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Holy Cross’s improbable championship run immortalized in College Basketball’s Purple Reign

They practiced in an old barn and won a national title.

College of the Holy Cross

Long before the era of the Power 5, before the term mid-major existed, and while John Wooden was a first-year head coach at Indiana State, there was the national champion Holy Cross Crusaders.

The 1947 Holy Cross team is, perhaps, the most unlikely NCAA championship team of all time. At least, it is according to College Basketball’s Purple Reign, an upcoming documentary chronicling the 1947 NCAA and 1954 NIT title teams.

Director Ryan Hughes and executive producer Richard Kaner have teamed up to bring college basketball fans a story that too many have forgotten.

The 1947 championship team, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, featured star power one would have expected a major state school to draw at the time. It was, perhaps, college basketball’s first Cinderella story.

“It was just happenstance that Holy Cross happened to get [1947 Most Outstanding Player] George Kaftan and Bob Cousy,” Hughes said. “The fact that they were able to pull off a win over Oklahoma, a big state school, and come out of nowhere, that set the tone later on for 1954. It put Holy Cross on the map.”

Before they were on the map, they didn’t even have a gym on campus. They practiced in a renovated barn and traveled 40 miles off campus to the Boston Garden to play their home games. Few outside of Massachusetts even knew where their school was located. They were led by a part-time basketball coach whose full-time job was as an assistant coach for the football team.

Slide Rule

The players from that run reunite to tell how they went from the barn to the big stage in the documentary. Cousy, Kaftan, Tom Heinsohn, Togo Palazzi, Earle Markey, and Ron Perry come together for a roundtable, discussing their time at Holy Cross and beyond. Most, despite their advanced age and the stardom they achieved later in their careers, remain connected to Holy Cross athletics to this day.

Hughes recalled visiting Kaftan at home for an interview and seeing his office dedicated entirely to his playing days at Holy Cross. Palazzi, meanwhile, still attends every home game.

Though guys like the Hall of Famer Cousy and 10-time NBA champion Heinsohn aren’t remembered best for their time in Worcester, it was that era that led to the legendary Celtics title runs.

“Boston is such a pro sports-centered market. Holy Cross might as well be Mars in some ways,” Hughes said. “Holy Cross’s success was a precursor to the Celtics dynasty, with Cousy and Heinsohn moving over there.”

The film itself is already shot. Hughes is now searching for funding to cover post-production costs and licensing. His Kickstarter, which includes a trailer for the film, has until Jan. 3 to reach its goal of $70,000.

Dick Vitale is already on board, and you can even earn a card signed by the broadcasting legend by meeting one of the Kickstarter’s donation levels. Other rewards include a DVD of the film, a t-shirt, a blanket, and more.