It is one of the most famous photos in University of Dayton basketball history:
Shot on the court at Madison Square Garden after the Flyers had just beaten St. John’s in the title game of the prestigious 1962 National Invitational Tournament, it shows massive Bill Chmielewski towering over UD fans who were pressing close, laughing, grabbing, giddily sharing the moment any way they could.
The Flyers’ 6-foot-10, 265-pound sophomore center had just been named the Most Valuable Player of the NIT — he’d scored 107 points in the tournament’s four games — and he, too, is celebrating. He’s wearing the loving cup trophy he’d just been given — upside down — on his head like a helmet.
“It’s kind of funny how it happened,” Chmielewski said Saturday. “The photographers all said they wanted to take a picture and I asked ‘Whaddya want me to do with the cup?’
“They said put it over your head and, well, I put it over my head all right, but it wasn’t what they meant. Instead of holding it up like normal people do, I thought they wanted me to wear the thing. But you know what? Without even knowing it, I’d made a smart move. That picture played in papers all over the country.”
That’s how it’s gone so often for Chmielewski, the big center who never has quite followed the script.
In fact, just 6 1 / 2 months after that MVP photo, he did one of the most unexpected things any UD Flyer has ever done.
Three weeks before the first game of the 1962-63 season, Chmielewski — a consensus, preseason All-America pick — promptly quit the Flyers, withdrew from school, loaded his station wagon with his pregnant wife, Pat, his guitar, his few other belongings and drove back home to Detroit.
The move sent shock waves through the local sports scene.
“Chmielewski Quits UD, Leaves Town!” blared one Dayton Daily News headline. “Teammates Stunned by Star’s Sudden Departure.” said another. The Journal Herald countered with: “’I’m Not Coming Back,’ Chmielewski says.”
And yet here it is, 45 years later, and Chmielewski is back bigger than ever. A few years ago he was voted to the Flyers All-Century team, even though he played just one varsity season at UD.
And Saturday night, he was at the Columbus Convention Center with several of his old teammates, part of an impressive Dayton contingent being inducted into the Ohio Hoop Zone Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Among those enshrined were former UD coaches Tom Blackburn and Don Donoher, locally raised players Donnie May, Jim and John Paxson and Ron Harper and the University of Dayton’s NIT title teams from 1962 and 1968.
Chmielewski and current wife Gail — who were joined at the function by three of his four daughters, Jamie, Julie and Shirley (Sandy couldn’t make it from Florida) — live in Germantown and he runs an electrical contracting business in Miamisburg.
So what happened to the “hard feelings” he said he left with.
As he sat in his office Saturday, the 65-year-old Chmielewski smiled and shrugged: “You get older and so much of that stuff goes by the wayside. You learn to let some things go.”
That may have worked on a lot of fronts — including his somewhat tempered stance on Blackburn, whom he still says “would make Bobby Knight look like a saint” — but he had trouble letting go of basketball.
Until troublesome knees sidelined him this past season, he was playing regularly for rec teams and traveling Senior Olympics squads, so much so that Saturday night he also was inducted into the Miami Valley Senior Olympics Hall of Fame.
Although he’s now turned to fishing, he said he misses basketball, the game that initially took him from a heralded prep career in Detroit to UD, where he teamed with Brooklyn schoolboy sensation Roger Brown, Chuck Izor, Gordy Hatton and Jimmy Powers to give the Flyers one of the most talked about freshmen teams — first-year players weren’t allowed to play varsity — in the nation.
“We were 36-4-1 that year,” Chmielewski said. “By mid-season, the stands were full for our games. People wanted to see us and the varsity.”
The following year — after Chmielewski quit the team for a day in January with plans to go back home and work — the Flyers went on a late-season roll. They won 11 straight, the last four at Madison Square Garden to take the NIT crown.
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