The Night The Ball Stood Still: 80 years on

The St. Cecilia's team coached by Vince Lombardi that beat Bogota, 6-1, on February 29, 1940. For all and everyone it encompassed, the game is still worth examining nearly 80 years later.

Eighty years later, the final score still produces an assortment of questions: Why would a coach have his team hold the ball for so long?  Did anybody actually try to score?  Did rules not exist to keep this from happening?  What was the reaction to this stunt?  St. Cecilia’s 6-1 basketball victory over Bogota on Leap Day 1940 remains one of the most incomprehensible results in the history of North Jersey high school sports. 

Add one coach who would eventually enter the pantheon of America’s most legendary sports heroes, another coach who was already a father of Bergen County high school athletics, and a player who would become one of Bergen County’s most beloved sports figures, and the February 29, 1940 contest between the Saints and the Bucs enters the realm of legend.

The roughly 200 fans in Englewood for the late season ballgame had reason to expect a competitive one.  Five weeks earlier, in Bogota, the Bucs had beaten the Saints, 35-26.  This time, Bogota entered the game at 14-2, and St. Cecilia was a respectable 9-8.  Referee Abe Cohen tossed the ball in the air for the opening tip and, for a few brief moments, this seemed like any other scholastic basketball game.  The Saints won the tip and center Johnny Moon missed a shot on the game’s first possession. 

Bogota grabbed the rebound, brought the ball up the court and, as St. Cecilia set up its zone defense, Bucs guard Henry Baum stood in one spot and……. held the ball for the final seven and a half minutes of the first quarter. 

Without a rule in 1940 that forbid an offensive stall, Cohen had no choice but to let time fall off the clock.  Bogota took possession to start the second quarter, the Saints remained in their zone, and the stalemate continued for the entire eight-minute period, with the ball handler providing the only difference.  This time, Bogota’s other guard, Jim Thompson, stood with the ball under his arm as the clock ticked, uninterrupted, from 8:00 to 0:00.  By halftime of the scoreless game, the Bogota freeze had gone from a curiosity to an abomination. 

St. Cecilia’s basketball coach, 26-year-old Vincent Lombardi, in his first year as both a teacher and coach, had a limited basketball background.  He had played on the team at Brooklyn’s Cathedral Prep, his first high school, but football was his love.  Three years removed from his spot as the right guard in Fordham’s fabled Seven Blocks of Granite offensive line, Lombardi had agreed to the head basketball job when he signed his teaching contract.  With only a basic knowledge of basketball strategy and with limited time to learn – his role as assistant football coach required the majority of his time through Thanksgiving – Lombardi employed a zone defense, which he believed would be easiest to teach, for the Saints.

The head coach on the opposite bench, Bogota’s Everett “Ev” Hebel, was very much a basketball man.  Already in his twelfth season with the Bucs at age 35, Hebel had been named the first president of the Bergen County Coaches Association in 1935 and was highly respected in the cage game.  He had coached Bogota to the Group II state championship in 1935 and to a state runner-up finish two years later.  Additionally, he was widely considered one of the best basketball referees in the area.  There was no more prominent name in Bergen County basketball than Ev Hebel, and if there was one thing a true basketball man hated in 1940, that thing was a zone defense. 

St. Cecilia won the second half tip and, just as it had to start the game, the possession ended with a miss, this time by Bill Corcoran.  Bogota again used a freeze but this time, after two minutes, the Saints came out of their zone and pressured the Bucs.  Incredibly, Bogota still refused to shoot, passing the ball back and forth instead.  Eventually, Corcoran intercepted a pass, but St. Cecilia missed another shot on the ensuing possession.  The scoreboard still read 0-0 after three quarters.

By this point, emotions were heightened in the Englewood gymnasium.  Lombardi teetered between incredulity and fury, Hebel remained stubborn, and the fans grew restless as they directed boos at Bogota.  The Passaic Herald-News described the fans as “disgusted.”  The Record called the game “a nerve-wracking affair” despite providing “little actual excitement,” and noted, “Officials of both schools were prepared for a free-for-all riot after the end of the game.”

Hebel, hearing the boos and feeling the tension, finally decided to let the Bucs play in the fourth quarter – sort of.  After another period-opening miss by the Saints, Bogota again froze the ball, but only for a minute, before moving offensively and missing a shot, the team’s first attempt of the night.  On the next possession, St. Cecilia’s Fred Schoenfelder made the second of two free throws and, with less than six minutes left in the game, the Saints had a 1-0 lead.  The teams traded free throws with under two minutes left:  Al Noriega tied the game on what would be the Bucs’ only point of the game, and Corcoran put St. Cecilia back on top, 2-1.  The score remained until the final minute of the contest, when field goals by Corcoran and Schoenfelder accounted for the final tally.

