Nearly forgotten, Craig Hall was one of Nevada basketball’s great scorers
Craig Hall started out his Nevada Wolf Pack basketball career with a bang.
“The most exciting player was the smallest of the group, Craig Hall, a 5-foot-9 jumping jack who kept the cords snapping,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported after Hall’s first game with the Wolf Pack on Dec. 2, 1960.
Hall, brought to the Wolf Pack by second-year coach Jack Spencer from Kansas City, Kansas Junior College (just across the Missouri border), had one of the most impressive Wolf Pack debuts in school history. He scored 35 points in an 88-66 win over Eastern Oregon in front of 2,000 Pack fans in the Nevada gym. Hall had 15 field goals and scored 17 points in the first half and 18 in the second.
“He swished the nets on jump shots from all around the circle and wowed the fans with a behind-the-basket maneuver,” the Gazette reported.
Six decades later, Hall is all but forgotten at Nevada despite one of the best two-year careers by any player in school history. The diminutive sharpshooter, arguably the first great Black basketball player in school history, led the Wolf Pack in scoring and was named to the All-Far Western Conference First Team in both of his Nevada seasons. Hall, though, is not in the school’s Hall of Fame and his records are all but lost to history since the Pack does not recognize any statistics or players before its first Division I season in 1970.
Hall, though, helped lead the Pack to a 15-5 record in the Far Western Conference in his two seasons and is certainly in the discussion as the best player in school history that stood under 5-foot-10.
“For the first time in years the Wolf Pack appears to have a big scorer,” the Nevada State Journal wrote in December 1960 after Hall scored 30 more points in his second game, also against Eastern Oregon. Hall‘s 65 points is likely a school record for the most points scored by any Pack player over his first two games.
The Pack had clearly found its big scorer.
Hall’s 65 points in the first two games combined, however, didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Spencer, a former Iowa Hawkeyes star and Iowa Wesleyan head coach, knew where to find talent in the Midwest. Hall, after all, was a former Kansas City Junior College star the previous two years, averaging 24 points a game. He was an All Region 16 (an area that included eastern Kansas, Missouri and Kentucky) All Star after his second junior college season. His freshman season he scored 25 points in a game against the Kansas Jayhawks freshman team in a narrow 85-82 loss.
Hall was also a standout athlete in football and basketball at Sumner High in Kansas City, Kansas, the only all black school in the state of Kansas.
So Spencer, who transformed Wolf Pack recruiting forever in his 13 seasons (1959-1972) Wolf Pack head coaching career, was always a keen judge of talent. In his early years at Nevada he brought such stars as Bill Robinson (another Sumner product), Bill Nicholson, Leugene Simpson, Nap Montgomery, Ron Hedin and Brad Baraks to Nevada.
Hall was one of his first and best treasures. The Kansas star, who teamed in the Pack backcourt with senior Val York in 1960-61, led the Pack with 34 points (20 and 14) in two more games combined against Santa Clara, giving him 99 points over his first four games.
The Wolf Pack, now 3-1, then headed off to a grueling road trip in the Midwest against Bradley, Indiana and Wisconsin. This trip would be Spencer’s first attempt at toughening up his Wolf Pack against some of the best basketball programs in the Midwest, a tactic he used throughout his Pack head coaching career. And this first trip might have been one of the toughest in school history.
Bradley featured star player Chet Walker and was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Indiana had Walt Bellamy and was ranked No. 4. Wisconsin was a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team but playing in the Badgers’ gym was an overwhelming challenge for a team from the west.
The Gazette printed a large photo of Pack players (Hall included), wearing haircuts cut close to the scalp, white shirts, ties, sport coats and smiles, standing in front of their plane with a stewardess ready to take off for Peoria, Illinois to start the trip.
Hall, heading back to the part of the country where he grew up, felt right at home in the nation’s heartland. The Wolf Pack, as expected, lost all three games on the trip convincingly but Hall clearly proved he belonged.
He scored 18 in a 95-59 loss to Bradley (Walker, a future Pro Basketball Hall of Famer, had 24). The victory by Bradley was its 38th in a row at home but “a partisan crowd was particularly impressed with a 5-9 speedster, Craig Hall,” reported the Associated Press.
Hall followed that up three nights later in an 80-52 loss at Indiana. Bellamy, another future NBA star, had 26 points and 21 rebounds as Indiana pulled down a remarkable school-record 90 rebounds against the smaller Wolf Pack. Hall, though, led the Pack with 17 points.
Wisconsin was now well aware of Hall. The Wisconsin State Journal ran a large photo of Hall in its preview of the Dec. 20, 1960 game against the Pack. The caption under the photo was “Craig Hall. Classy performer.”
