Born: June 16, 1922
Died: December 14, 2000
Town: West New York
John E. Mahnken was born June 16, 1922 in West New York. Basketball was the number-one sport in this Hudson County town atop the Palisades. It was played in church basements, school gyms, and outdoor courts year-round. As a mobile six-footer in junior high, John began to earn a reputation as one of the county’s top high school prospects. He enrolled at Memorial High School on Park Avenue in 1937 and joined the varsity in 1938.
John grew to 6'6" by his junior year. He was an unusually agile big man, and he had a delicate scoring touch. He literally put Memorial High School on the basketball map. The tiny school competed against the top area teams during John’s years as the Tigers’ pivot man. In 1941, they defeated all comers in the Eastern States Tournament, trouncing La Salle of Long Island 44–36 in the finals.
That spring, John was recruited by Georgetown coach Elmer Ripley. After a year on the freshman squad, John joined the varsity in 1942–43 and netted 29 points in his second game—one shy of the school record. With John at center—he now stood 6'8"—Georgetown won 22 games, more than twice the 9 victories from the year before. John averaged 15.4 points per game to lead a young team that sportswriters nicknamed the Kiddie Korps. Bloomfield native Andy Kostecka was one of the other sophomore starters.
The game of the year came against the Quantico Marines. The Hoyas were expected to fall to this team made up of former college hoops stars. However, in the closing moments, Georgetown turned a 52–48 deficit into a 54–52 victory. The Marines were so pissed that the Hoyas required an armed guard to make it out of the arena.
The Hoyas received NIT and NCAA bids—the first postseason bids in school history. They chose to play in the NCAA Tournament (they were picked over Kentucky and Duke), where they faced longtime nemesis NYU in the quarterfinals. The Hoyas had won 5 games in 20 years against NYU, and the Violets were heavy favorites. John played a great game and led Georgetown to a rousing 55–36 victory. In the semis, John took on George Mikan and DePaul in a matchup of the nation’s two best big men. John hit a number of outside shots hoping to lure Mikan out from under the basket. on defense it was a different story. John fouled out midway through the second half. To his amazement, his substitute—6'3" Henry Hyde (the future U.S. Congressman)—held his own against Mikan and the Hoyas won, 53–49.
Georgetown faced Wymong in the NCAA Finals. Milo Komenich held John to just six points, but John was equally tough on defense. The Hoyas held a 31–26 lead with a little over five minutes left, but Wyoming went on an 11–0 run and won the game 46–31. The next day a charity game was held between the NCAA and NIT runners-up. Georgetown defeated Toledo 54–40 for win #22. It would take 35 years before that mark was eclipsed.
With World War II raging, Georgetown decided to shut down all of its athletics team the following year. John enlisted in the military, where he played and coached basketball until his discharge in 1946. As a First-Team All-American his sophomore year, John undoubtedly would have had a legendary college career had the war not interrupted it.
Actually, John could have reenrolled at Georgetown, but at 24 he decided to try his hand at pro ball. Red Auerbach signed him to play for the Washington Capitols of the newly formed Basketball Association of America. He played center for a talented club that included Bones McKinney, Bob Feerick and Fred Scoalri. They went 49–11, but lost to the Chicago Stags in the first round of the playoffs 4 games to 2. The following year the Caps failed to make the playoffs.
John played for three teams in 1948–49—the Baltimore Bullets, Indianapolis Jets and finally to the Fort Wayne Pistons. He was among the team leaders in scoring, assists and rebounds with the Pistons, and played excellent defense. In 1949–50, John played for three teams again—the Pistons, Tri-Cities Blackhawks (forerunners of today’s Atlanta Hawks) and Boston Celtics. After a brief stint with Indianapolis in 1951, John finished his career with Auerbach, who was building a new team in Boston. He spent twp years as Ed Macauley’s backup before retiring in 1953 at the age of 31.
John was inducted into the Georgetown Athletic Hall of Fame in 1958. In his later years, he faded from memory and fell out of touch with everyone from his basketball days. In the 1980s he developed dementia and spent time in a veterans hospital. He passed away in Cambridge Massachusetts in 2000, at the age of 78.