By Neil Beldock
Claire F. Bee is probably the greatest basketball coach nobody knows about. He is, to some, the greatest basketball coach of all time.
The story goes that when Bobby Knight was a young coach just starting his coaching career at Army (where he was coaching current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski), he would finish practice at West Point, drive to Brooklyn to pick-up Claire Bee and drive him home just for the opportunity to be able to pick his mind and discuss basketball with him.
So it could be said that you can connect the dots from Claire Bee to Bobby Knight to Mike Krzyzewski and that Claire Bee had an impact in teaching basketball to the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball history and the 2nd winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball history who together combine for over 1,950 NCAA Division 1 basketball victories and counting.
Claire F. Bee gained fame coaching basketball at Long Island University (LIU) in Brooklyn, New York from 1931 – 1951. He started his coaching career at Rider College where he coached from 1928 through the end of the 1931 season before moving on to LIU. During that time span, including records at both Rider and LIU, Bee accumulated 413 wins against only 88 losses resulting in a winning percentage of 82.44% which is the greatest winning percentage of all NCAA Division 1 basketball coaches.
At LIU, Bee accumulated an overall record of 360 wins and 80 losses, a winning percentage of 81.82%. During that time span his teams set a then record by winning 43 consecutive games from 1935-1937.
Bee was acknowledged as a brilliant basketball mind who revolutionized defensive basketball with the invention of the 1-3-1 zone defense which stymied numerous opponents and was instrumental to the construction of the obscene winning percentage referenced above. He also introduced the concept of the 3-second lane violation which has been a staple of basketball once adopted and, while coaching the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA from 1952-54, was instrumental in recommending and ultimately implementing a 24 second shot clock which revolutionized the NBA and the game of basketball propelling it to the popularity it enjoys today.
The popularity of Bee’s LIU teams propelled the popularity of college basketball to the extent where basketball advanced from being played in small gyms in front of just a handful of people to being played in Madison Square Garden, in the heart of New York City in front of 18,000 wildly enthusiastic fans. It is this metamorphosis of the game that one can argue and trace back to being instrumental in creating the foundation for the worldwide popularity basketball, both college and professional, enjoys today.
During his tenure, Bee’s LIU teams won two National Invitational Tournament (NIT) Championships (1939 & 1941), then the most prestigious college basketball tournament where the winner was widely acclaimed as the National Champion.
Claire F. Bee was born on March 2 1896 in Grafton, West Virginia. By the time he was 10 years old basketball had become an integral part of his life. He and his friends would sneak into the local church gymnasium and play basketball for hours on end. Bee said, “After a while the priests caught on but they turned their heads and let us keep playing. They were happy to see us in church even if it was only for basketball.”
Bee’s love for basketball was undeniable. But it was basketball which would also bring him his greatest source of sorrow when three of his players were accused of being involved in the point shaving scandals which rocked college basketball, and specifically New York City college basketball in the early 1950’s. Ultimately, eight of his players would be convicted. As a result of these events LIU wound up discontinuing it’s basketball program until the 1957-58 season effectively ending Claire Bee’s career as a college coach.
The point shaving scandal destroyed the programs of other New York City basketball programs as well which had been national powerhouses such as CCNY and NYU. In all, thirty-two players from seven colleges were eventually convicted of accepting bribes in collusion with gamblers to shave points and dump games.
For Bee, the hurt and scars remained, never to disappear. While addressing fellow coaches at a conference in Newport News, Virginia Bee said, “We, you and I have flunked. We have not done the job expected of us in training the young people. I am not bitter. I am hurt, hurt desperately. When I was told that three of my boys had sold themselves, it was a deep bereavement. I am not ashamed to say that I wept. It was then that something died within me.”
Bee also said, “I was paralyzed when I heard the news. I couldn’t believe it. I had thought of the team as a family. I always felt I was one of them. They came and ate at my house. We talked. Who ever thought it could happen.”
Bee continued, “I was so absorbed in the victory grail I lost sight of the educational purposes of athletics. I spent all my time thinking about basketball. I’d be eating dinner with one hand and writing down plays with the other. How could I have prevented it, what would I have done differently? I’ve gone over and over it in my mind. Coaches call me and ask me how they can ward against a fix. All I can tell them is that sure, winning is important, but not when the integrity of the game is jeopardized.”
Claire F. Bee was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1968.
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