Jim Kubacki, left, and Husker coaches Tony Sharpe and Jerry Bush. Lincoln Journal-Star Photos
Photo by Lincoln Journal Star

Huskers Still Toast the Little Man That Helped Upset Wilt the Stilt

By NU Athletic Communications
 Randy York's N-Sider 

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The last regular-season Nebraska-Kansas basketball game in Missouri Valley/Big Six/Big Seven/Big Eight/ Big 12 history has all the elements the Huskers need to manufacture one of the school's most storied upsets.

Nebraska is 14-0 at home this season. Second-ranked KU is the only Big 12 team the Huskers have not beaten since Doc Sadler became head coach.

The Huskers, of course, almost pushed the then unbeaten Jayhawks into overtime before a missed three-point shot in a 63-60 loss ended a reasonable chance to break a 69-game home winning streak at historic Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence three weeks ago.

Saturday at 3 p.m. in a sold-out Devaney Center is Nebraska's last chance for redemption in a regular-season conference basketball game against the illustrious Jayhawks - a team the Huskers first played 111 years ago.

Look it up. In 1900, Nebraska beat Kansas, 48-8, when Dr. James Naismith - yes, the inventor of basketball - was coaching KU. No wonder, less than two months ago, Kansas fans/donors David and Suzanne Booth paid a sports memorabilia record $4.39 million to buy the birth certificate of basketball, so it can be showcased at KU.

In case you're wondering, Nebraska and Kansas have played 240 games over all those years, and the Huskers have won 71. The series is so unique between neighbors that KU beat Nebraska five times in one season (1908-09), and the Huskers turned around and beat the Jayhawks four times in another (1911-12).

This Story is Based on 1958 Husker Shocker Over KU

Nebraska has had many important wins over Kansas over the years, but none that were bigger than a 43-41 victory in 1958 - perhaps the Huskers' biggest upset ever because that KU team was led by All-American Wilt Chamberlain, a perennial All-Pro and an almost super-human athlete.

What made that win even more amazing was Nebraska had lost the season's first KU,102-46, in Lawrence. "Wilt Ties Nebraska, 46-46" read the headline in the Lincoln Journal and Star, leaving the other gory details in the copy beneath.

The loss was the most lopsided in Nebraska basketball history. Chamberlain, who still holds the NBA single-game scoring record of 100 points, played all but two minutes and 10 seconds of that debacle.

No wonder a fire burned inside the Huskers for the Feb. 22 rematch with Kansas.

Nebraska coaches were laser-focused, players were ultra-inspired and fans were determined to be a key part of the bounce back, hearing all week how Husker Head Coach Jerry Bush was devising a game plan to turn the tables on the Jayhawks.

In 1958, the Huskers sold more than the 8,000 seats they had in the Coliseum. More than 80 Bill Jennings football recruits were in town to attend the game. Interest was so high that Lincoln's KOLN-TV decided to televise the game regionally.

The Jimmy Kubacki Story is Unreal, but True

We swear the following script is true, even if it is sappier than Rocky, Rudy, Hoosiers and Field of Dreams all rolled into one.

Late Thursday, we reached the star of Nebraska's monumental 43-41 upset of Wilt-and-stilted Kansas and found it interesting that Jim Kubacki, 74, was leaving his Sylvania, Ohio, home and driving to Lincoln to join his wife, Karen, who is visiting her 95-year-old mother, Wilma Kruger, at Legacy Estates.

Karen was a Nebraska cheerleader and homecoming queen back in 1958, and her future husband was the 5-foot-9, 155-pound guard who had been in Nebraska's campus infirmary for a week after injuring his knee in the Colorado game. "They couldn't keep the swelling down and wouldn't let me out," Kubacki recalled. "All my teammates kept coming in all week to tell me that Coach (Jerry) Bush had a great strategy to beat Kansas. We figured out how Wilt was telegraphing where the ball was going to go, and we were going to bump him around, surround him, play physical, frustrate him and make it much more difficult for him."