The Badgers won 89-56 and held Hall to 11 points as the Wolf Pack fell to 3-4 on the year. Hall, though, still led the Pack in scoring in each of the first seven games.
He kept up his torrid scoring pace through the first two weeks of January as the Pack opened conference play. Nevada won four games in a row over Humboldt State and Chico State (twice each) as Hall scored 76 points in the four games combined. He had a 25-point flurry in a 77-58 win over Humboldt and a 22-point effort in an 81-56 win over Chico State.
Hall’s athletic ability was making an impression on Wolf Pack fans and media. After a 67-55 win over Chico State the Gazette labeled Hall as “a jumping jack guard.”
Hall scored 18 and 10 points in a pair of losses against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and followed that up with 34 points over three victories over Sacramento State, UC Davis and Regis (of Colorado).
Hall scored 10 or more points (not an easy thing to do, especially for a 5-9 guard, in 1960-61 before the emergence of the 3-point shot and shot clock) for the first 18 games of the season.
He had a pair of 24-point efforts in two games against San Francisco State, “York intercepted a pass and threw the ball to Hall for a driving, turning layup that thrilled the crowd,” the Gazette wrote.
The Wolf Pack, as the regular season came to a close, was now two victories away from wrapping up the Far Western Conference championship.
The Wolf Pack headed to Sacramento State for a Feb. 24 game as 3,200 fans crammed the tiny Hornets’ gym. Pack fans who made the drive to Sacramento could not find a seat and had to stand under one of the baskets. On one of the walls in the gym was a banner that read “We’re the champs.”
Hall had just two points as the Hornets once again focused its defense on him. Hall, though, fed Ron Hedin for 22 points and Val York for 11 as the Pack won the pivotal game 58-49. The Hornets, which had won 15 of their last 16 home games, took down the “We’re the champs” banner immediately after the game.
“Hall had just one basket but his speed nevertheless aided his club’s cause repeatedly throughout the game and he did a strong defensive job,” the Sacramento Bee reported after the game.
The Wolf Pack then wrapped up the FWC title (with a 9-1 league record, a game better than Sac State) by whipping Davis on the road, 72-56, as Hall scored 16. He was one of four Pack players in double figures along with York (20), Leugene Simpson (10) and Brad Baraks (14).
The championship earned the Wolf Pack a spot in the NCAA College Division (smaller schools) postseason tournament at Santa Barbara, Calif. The Pack, though, would be without Baraks in the tournament because freshmen were not allowed to play.
The absence of Baraks hurt the Pack, which lost to Santa Barbara, 78-57, and Chapman, 68-63, in the four-team western regional.
The season, though, was a huge success. The Pack finished 13-9, won the Far Western Conference, improving by four-plus games over Spencer’s first season in 1959-60 (14-9 overall, 4-6 in conference).
The difficult schedule that included Indiana, Bradley and Wisconsin, was also a factor in the Pack’s optimism at the end of the year.
“This was the Pack’s toughest schedule since the 1940s,” the Gazette reported.
The addition of Hall, Hedin, Simpson and Baraks transformed the Pack in 1960-61. Hall and Hedin were both named to the All-FWC First Team while York and Baraks were named to the Second Team.
Hall led the Wolf Pack in 1960-61 with 376 points in the 22 games, an average of 17.1 a game. He had 10 or more points in 21 of the 22 games with 20 or more seven times and 30 or more twice.
The Wolf Pack lost York after the 1960-61 season but added 6-5 freshman Bill Robinson, one of Hall’s former classmates at Sumner High in Kansas City, Kansas, as well as Chico Feilback (6-1) and Murray Zinovoy (6-4). Feilback was from Ohio while Zinovoy was from New York as Spencer continued to stretch the Pack’s recruiting boundaries. Robinson, according to the Gazette, chose Nevada over offers from Kansas and Creighton because of Hall.
Spencer’s strategy for scheduling tough teams, though, all but buried the 1961-62 Wolf Pack right from the start. The Wolf Pack started 1-9 with one-sided losses to Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, San Jose State (twice), Drake, Purdue, Iowa, San Diego State and Chapman.
A five-game trip to the Midwest to play Drake, Purdue and Iowa followed by a two-game tournament at San Diego State against the Aztecs and Chapman, was especially brutal.
Hall, though, did his best to keep the Pack’s head above water. He poured in 27 points in a season-opening 84-66 loss at Gonzaga and averaged 18.3 points over the first 10 games, scoring 56 over the three games combined at Purdue, Iowa and Drake.
“Hall made 11-of-17, banging in shots from all angles,” the Spokesman Review (Spokane, Wash.) reported after the Zags beat the Pack to open the season. “He showed how he led the Nevada team in scoring last year.”
