Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Sitting in the lobby of Temple’s basketball practice facility, Bill Mlkvy can’t help but be a little jealous of his surroundings.
The modern, two-year-old facility is located on the third floor of the renovated Pearson-McGonigle Hall–a building that didn’t even exist when Mlkvy attended the North Broad institution. In the lobby are photographs of those who have come through the school in its long and storied basketball history–Aaron McKie, Nate Blackwell, Mark Macon, Lynn Greer and more.
It has technologies that certainly didn’t exist midway through the last century, like a modern video room to break down game film, as well as a video screen in the practice gym itself for more immediate feedback during drills and workouts.
After all, when Mlkvy–the “Owl Without a Vowel”–played at Temple back from 1949-1952, the Owls didn’t even have a home court, much less a dedicated practice facility.
“We practiced at Mitten Hall, we even used high school floors to practice,” he said, referencing to the 85-year-old assembly hall also located on North Broad. “It was tough when I was here, with no home court. So when I come in and I see this tremendous, comfortable [facility], it’s an asset for the kids, and I wish kids would know that.
“We didn’t have a court until South Hall, and that was my senior year. We played all of our games at Convention Hall at 34th street, right across now from the [University of] Pennsylvania Hospital. That’s where we played all our home games, but we never practiced there.”
The facilities certainly didn’t slow down Mlkvy’s on-court abilities. Known as one of the better jump-shooters in a time when the 3-point arc was yet to exist, the 6-foot-4 Palmerton native would routinely launch from 20 feet or beyond, though he was just as capable of scoring inside as he was further away from the basket.
By the time he left Temple, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,539 points in just three years; that number is currently 15th on the program’s illustrious list.
In 1950-51, he led the nation in scoring at 29.2 ppg, a mark that still is the best in school history for a single year. That same season, he averaged 18.8 rebounds as well, another number no Owl has surpassed.
And then of course, there’s his school record for points in a game: 73, against Wilkes College back on March 3, 1951. It’s a mark that could stand for as long as Temple University has a men’s basketball team.
Besides Mlkvy’s game against Wilkes, in which he scored 53 of his teams’ points in a row at one point, it’s his nickname that perhaps is his most recognizable trait. He attributes the nickname to longtime AP sports writer Ralph Bernstein, who came up with it right in front of his subject’s face.
“[Bernstein] was doing a story for Sport Magazine, and we’re sitting in [public relations director Robert] Geasey’s office in Mitten Hall, he was typing with two fingers, and he said ‘That damn name, what is that?’” Mlkvy recalled. “And then I saw it, the Owl without a Vowel.”
Sixty years later, not many current Temple students are aware of who Mlkvy is, even though he remains one of the stars of the school’s long basketball history. Even though he played in the NBA.
Even though he still comes to N. Broad St. multiple times each year to walk around campus and go watch a basketball game. Even though his photo is one of those right up there with Green, Macon, McKie and the rest.
“His picture’s up there every single day, so when the [players] walk in the practice facility, you look up there,” said current Temple coach Fran Dunphy, a Big 5 lifer who played at La Salle and coached at Penn before coming to Temple nearly a decade ago. “One of the things I want them understanding is that all of those guys that are up there, they gave something back to Temple.
“And none of them had what we have.”
Yes, it’s quite a different era from when Mlkvy played at the school, back when college sports were still very much all about the student-athlete.
Perhaps nobody personifies that ideal than Mlkvy himself.
He was selected in 1952 by the Philadelphia Warriors of the fledgling National Basketball Association, who used a “territorial pick”–they gave up their fourth spot in the draft to select someone within 50 miles of the city–to take Mlkvy as the first overall name in the draft.
When Warriors coach and general manager Eddie Gottlieb called him one night to come down to the Warriors’ Center City office and sign his contract, Mlkvy was sure he had hit the big time. Instead, he found the offices of the team located over the Arcadia movie theater at 17th and Chestnut.
While his girlfriend waited outside, Mlkvy went upstairs to sign his contract. His parents, home in Palmerton, had no idea it was happening. As a first-round draft pick, and an All-American, he figured he was about to start living the good life.
He had no idea.
“Gottlieb said we’re going to get something to eat, I thought we were going to go have a steak dinner,” Mlkvy said. “We walked down to the end of the street, there was a White Tower. He put a dollar down…I got a hamburger for 10 cents, and a Coke for a nickel. My wife and I, we spent 30 cents, the six of us all had something and he got a nickel change. There was no tipping, so he picked up the nickel.