Offensively, the Huskers were going to eat the clock until they could work it inside and end up with layups. Wilt, of course, needed to be out of position and unable to use his massive arms to bat away whatever shot might go up.

Don Smidt, 6-4, and Bob "Doc" Harry, 6-6, were the designated army assigned directly to harass and frustrate Chamberlain, frontwards, backwards and sideways. According to Kubacki, teammates Wilson Fitzpatrick and Herschell Turner also were instructed to drop back and help on Wilt every chance they got.

Kubacki was not part of the game plan. He was, in fact, released from the infirmary only to sit on the bench in street clothes.

His Most Important Play: Just Pleading to Suit Up

Nebraska's strategy was working to perfection with one exception. Senior guard Gary Reimers, the captain of the hustling Huskers, was having spasms in his calf, and Husker trainers told Bush if he had another, he'd have to come out and couldn't go back in.

"Who do I have to put in?" Kubacki remembers Bush asking Tony Sharpe, his assistant basketball coach who also happened to be Nebraska's head baseball coach.

"Coach, I can go in!" Kubacki told Bush.

"You're not even in uniform, and we can't play you ... you're hurt, and you haven't practiced a minute all week," Bush said.

"Coach, I can go in. I'm fine," he said, sensing Bush was at least warming up to the idea.

"We can't put Jimmy in, Coach," Sharpe told Bush. "We can't jeopardize his baseball career. The Brooklyn Dodgers are going to offer him a contract next month."

When he saw the idea die in Bush's mind, Kubacki took a risk.

"Coach," he said. "I'm a starter. We're playing Kansas. I'm 21 years old. This is my last chance. I want to be ready to go in there and help my team."

To the chagrin of Sharpe, Bush relented, and Kubacki limped down the Coliseum stairs to the locker room, grabbed a No. 14 jersey (he was normally No. 12) and hustled  back up the stairs to his spot on the bench.

With 2:46 Remaining, He Came in to Save the Day

When Reimers had to come out with 2:46 left in the game, Kubacki checked in with a heavily braced knee, courtesy of NU trainers Paul Schneider and George Sullivan.

With 1:34 left, Chamberlain scored to force a 41-all tie. Nebraska decided to go for the last shot and the win. With 30 seconds left, the Husker bench started a countdown with each second, and the crowd joined in. With just under 10 seconds left, Kubacki remembers someone yelling "Get the ball to Jimmy!"

Turner passed the ball to Kubacki and with five seconds left, he remembers hearing almost everyone yell: "SHOOT!"

So he did, from 18 feet out, with about three seconds on the clock.

"I remember deciding to put more loft on the ball, just in case Wilt came out of nowhere to swat it away," Kubacki said. "Newspaper accounts said it was a 15-footer, but we saw film and decided it was really an 18-footer."

Whatever, it swished the net with two seconds left and went into the hands of a shocked Chamberlain, who was forced to watch the Coliseum erupt everywhere around him.

Thanks to Kubacki, Monday's Classes Were Canceled

A star was born, and a hero emerged for a student body that expected Nebraska Chancellor Clifford Hardin to call off Monday's classes, and he did.

Quicker than instant iced coffee, Jimmy Kubacki became a household name throughout the state of Nebraska. "I felt bad getting all the credit for that game when I played less than three minutes," he said. "My teammates did all the work. I only made one shot."

Fifty-three years later, Kubacki accepts his part in Husker history. "To go from a 56-point loss to a two-point win in a matter of weeks is pretty amazing," he said, remembering how the eyes of the nation were on Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain.

"He was taller than seven feet and high jumped more than seven feet," Kubacki said. "Here's a guy who could jump up and take a 50-cent piece off the top of the backboard and dunk on a 12-foot basket. He was the greatest offensive player who ever lived, and we beat him when he and Kansas were in the national limelight."

Don Bryant, Nebraska's Sports Information Emeritus, was the sports editor of the Lincoln Star at the time.

He said Nebraska's crowd launched a new tradition in Husker basketball - "The Sixth Man" - and it was so awesome that night that it even topped Texas A&M's nationally famous "12th Man" tradition in football.

