The college experience — the fads; the controversies; the ever-changing expectations of students, parents and faculty members; and especially the sports — that experience was always a central element of LIFE’s stated mission to “see the world.” And with the (utterly unsurprising) exception of football, no other college sport captured the magazine’s attention quite like basketball.
Here, LIFE.com presents a gallery of photographs from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s featuring college legends (Lew Alcindor, a.k.a, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Oscar Robertson; Pete Maravich; Wilt Chamberlain; Bob Cousy; Jerry Lucas) as well as other players who made brief splashes in their time and then — like so many athletes, great and small — quietly faded from the public’s view.
A prime example of the latter, albeit with a far more interesting story than most: Yale’s Tony Lavelli (see slide #7 in this gallery), a terrific 6′ 3″ forward in the late 1940s who scored close to 2,000 points as an Eli and graduated as the fourth highest-scorer in college history. (Note: He’s no longer in the all-time top 30.) Lavelli was selected as the Boston Celtics’ first pick in the 1949 draft. But as music was his true passion and he had hoped to study at Julliard in New York, Lavelli agreed to sign with Boston on one, unusual condition: that the Celtics pay him an extra $125 per game to play his beloved accordion at half-time at the old Boston Garden.
Lavelli played two years of pro ball, but ultimately returned to his first love, going on to a long career as a performer and songwriter.