Kragthorpe: BYU's stars of '51 enjoy long-awaited honors
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Provo

The 60-plus years that have gone by since Roland Minson and Mel Hutchins led BYU to a basketball championship have allowed for facts such as the Cougars' winning margins at Madison Square Garden and the height of the opposing center to become somewhat exaggerated and for the National Invitation Tournament to become considerably diminished.

Their memories of that 1951 season may need some prompting and revising, but the substance of their achievements is intact.

With several teammates in attendance, Minson's No. 11 and Hutchins' No. 14 were unveiled in the Marriott Center rafters in a halftime ceremony during BYU's 86-72 victory over Portland. It looks a little weird to have Minson's retired jersey finally join Kresimir Cosic's No. 11 of two decades later, but so what? They're all deserving, just like Danny Ainge (No. 22).

BYU administrators took too long with Minson and Hutchins, but they got it right. Not that the newest honorees could have seen this coming, in their mid-80s.

"Never, ever, ever," Minson said in a pregame news conference. "Not enough old people left."

But the records remain intact and so does the historical impact of BYU's NIT run, although Hutchins' recollection that the Cougars beat every opponent by 20 or more points is slightly off.

BYU defeated Saint Louis by 17, Seton Hall by 10 and Dayton by 19. Actually, such inflation is not unreasonable, six decades later.

Same story, regarding the height of Dayton center Don Meineke. The ex-Cougars remember him as 6-foot-10; NBA records list him at 6-7. But this bit of NIT lore sounds plausibly true: When the players were talking in advance of the championship game about who might be named the tournament MVP, Minson recalls Hutchins saying, "I know one thing, it ain't going to be Meineke."

The award went to Minson, thanks partly to the 6-5 Hutchins' defense on Dayton's big guy.

That's among the reasons these two and other teammates have stuck together throughout the years. They played in an era when the NIT was more meaningful than the NCAA Tournament and when players had cool nicknames like the "Big Elf" (Hutchins) and the "Cat" (Minson).

Their basketball careers diverged after the NIT — Hutchins played in the NBA for seven seasons, while Minson went into the Navy and later turned down an offer to play for the New York Knicks — but they were inducted together into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1976. And when Hutchins was contacted about having his jersey retired before Minson's, he protested.

"They were going up together, or they weren't going up at all," said Brian Santiago, BYU's senior associate athletic director.

During the ceremony, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe marveled about how coach Stan Watts' team remains bonded to this day.

Minson believes it's "just a miracle" that the '51 Cougars converged as they did. Hutchins was intending to play football for BYU before being discovered by then-coach Floyd Millet. Minson originally committed to Utah, which had won the 1947 NIT, and "they had a gymnasium," he said.

Yet he changed his mind and went to BYU, where the eventual NIT champs played home games in Springville High School's gym or Utah's Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, because BYU's Smith Fieldhouse was under construction.

Minson and Hutchins thrived wherever they played, from tiny gyms to Madison Square Garden — the arena that teammate Boyd Jarman once said "could hold a lot of hay."

So could the Marriott Center, where the jerseys of those '51 stars hang proudly.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt