Basketball was a slower game half a century ago, in those less frenzied days before hang time, Showtime and shot clocks. It was slower but certainly not immobile, especially when Purdue's fast-breaking Boilermakers took the floor. That's why 8,500 fans in West Lafayette, Ind., gaped in wonder on Feb. 7, 1938, when Purdue's Pat Malaska sat on the basketball and ate an Eskimo Pie.
"There was nothing else to do," says Malaska, now 74. "They wouldn't come near me, and I was getting hungry."
Malaska was called Poosh 'Em Up Pat because he moved the ball up the floor so quickly (that spelling of push is thought to be an attempt to capture an Indiana accent). He had starred as a basketball guard and football halfback at Crawfordsville (Ind.) High. At Purdue he made All-Big Ten as a sophomore in 1936 and as a senior in '38. "One of the most unusual dribblers I've ever gazed upon," wrote Jack Leddon in the South Bend Tribune. "His head bobs as he pounds the ball and he looks like a mechanical toy doing the Charleston as he drives down the court. Johnny Wooden never moved the ball any faster, and that's saying something."
While at Purdue, Malaska pestered his football-hating hoops coach, Ward (Piggy) Lambert, to let him try out for the football team. Lambert at last acquiesced in the fall of '36. "Go on, kill yourself," said Lambert.
"And I durn near did," says Malaska.
In those days a potbellied stove heated the water for the football players' showers, and gasoline was used to remove the tape from their ankles and wrists. After a preseason practice, one of the players opened the stove door. The shower room went up in flames. "I tried to run, but I fell and couldn't get up," recalls Malaska, who was standing just outside the shower room when the fire started. "I remember thinking, What a horrible way to die."
Two players did die. Wearing only his jockstrap, Malaska escaped with the help of teammate Lowell Decker. Collapsing outside on the grass, Malaska watched the blackened bottoms of his feet drop off. His midsection was so seared that for 10 years he carried the imprint of a jockstrap around his waist.
After two months in the hospital, he started the first game of the 1936-37 basketball season, against Western State. Wearing support socks to protect the tender skin of his lower legs and wringing blood from the socks during timeouts, he scored 11 points.
"Pat was tough, very aggressive," says Lou Boudreau, the baseball Hall of Earner who played guard and forward for Illinois at the time. "And quick—when we guarded each other it was speed against speed."
With Malaska playing tough defense, scoring six points a game and dishing off to All-America forward Jewell Young, the Boilermakers finished fourth in the Big Ten in 1936-37. They fared considerably better the next season. PURDUE'S GREAT CAGE QUINTET RATED AS BEST SCORING MACHINE IN AMERICA, read a headline in The Indianapolis Star. On Feb. 7, 1938, the Boilermakers were 4-1 in Big Ten play and needed a victory to tie Northwestern for the lead. Their only loss had been to Illinois by eight points.
Before the Feb. 7 rematch at Purdue, Malaska visited Boudreau, his favorite opponent, in the locker room. Boudreau was in tears. Having learned of his oral agreement to play for the Cleveland Indians, the Big Ten had revoked his eligibility. That night, without their captain, the Illini were severely handicapped.
Purdue held a 20-11 lead early in the second half. Reasoning that his team could not match the Boilermakers' speed without Boudreau, Illinois coach Doug Mills signaled his defense to plug the lane, daring Malaska and Young to shoot from long range. Satisfied with a nine-point lead, Lambert told his players to hold the ball.
Center Gene Anderson did just that for a minute or so before passing to Malaska, who cradled the ball under his arm for another minute. Two minutes passed. Five minutes. Some fans started throwing coins at the Illini, but most of them, realizing that they were witnessing history, applauded. It was "something like [watching] Bob Feller pitch lefthanded or Jack Dempsey play badminton," said the Lafayette Journal and Courier the next day.
"Malaska put the ball on the floor and sat on it," recalls Young. "Oh, you should have heard the people laugh."
From his special seat, Malaska, who ran the ice-cream concession in his spare time, spotted a young employee on the sideline. He recalls telling the boy to run to the stand and get him an ice cream. Moments later, Malaska was licking his lips as the crowd roared.
With less than three minutes left on the clock, and after finishing the ice cream, he passed the ball to a teammate, who passed it to another, who then fumbled it. Illinois finally gained possession. Purdue had held the ball for 14:30, with Malaska in possession for 12 minutes. Boudreau says the Illini never moved in on Malaska because they were happy just to keep the score close. The Boilermakers won 23-13 and eventually took the Big Ten title.
Malaska and Young went on to play pro ball together in the old National Basketball League. Young made $75 per game, Malaska $50, "which was fine with me," says Malaska. "Fifty dollars was good money in those days."
After 4½ years in the NBL, Malaska coached high school hoops for 12 years. He then worked as a public relations man for a baking company and a beverage distributor before going into semiretirement in 1981. He lives in Peru, Ind., with Willie, his wife of 49 years. Their apartment features plaques commemorating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the Boilermakers' Big Ten championship and a music box that plays Hail, Hail to Old Purdue. Malaska plays pinochle at the local Elks Club, watches college basketball on the tube—"Not the NBA so much; that's just a shoving match," he says—and rehashes the old days with Young on the phone.
A few years ago Malaska ran into another old friend, Decker, the man who saved him from the fire of '36, at a restaurant in West Lafayette. "Many a time I had thanked Lowell for saving my life, and that night I thanked him again," says Malaska. "Lowell's gone now. I'm the only one living, of all the boys in that fire. And here I am planning to celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary next year—knock on wood."
Malaska was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this past year, the golden anniversary of his Eskimo Freeze.
As a kid with a quick release, Kevin Cook once held the ball for 0:05 before shooting it.