Bryant, also known as the Fat Fox, just celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife Pedie in the hospital Thursday after Fox had surgery for diverticulitis a week earlier.

Fox was hoping another sellout crowd might help Nebraska upset KU in Saturday's historic game. It didn't happen, but there was some consolation. Fox got a chance to reminisce about Kubacki, Nebraska's David, taking down Wilt the Stilt Chamberlain, who is still considered the Goliath in college basketball.

"I will never forget that game," Fox said. "It was an unbelievable night and an important piece of Nebraska basketball history. That's why, on very special occasions, we still toast The Little Man who beat The Big Man."

Respond to Randy

Voices from Husker Nation

I was 13 years old in 1958. I watched the broadcast on KOLN-TV from our living room in Davenport, Nebraska. I remember well watching as Jimmy Kubacki took the pass, turned, fired the shot that Wilt could do nothing about. The net swished, and our living room exploded just like the Coliseum did in Lincoln. I think it happened just last night, didn't it? Thanks for the memory. Stanley Johnson, Buffalo, Minnesota

I was there for the basketball game between Kansas and Nebraska when Kubacki limped out onto the floor. As he struggled to move down the floor, he was lagging far behind the rest of the players. The crowd's roar that night was deafening, and then it increased as the ball swished through the net. I was there when the players came off the floor just above. About 10 feet away was a young boy with a pad and pen waiting for autographs. He was holding them out as Wilt came by. With a brusk wave of his arm, Wilt shoved the shocked boy against the wall. I was close enough to see him pick himself up, and then respond to Wilt with the words: "That's all right. KUBACKI is the one I really want!" It was a true David and Goliath story. Bill Carlson, Otto, North Carolina

I was also at that game and just LOVE reading about it every time it appears. My dad was Jerry Bush. The rally the NU students had at our house was just awesome. It meant so much to my dad. A fun story - Jan Jennings, daughter of football coach Bill Jennings, also lived on our street. So Jan, my sister, Jane, and I were waiting for my dad to appear from the locker room to give us a ride home. While waiting, Wilt came up the ramp. Jan said, "Can we have your autograph?" He said, "No." I said to him, "That's OK, we're waiting for Jimmy Kubacki!" Recently, I talked to Rex Swett, who played a few years after the above game. He told me they had beaten KU twice AT KU! Not many ballplayers can say that! Thank you so much for keeping this wonderful memory alive! Karen Bush Hoiberg, Ames, Iowa

That's what I call a real Nebraska sports story! I truly enjoyed reading it, and Jimmy is my new hero. There's nothing like some Husker men's basketball lore to honor the past and inspire the future. Michael Gray, Austin, Texas

I very much enjoyed your article on the KU/NU game of '58. There was lots of new information about Nebraska in the article that I did not know. I, like many, could tell you that Kansas had Wilt and had beaten us really badly two weeks before. Thanks for tying the past to the present with the different people involved and where those same teams are today. Very well done. Jim Miller, Lincoln, Nebraska

I very much remember that game, even though I was just seven years old at the time! That's my first remembrance of a Husker game of any kind. We were neighbors of Coach Jerry Bush and his family on So. 26th St. in Lincoln's Country Club neighborhood.  And we were also close friends with Coach Tony Sharpe and his family as well. I still vividly remember the fans coming onto our street, driving up and down the street honking their car horns yelling and cheering, in front of Coach Bush's home! I asked my sister what had happened, and she said to me that we beat "Wilt The Stilt" (as he was called back then).  I actually didn't even know "Mr. Bush" was a coach, let alone THE Nebraska head coach, and to this day I never knew that Coach Sharpe was an assistant basketball coach. I always knew him as the Nebraska baseball coach! Thank you, Randy, for another fine article about Huskers past and present! Bill Holman, Denver, Colorado

What a blast from the past. Right there on my Facebook page, a picture of my dad and Jerry! Wow, how cool! I was only four years old so I really don't remember the game, but I do remember all the stories that were told over and over for years following! Thanks for giving me and many others all those good memories to relive! Becky Sharpe Pulver, Butte, Montana

 

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