“That was my entry into the great NBA.”
After taxes, his full year’s salary for one season in the NBA would come to about $900.
In today’s dollars, that would be quite a bit more, though still only about $8,091. That’s not exactly enough to live on, especially with a girlfriend who would eventually come to be his wife.
However, Mlkvy was still in school, studying to become a dentist. His entire first season in the NBA, he lived a dual life–taking dental classes by day, suiting up against the Boston Celtics at night. His schedule would limit him to just 31 out of 69 games, and he would average 5.8 ppg and 3.3 rpg on a Warriors squad that went 12-57 in their seventh-ever season of competition.
“Somebody just sent me one of my box scores, we played the Boston Celtics,” he said. “It was[Bob] Cousy played, [Bill] Sharman, they’re all ‘Hall of Famers; [Gene] Conley, who was a double-pro player, pro baseball player [too]. And the Warriors, it was Joe Fulks, myself, Neil Johnston. I had 15 points that night. So it proved to me that I could play in the league.”
After that 1952-53 season, Gottlieb made Mlkvy choose between dental school and professional basketball. So the two went to the Temple dental school dean to inform him that Mlkvy would be putting his classes on hold to pursue a full-time career as a basketball player.
The dean said while that was fine with him, Mlkvy would want to check with his reserve officer. And that’s when he got some news that would change his life.
“I called my reserve officer, he said ‘if I were you, I don’t think I would quit school because you’d be in the infantry monday, we’re going to draft you as a private,’” Mlkvy said. “‘You stay in school for another year, you’ll go in as a dental officer in the army, and you’ll have an entirely different life.’ So my career ended with the service.”
After finishing dental school the following spring, Mlkvy enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, now known as the San Antonio Military Medical Center, part of Fort Sam Houston.
Two weeks in, he was approached by one of the generals in charge of the facility, who assigned him an additional duty, that of basketball coach.
“I went to the dental clinic in the morning, and I went to the gym in the afternoon. I thought I’d died and went to heaven,” Mlkvy said. “And I enjoyed it so much, I stayed in for a second tour. So I was in the service for six years, and I came out as a major, and I served in Korea.”
When he returned from the war, Mlkvy set up a private dental practice in Newtown, where he would work for the next 25 years.
Mlkvy has stayed connected to Temple throughout his life.
He married Barbara Harper, that same college girlfriend, an All-American field-hockey player and national champion. They were married 55 years, until she passed away suddenly, leaving behind Bill and their three children.
That was in 2009, and it hasn’t been until recently that Mlkvy said he’s been able to get back out there.
And as he’s found out, just like the college basketball landscape, the dating scene has changed quite a bit from when he was originally playing the game.
“You haven’t lived until you date at 80,” he said. “You date at 80, boy, that’s some experience. You talk about life. It’s like starting over, you don’t know where to go in your conversations.”
As one of the legends of Temple basketball progresses through his ninth decade on this planet, he has a lot to reflect back upon in the years since he’s left the school as a student.
He’s one part of the reason that the Owls have won more games in NCAA Division I history than all but five other programs: Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse.
There have been many great players who have put on the Temple uniform since Mlkvy wore it, but one team and one player in particular sticks out.
“The most impressive team we had was Marc Macon, when they were number one in the country,” he said. “That was just, you’d walk on campus, you’re number one in the nation, and that was a great team and I enjoyed that team. And then through the years some of John [Chaney]’s good teams, they kind of all blend [together]. That year with Marc Macon, though, stands out.”
He’s not as involved with the University as he once was; Mlkvy was close with former Temple University president Ann Weaver Hart, but doesn’t have the same relationship with the current administration. He used to sit on the sports advisory board and the dental school board, but those times have also passed.
Dr. Bill Mlkvy, Temple basketball legend, knows that the times have changed. That brand-new practice facility is just one reminder. There are plenty of others scattered around campus, from the renovated Liacouras Walk to the brand-new dormitories and academic buildings that have popped up all over campus over the last ten years.
Facing Pearson-McGonigle, however, is the same old Mitten Hall, the same one that Mlvky and the Owls used for practice. It’s one of the few remaining structures from Temple that Mlkvy attended, but it’s an important reminder of the history of not just a basketball program, but an entire University.
“I felt that when I left that academics is very critical, and I think that you could play at a high level and still maintain an educational standard that’s appropriate,” he said. “I got my doctorate from Temple, I made All-American, and I would hope that my legacy would be that you can combine…it’s not just a basketball factory or something, it’s a combination, a foundation of academic excellence and sports.”