The numbers in the box score hardly indicated that a basketball game had been played:  twenty-six scoreless minutes, thirty-one minutes without a field goal, five fouls called, six free throws attempted, zero substitutes used.  The squads shot a combined 2-for-22 from the field, with all seven Bogota misses coming in the fourth quarter. 

Reaction from the local press was direct and damning.  The headline of The Record’s sports page the next day screamed, “BOGOTA, SAINTS PLAY 3 SCORELESS PERIODS IN COURT FARCE,” and the article added, in the common sportswriting practice of the era that compared athletic endeavors to historical events, “It looked like the war on the Western Front,” a reference to the slow pace and frequent trench stalemates of World War I.  The Herald-News said that the teams “staged a freak ball.”  The Associated Press even picked up the story and a two-sentence blurb about the oddity ran in far-away newspapers like the Detroit Free Press, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Atlanta Constitution, and San Francisco Examiner.

Cohen, the referee, remained professional throughout the game, but endured good-natured teasing in the local press nonetheless.  The March 1 edition of The Herald-News pointed out that he had “had an easy time all night.”  Various columns and articles in The Record over the following week explained that he “was paid only for his time,” accused him of “stealing money,” and described his efforts as “stand[ing] by nonchalantly.”  When asked about the fan reaction, Cohen offered, “The boys and girls were very considerate of how I felt about the matter.  Most of them were asking me if I wanted a chair.”

Eight decades later, Ev Hebel’s tactics require an explanation.  Local lore has always maintained that Hebel chose to hold the ball as a means of saving his players’ energy for the upcoming state tournament that started later in the week, an assumption largely based on the column that accompanied The Record’s March 1 article about the game.  “The only explanation made for Bogota’s strategy,” claimed the newspaper, “was that Hebel was saving his boys for tomorrow night’s tournament game against Butler.”  (In reality, the Bucs’ opponent was Caldwell, not Butler.)  Even Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, who devotes a full page of his Lombardi biography, When Pride Still Mattered, to the game, offers player rest as the primary reason behind Bogota’s freeze.  Such an explanation, however, only tells a portion of the story.  The entirety of the explanation for the freeze was found in Al Del Greco’s column in The Record on March 2.  “I don’t approve of a zone,” Hebel said.  “It spoils the game and should be abolished.  That’s not basketball.”

Hebel had quite a bit of support in his assessment of the zone.  With Depression-era basketball still trying to find its place in the American sports landscape, college coaches and arena promoters were wary of any tactics that lessened the potential for excitement. 

Without a shot clock or any rules that forced the offensive team to move forward, purists looked at zone defenses as another mechanism to slow the game.  A year earlier, in January of 1939, Dr. James Naismith himself, then 77 years old, had given a speech in New York City about the state of basketball.  Among his chief complaints:  “The defensive team which lays back and waits for the offense to come to it is stalling.  A zone defense does not belong in the game and is a violation of the fundamental principles of basketball.”  

Similar objections flooded college basketball in the winter of 1940.  Ben Van Alstyne of Michigan State declared, “The zone defense in basketball must go.”  Marquette’s Bill Chandler implored his peers to recognize a “gentleman’s agreement not to use [the zone].”  Henry Iba, who was in the process of building Oklahoma A&M into a national power in the early 1940s, so despised the zone that his 1993 obituary acclaimed, “He was proud of the fact that he never used a zone defense.”  Even proponents of the zone defense often admitted to feeling obligated to use it because of their personnel, while acknowledging that it hurt the game.  For Hebel and other coaches like him, the only way to combat the zone was to prove its foolishness by calling for an offensive stall.

The February 29 game against Bogota was the final outing of the season for St. Cecilia.  The win guaranteed the Saints a 10-win season and a winning record.  Bogota, of course, still had a state championship to chase.  On March 2, the Bucs beat Caldwell, 43-23, at Eastside High School in Paterson.  The Record ran the heading, “Bucs Abandon Freeze,” and joked, “Bogota’s straight play (resulting from Caldwell’s man-to-man defense) was a mild disappointment.”  Hebel’s squad followed with wins over Westwood and Hasbrouck Heights for the North 1, Group II title before downing Cranford in the state semifinal.  The Bucs’ turned in a lackluster effort in the state championship game, however, and lost to Wildwood.

