share your enthusiasm and work ethic, it makes it so much easier.”

Kennedy, a 1990 graduate of the University of North Carolina and a former collegiate basketball player herself, says working at a university like Loyola makes it easier for her to recruit young women who are both quality players and quality human beings. Part of the attraction for recruits is an exciting city like New Orleans. But much of the appeal comes from the school itself.

"It’s a great academic institution,” she says. “For women’s basketball, that’s a big draw.”

For Kennedy, the biggest challenge of the job is not the X's and O's but working with young women, mentoring them, and watching them grow up over four years.

“You want them to be the best people they can be when they leave,” Kennedy says. “It’s extremely challenging but extremely rewarding.”

Kennedy is grateful for being a part of Loyola’s storied basketball history but is optimistic that the future will be bright, as well.

“We have a great tradition [with Loyola basketball], but we’re creating traditions as we continue, too,” Kennedy says.

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