Last Tuesday night, Donald B. Swegan watched his television screen intently when Princeton’s victory over the University of Pennsylvania granted the Harvard men’s basketball team is first ticket to the NCAA tournament in 66 years. For any Crimson fan, it was an exciting moment, but for Swegan—one of the ten Harvard players who made the trip to the tournament in 1946—it brought back a flood of memories.
“In those days, only eight teams went to the NCAA.... To be selected was quite an honor,” he said.
When Swegan, who came to Harvard for one year as part of the Navy V-12 program, later re-named NROTC, joined the basketball program in 1945, he found himself on a team largely made up of fellow Navy men.
According to Swegan, six of the Navy men playing for Harvard the last time the Crimson went to the Big Dance had been captains of their previous schools’ basketball teams.
“It just happened that we were all sent to Harvard at that time and came together as a very good team,” he said.
Swegan and his teammates traveled to Madison Square Garden in March 1946 to face Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“I certainly had never experienced anything like that, and I doubt if the other [players] had either,” said John D. Clark ’47, another member of the team. “To be in Madison Square Garden and to be a part of that was exceptional, something that went beyond any dream I had.”
Despite the team’s 46-38 loss to Ohio State, Swegan said he still remembers the game fondly. “I made the last shot in the game, and that threw off the point spread,” he said. “Ohio State was the favorite by 10 points. When I made that last shot, a huge roar went up from the crowd…. Everybody that was gambling was affected by my basket.”
Along with their memories, both Clark and Swegan said that they have held onto the personally inscribed Bellevue watches that were presented to each Harvard player at the tournament.
Looking ahead to this week’s game, Clark and Swegan noted that the playing field has changed considerably since they last donned their Crimson jerseys.
“It was never like March Madness,” Clark said. “It was a much smaller tournament.”
Swegan agreed, noting that in 1946, for example, three-point shots and dunking did not exist. “[Today’s] players, to be honest, are much better than we were. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, and they have moves that we didn’t even think of.”
While Clark will be watching Harvard’s game against Vanderbilt on Thursday from home, Swegan will attend the game in Albuquerque with Vincent F. Lackner Jr. ’72, another former Harvard basketball player who has led an effort to reach out to players from the 1946 team.
“I looked Don up and called him and said, ‘Is there any way we can get you to the game?’” Lackner said. The Friends of Harvard Basketball and the Varsity Club also assisted in the effort.
Swegan, who said he is looking forward to meeting this year’s players and men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker, already has his outfit picked out for the big game. “[I’m taking] my Harvard football letterman’s sweater,” he said. “I can still fit into it.”
—Staff writer Claire M. McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.