For the first 75 years of Georgetown Basketball, only one man had ever made first team All-American. And despite a college career of only 27 games, the name of John Mahnken still ranks among the school's all-time greats.
Manhken was an all-star New York-area center across the Hudson at Memorial High School, where his 6-8 size dominated the local ranks. Ironically, Mahnken was not the tallest freshman recruited to Georgetown that season, but when 6-9 Sylvester (Stretch) Goedde saw Mahnken at work, he left school after only three games to play minor league baseball in his native Ohio.
What distinguished Mahnken was not only his height but his scoring touch. As a freshman, he scored a career high 29 against American in only his second collegiate start, one point short of the school record. He scored 20 or more points in six games, including 25 against Syracuse in the Hoyas' 65-38 rout in mid-season. He averaged 16 points a game down the stretch to earn Georgetown an NCAA bid, and scored an impressive 18 points in the first half against favored NYU for the Hoyas advance to the regional final against top seeded DePaul.
The New York press was eager to see the matchup of two of the tallest players in the nation in Mahnken and 6-10 George Mikan, who had defeated Dartmouth in the other Eastern regional semifinal. This being the pre-goaltending era, Mikan had forced Dartmouth to miss its first 34 shots of the game, part of a defensive legacy which saw DePaul win 87 of 98 games in Mikan's tenure there.
For the matchup, head coach Elmer Ripley's plan involved setting Mahnken out on a wing, banking in jump shots to prevent head-on blocks by Mikan. To keep the DePaul center from going out to block Mahnken, guards Billy Hassett and Danny Kraus would congest the middle and keep Mikan contained in the pivot. The strategy was a double-edged sword of sorts: Mahnken hit the shots, but no one could stop Mikan on the other end of the court; as a result, DePaul led 28-23 at the half.
The second half opened with Ripley moving the ball inside to force Mikan (variously referred to as "Makin" or "Mahkin" by newspapers befuddled by the alliterative battle of Mahnken vs. Mikan) into foul trouble. Instead it was Mahnken that was in trouble, fouling out with ten minutes to play with 17 points in the game. In a classic coaching move, Ripley replaced Mahnken with 6-3 Henry Hyde, who had played Mikan in high school, to shut down the taller center inside. With Mahnken on the bench, the Hyde strategy paid off and the Hoyas escaped with a 53-49 win. Two nights later,
Mahnken was held to six points in Wyoming's 46-34 NCAA title win.
For the season, Mahnken was named a 1st team All-American, the first Georgetown player so honored and the only such 1st team honor until Eric Floyd was named in 1982. Mahnken also remains the only Georgetown freshman ever named 1st team, as Patrick Ewing and Allen Iverson only made second team honors in their debut season.
Georgetown discontinued basketball for the remainder of World War II. Mahnken, first deemed too tall for combat, eventually served in the military and then sought a career in the emerging professional ranks. In the fall of 1945 he began play with the Rochester Royals, the parent franchise to today's Sacramento Kings. In a lineup that included future Knicks coach Red Holzman, future actor Chuck Connors, and former Georgetown guard Buddy O'Grady, Mahnken and the Royals won the National Basketball League (NBL) title, considered a predecessor league to the NBA. Mahnken's reputation caught the interest of Red Auerbach, who signed Mahnken in 1946 to his new NBA team, the Washington Capitols. The Capitols were the first to adopt the defensive style of play Auerbach learned under GW coach Bill Reinhart, and compiled a 115-53 record in three seasons, including an impressive 49-11 record in 1946-47.
Following Auerbach's detour to Duke University as an assistant coach there, Mahnken was traded three times between 1948 and 1950, but Auerbach brought him back under his wing when he assumed coaching duties with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Mahnken finished his seven year career over three seasons with Auerbach's last team, the Boston Celtics.
The John Mahnken story is an incomplete one as far as Georgetown is concerned, not only for his abbreviated career but his virtual disappearance after leaving the NBA in 1953. As early as 1955, alumni records of the University listed his whereabouts as "unknown", and while he was named to the inaugural Georgetown Athletic Hall of Fame in 1958, neither Georgetown nor his former teammates located him in the intervening years. An e-mail sent to this site in 2001 claimed Mahnken was living in a veterans hospital in Maryland, but the claim could not be confirmed.
In fact, John Mahnken died in a Cambridge, MA nursing home a year earlier, in 2000. A reader to the site, Paul Hollings, was an administrator at the Neville Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Cambridge and has fond memories of Mahnken.
"He had no short term memory when I knew him, but he remembered his playing days, and was particularly proud of having played George Mikan tough," Hollings recalled. "He had no momentos of his [Boston Celtics] playing days, so I contacted the Basketball Hall of Fame to locate a photograph or two. They had nothing, so I wrote to Red Auerbach, who sent me a team photo for 1950-51 (with Bob Cousy and Ed McCauley, amongst others), which I had blown up into a poster and framed it for his room."
World War II interrupted the enormous potential of the 1942-43 team, but John Mahnken's efforts that season remain a major part of the history of Georgetown basketball. In college and the pros, Mahnken proved one of the game's earliest stars.