Hall also had 23 in an 82-63 win over Long Beach State and 24 against Chapman as the Pack played seven of its first 10 games on the road.
His 56 points on the Midwestern trip was more than a third (56-of-163) of the Pack’s points in the three games. He scored nearly half the Pack’s points (23, leading both teams) in an 86-58 loss at Drake in Des Moines, Iowa.
“If Nevada had boasted another man like (Bill) Robinson or Hall, Drake would have had its hands full,” the Des Moines Register reported.
Hall also had 14 in a 91-59 loss against Purdue and Terry Dischinger (30 points) in West Lafayette, Ind., and 19 in an 88-46 loss at Iowa (the Hawkeyes’ Don Nelson had 26). Hall’s eight successful field goals were half the Pack’s total (16-of-63 shooting) at Iowa.
The 1-9 start was the Pack’s worst since 1941-42 (which finished the year 1-11). But, as Spencer hoped, it might have toughened up his team just the same.
The Wolf Pack finally settled into a more manageable part of the schedule as 1961 flipped over into 1962. Hall poured in 85 points over the first four games in January as the Pack destroyed Alameda State (a new FWC school), 77-50, and Humboldt State, 72-46, nipped San Francisco State in overtime, 81-73, and lost at Chico State, 81-76.
Nobody was talking about the 1-9 start now as the Pack was about to head into a historic two games, its first in school history against Nevada Southern.
Hall set the tone for the Silver State rivalry right away, scoring 24 points in a 71-51 Pack win and 26 more in an 81-69 win the following night. Hall made 10 field goals in each game, leading all scorers each time.
The Pack had now won five of its last six games (Hall averaged 22.5 points over the six games) to improve to 6-10 on the year.
Spencer, though, loaded up the schedule once again with games against Creighton and Gonzaga in a span of eight days. Hall had 22 against Creighton on nine field goals and four free throws. The Blue Jays, though, featured the 6-10 Paul Silas, who had 22 points and 24 rebounds and won a hard-fought game against the Pack, 76-69.
The loss to Creighton was the start of a five-game stretch that saw the Pack lose four times. One of the losses was an 83-73 shocker at Alameda State, a team they beat by 27 in Reno a month earlier. Hall, though, scored 80 points combined in the five games.
The month of January 1961 might have been Hall’s best in a Wolf Pack uniform. He had 157 points in seven games (22.4 average), helped whip the Rebels twice to open the rivalry and was named the Athlete of the Month by the Sierra Nevada Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association.
“Little Craig Hall must look up to everyone he meets on a basketball court but he has become a favorite with Wolf Pack fans,” the Gazette wrote. “He jumps high and seems suspended in air while releasing his pogo-stick shot. He is now regarded as the best little shot maker at Nevada since Jimmy Melarkey (in the 1940s).”
Just nine games remained in the season and Hall’s Wolf Pack career as February arrived. Hall scored 47 points over three games as the Pack lost twice (at Davis, Gonzaga) to start the month.
But he rebounded to torch San Francisco State for 21 points and Chico State for 30 as the Pack won twice. The 100-86 win over Chico State was also a historic night for the Pack thanks, in large part, to Hall’s third 30-point career game. It was the first time the program had scored 100 or more points in a game in its history as Hall had 10 field goals and 10 free throws.
Hall, though, then struggled in an 88-62 win over Humboldt State (12 points) and a disappointing 87-60 loss at Sacramento State when he had just six points, all in the second half. The loss to the Hornets eliminated the Pack from the Far Western Conference title chase.
The game against Humboldt State was Hall’s last appearance in a Pack home game. Hall, who would go on to become a very successful high school basketball coach at his alma mater (Sumner High, from 1969-75), was honored before the game with the team’s other two seniors, David Craig and Bruce Fetzer.
“Hall received a standing ovation when he left the court for the final time in his final Reno appearance,” the Gazette reported.
The little Pack guard also left Pack fans something to remember him by in his final game in silver and blue. He shredded Davis for 27 points in an 87-75 win on the road, connecting on 11 field goals.
The Pack would finish 13-13 in 1961-62 (San Jose State had to forfeit its two victories against the Pack because it used an ineligible player). Hall scored 504 points in 1961-62, averaging 19.4 points a game. For his two-year Pack career, he scored 880 points over 48 games, an average of 18.3 a game. He had 10 or more points in 45-of-48 games and 20 or more 21 times.
The numbers were more than impressive considering he did it without a 3-point shot, a shot clock and against one of the toughest schedules in school history (six of his 48 games were against Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, Bradley, Creighton and Drake).
“Craig Hall went out with a bang,” Spencer told the Gazette.
Just like he came in.