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Seattle University Chieftains, led by Johnny and Eddie O'Brien, defeat Harlem Globetrotters in a Seattle exhibition game on January 21, 1952.

HistoryLink.org Essay 3675 : Printer-Friendly Format

On January 21, 1952, the Seattle University Chieftains stun the basketball world by defeating the Harlem Globetrotters by 84 to 81 during an exhibition game at the University of Washington's Hec Edmonson Pavilion. The SU squad is led by John (b. 1931) and Ed (1931-2014) O'Brien, "gold dust twins" recruited from Kansas by Chieftain coach Al Brightman in 1949. Other notable players on SU's integrated "United Nations team" include Wayne Sanford, Oscar Holden, and Ray Soo.

The Harlem Globetrotters were pioneers in demonstrating the prowess of African American basketball players. During national and international tours, they routinely played -- and dispatched -- local college teams. No one expected a different outcome when they met Seattle University's varsity squad at a charity game hosted by jazz great Louis Armstrong. The Globetrotters were caught off guard by the O'Brien brothers' aggressive fast-break style and almost telepathic coordination on the boards.

The Flyin' O'Briens

SU's performance earned coverage in national magazines and an invitation to the team's first NCAA tournament the following season while the O'Briens were named All-American players in 1953. Johnny O'Brien became the first NCAA player to earn more than 1,000 points in a season, and racked up a college career total of 2,733 points -- despite standing only 5-foot-nine.

John and Ed O'Brien were also formidable players on the baseball diamond and Bing Crosby (a Chieftain fan despite graduating from SU's Jesuit rival Gonzaga University) arranged for them to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After leaving pro sports, Eddie O'Brien later returned to SU as its athletic director while Johnny entered politics and served several terms as a King County Commissioner.

SU remained a major force in the NCAA for many years thanks to the skill of players such as Joe Pehanick, Elgin Baylor, Charlie Brown, Eddie Miles, and Tom Workman. Declining resources and team performance in the 1970s led Seattle University to withdraw from NCAA Division I competition in 1980, while SU's female hoopsters such as All-American Sue Turina earned new respect and national honors. The Chieftains name was retired in 2000 out of respect to American Indians, and both SU men and women now compete as the Redhawks.

Sources:
Walt Crowley, Seattle University, A Century of Jesuit Education (Seattle: Seattle University, 1991), pp. 60-63, 71-72, 104-105.
Note: This essay was updated on February 27, 2014.


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Seattle University Chieftains savor defeat of the Harlem Globetrotters: SU Athletic director Bill Fenton (left), SU coach Al Brightman, stars Johnny and Eddie O'Brien, and honorary host Louis Armstrong, January 21, 1952
Courtesy Seattle University


Seattle University basketball stars Eddie (left) and Johnny O'Brien in action, 1950
Courtesy Seattle University


1952 Editorial art celebrates Seattle University coach Al Brightman and star baseball and basketball players Eddie and Johnny O'Brien, golfer Pat Lesser, and tennis ace Janet Hopps
Courtesy Seattle University


 
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