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James and his Giant Reach: CHD reflects on SMU legend Jim Krebs

Jim Krebs was the star center for the Southern Methodist University Mustangs in the 1950s.  He led his team to the tournament during each of his three years on the varsity, but had the misfortune of running into a pair of legends in consecutive years named Bill Russell (1956) and Wilt Chamberlain (1957).  His pursuit of a professional title saw him reach the NBA Finals in 1959, 1962 and 1963, but Russell and his Celtics teammates were standing in the way each time.  Krebs retired from the NBA in 1964 and tragically died in a freak accident in 1965.  Jon Teitel got to sit down with Gerry York, chair of the SMU Heritage Hall Museum, to discuss all the great exploits of this unforgettable player. 

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In 1953 Krebs led his Webster Groves High School team to a third-place finish in his only full season of high school basketball by scoring 61 points in the state semifinals (a record that still stands today): how good a player was he in high school, and how did he end up at SMU? A couple of guys from St. Louis who later played with Jim at SMU said that he was a very good high school player. He was still growing back then but was always a good shooter. He had a good hook shot as a kid but really perfected it at SMU. His final two choices were Vanderbilt and SMU. I do not know what made him pick SMU, but it did not hurt that his high school teammate Don Carter and Cleveland high school star Bobby Mills had already decided to come to SMU.

In the 1955 NCAA tourney he had 19 points and 15 rebounds in a two-point loss to Bradley: how close did SMU come to winning that game, and how devastating was that loss? I do not think the loss was devastating. There was only one senior on the team who was a starter (Art Barnes) so I think that most of the guys felt like the best was yet to come. I am sure they did not like losing but it was a good learning experience.

In the 1956 NCAA tourney SMU made it all the way to the Final 4 before losing to eventual national champion San Francisco (Krebs outscored future Hall of Famer Bill Russell 24-17): where does that SMU team rank among the best in school history, and how was Krebs able to play so well against Russell? I am a little biased when it comes to great SMU teams.  I was in school with the guys in the 1950s and they did things that no other SMU team has done. There was another good SMU team in the mid-1960’s that won 3 straight SWC title and even beat Louisville in the NCAA tourney. The 1956 team was great but so was the 1957 team. Krebs had a great game against Russell: for some reason Jim was able to roll around Russell for layups, which he was not able to do the following year against Wilt Chamberlain. Neither of those guys could stop Jim’s hook shot. So, it is my opinion that the 1956 team is SMU’s greatest.

In the third-place game Krebs scored 29 points (11-12 FG) in a nine-point loss to Temple, who was led by Hal Lear with 48 points: was it just one of those scenarios where every shot he put up seemed to go in because he was “in the zone”, and was Lear just in a separate zone of his own? Jim’s hook shot was working to perfection against Temple. Lear and his running mate Guy Rodgers were so fast that we just did not have an answer for them. Temple played a great game but SMU was also good that night.

In 1957 Krebs was an All-American and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated: what did it mean to him to win such an outstanding individual honor, and was he considered to be 1 of the best players in the country? This is a little hard for me to answer because I really do not know how Jim felt about this. I had a subscription to SI and I know that everyone on the campus was talking about it. I doubt that Jim let it go to his head because he just was not that kind of guy. I am sure he was proud of the honor and for the recognition it brought to SMU. There was no doubt by then that he was one of the best players in the country.

In the 1957 NCAA tourney SMU had an eight-point overtime loss to eventual runner-up Kansas (Krebs was outscored by future Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain 36-18).  Was Chamberlain just too big for anyone to stop, and was Krebs getting sick of getting matched up against Hall of Fame centers?! I have to be careful what I say about this game because it still makes me angry! Jim did not usually foul out of games, but in this game he fouled out with over five minutes remaining. We have some great film of the game and the last two fouls were “phantom” fouls. Chamberlain was a much bigger player than Russell, which presented a problem. SMU started out slow because our guys were pretty tense, even though the game was on our floor. Jim also had a great set-shot from the corner and our plan was for him to hit some of those shots to draw Chamberlain away from the basket. He made the first one but then went cold. Toward the end of the first half Jim started going inside to use his hook shot, and we slowly caught up with the Jayhawks and then went ahead in the second half. When he fouled out we just tried to hang on, but Kansas scored in the last few seconds to tie the game and send it into OT. Our next biggest player after Jim was 6’5”, so Chamberlain just took over in OT. I really do not know if he was tired of going up against Hall of Fame centers because he sure did not play like it.

During his SMU career basketball became so popular that the school constructed a new arena in 1956, how big a factor was Krebs on the decision to build the arena, and how big of a home court advantage did the Mustangs have at that time? I think Jim had a huge impact. When he arrived in 1953 it quickly became obvious that we would need a larger place to play. We were then playing in Joe Perkins Gym, which could barely hold around 2000 people. To go from 2000 to 7900 was a huge jump, but we started filling it up when we started the 1956 season. Both gyms provided the Mustangs with a big home-court advantage simply because they were full of SMU fans.

He led SMU to 3 straight SWC titles and was named to 3 All-SWC teams: how was he able to remain so dominant throughout his college career? It was simply because Jim was a great player and always had very good players surrounding him. They loved playing together and they loved playing for Coach Doc Hayes.

In the summer of 1957 Krebs was drafted 3rd overall by Minneapolis (5 spots ahead of Sam Jones): did he see that as a validation of his college career or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA? I would have to assume that he felt a great validation.

His team reached the NBA Finals three times in a five-year span (1959/1962/1963) but lost each series to Russell and the Boston Celtics: do you think it was just a case of bad timing that his pro career happened to coincide with that of the legendary Celtics’ teams? Yes.

Krebs committed a playoff-record five fouls in one quarter during Game five of the 1963 NBA Finals and was known for getting in fights with several opposing players (including Russell and Hall of Famer Bob Pettit): how physical a player was he, and what kind of temper did he have? He was a physical player in college but was usually bigger then whoever was guarding him, so I did not see his temper while he was at SMU. I guess a lot of guys who go to the NBA have to get a little tougher if they are going to make it.

In 1960 the Lakers’ team plane experienced electrical problems and crashed into a field in Iowa, which Krebs later wrote an account of for SI: how close did he come to dying, and how did that impact his life either on or off the court? His wife Jane told me that Jim said it happened so fast that he did not have time to think about it. I am sure that it must have had some effect on his life.

In his seven-year NBA career he never played in fewer than 68 games per season: what made him such a durable player, and was he like that even back in college? I do not remember him ever missing a game. I remember there was a game against Baylor one year when he had sprained his ankle the week before and there was some doubt about him playing, but he played.

After retiring from the NBA in 1964, he became a loan officer at a bank in Beverly Hills: why did he go into banking, and how did he like it? He was a business major at SMU and probably made some connections when the Lakers moved to LA.

In 1965 Krebs was killed when a limb from a tree he was trying to remove from his neighbor’s yard struck him in the head: what was your reaction when you heard about his death, and how do you want people to remember him the most? I have to admit that I cried. Those were wonderful years at SMU and Jim and those teams made all of us proud. I would like for Jim to be remembered like this: he was to SMU basketball what Doak Walker was to SMU football.

JonTeitel