While Bogota was making its way through the NJSIAA tournament, Lombardi and three of his players – Corcoran, Schoenfelder, and Walt Standish – were preparing for an all-star doubleheader at the Teaneck Armory on March 23.  A team of Bergen County parochial standouts was slated to play the top players from county schools without a conference affiliation in the first game, followed by the NNJIL against BSCL all-stars in the second.  Proceeds were slated for a relief fund for the people of Finland, which was under Soviet occupation.  Despite his status as a basketball novice, Lombardi was named coach of the All-Parochial team, and he led his charges to a 30-29 triumph.  The 1939-40 high school basketball season had officially ended, but the legend of the 6-1 game was only beginning.

Bill Corcoran, who scored three of the Saints’ six points in their win over Bogota, would soon after more commonly be referred to as “Mickey,” a moniker given to him by Lombardi, who often called him “Mickey Mouse” because he wasn’t particularly tall for a basketball player.  Along with Bogota’s Thompson, he was one of the five players named First Team All-County in 1940.  After graduating from St. Cecilia, Corcoran served as an athletic instructor in the United States Navy during World War II, where he played basketball under Lieutenant John Wooden, the eventual “Wizard of Westwood” who was then the base coach.  He returned home after the war, influencing the lives of thousands of student-athletes during his career as an educator, first as a teacher and head basketball coach at River Dell, and later as the athletic director at Northern Highlands.  He was a longtime referee, and was an integral part of the Bergen Jamboree committee for decades.  Affectionately called “The Mentor” in his later years, Corcoran served as a human time capsule, telling stories and offering advice on the courts and fields of Bergen County until his death in 2015.  [As an aside, Corcoran, a lifelong basketball man, is one of the links in the century-long coaching tree that connects two of football’s greatest coaches, Knute Rockne to Bill Belichick.  Rockne coached Frank Leahy at Notre Dame; Leahy coached Lombardi at Fordham; Lombardi coached Corcoran at St. Cecilia; Corcoran coached Bill Parcells at River Dell; Parcells mentored Belichick with the NFL’s Giants, Patriots, and Jets.]

Lombardi spent eight years as a teacher and coach at St. Cecilia, and was a part of six consecutive NJSIAA sectional championship football teams, the final three as the head coach.  He coached in the college ranks at Fordham and Army before beginning a five-year stint as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants in 1954.  By the time the Giants lost “The Greatest Game Ever Played” to the Baltimore Colts in 1958, Lombardi was 45 and frustrated.  Having been rejected for multiple head coaching openings, most disappointingly at middling Wake Forest, a rejection often attributed to his last name ending in a vowel, the Green Bay Packers finally gave Lombardi his head coaching opportunity in 1959.  The rest of his life comprises not just football history, but American legend.

Unlike Lombardi, who received multiple selective service deferments, possibly due to poor eyesight, Hebel’s coaching career was interrupted by World War II.  He applied for and was granted a direct commission as a Navy officer, and left Bogota for Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the summer of 1942.  The departure of Hebel, a football official in the fall, and other officials created a shortage of football referees in North Jersey that autumn.  For three years, Hebel served as an instructor in the Navy’s aviation program, ultimately returning to Bogota for most of the 1945-46 school year.  He left his teaching and coaching duties in 1950 to work for the New Jersey Department of Education as a physical education supervisor and evaluator.  He held various positions with the NJSIAA and served as a graduate instructor at several New Jersey colleges and universities.  Hebel is credited as one of the men responsible for making the mouthpiece a mandatory piece of high school football equipment.   In 1969, he said of his freeze strategy, “Looking back, it was probably the silliest thing I ever did.”

Whether silliness or smart strategy, the freeze never disappeared entirely.  In 1950, Ridgewood froze the ball for most of the first three quarters against Ramsey, and trailed 8-1, before forcing the action in the fourth quarter of a 17-8 loss.  Two years later, in the only Bergen County game that truly paralleled St. Cecilia-Bogota in 1940, Park Ridge used the freeze against Bergenfield in February of 1952.  The Owls had lost to the Mighty Mites by 40 points earlier in the season, and decided that their only chance to win the rematch came in the form of a freeze.  The strategy almost worked, but Bergenfield won, 5-4. 

Freeze tactics largely disappeared in the high-scoring era of the Sixties and Seventies, but have occasionally returned to the high school hardwood.  Among other instances, the 19th-seeded Tenafly girls utilized a stall strategy against 3rd-seeded Paramus Catholic in the 2013 Bergen County Tournament.  The strategy worked; Tenafly led, 2-0, after the first quarter, and won, 31-30 in overtime.  And in the 2018 North 1, Group III semifinals, the Demarest boys essentially stalled through all four overtimes of a 52-50 win over Wayne Hills, in which the teams combined for eight total points in the extra periods.

At some point in the future, a coach will pull out another freeze.  But no matter where or when it appears again, that coach and that game will live in the shadow of Lombardi’s Saints and Hebel’s Bucs eighty years ago.