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The beginning: Oregon is king - 1939
By Joe Gergen
For Sporting News

Few college basketball teams have traveled longer or farther in pursuit of a championship than the Oregon Ducks of 1939.

The train ride from San Francisco, home of the Western playoffs, to Evanston, Ill., site of the first NCAA title game, wasn't the half of it. The Ducks had spiced the early part of their schedule with the equivalent of a national tour.

The previous year, Oregon had lost to Stanford in the North-South playoff that determined the Pacific Coast Conference championship. Without the mechanism of a national tournament, Stanford was acclaimed in some quarters as the best team in the nation. While the graduation of the fabled Hank Luisetti seriously weakened the Indians for the 1939 season, the Ducks returned all five starters.

Assessing the strength of teams throughout the nation, Madison Square Garden basketball promoter Ned Irish offered Oregon a place in one of his intersectional doubleheaders in December 1938.

Howard Hobson, the Ducks' cerebral coach who left nothing to chance, saw the trip as an opportunity to toughen his team for the season ahead and expose it to different styles of play and officiating. It seemed like the ideal preparation for possible participation in the new NCAA Tournament, which had been approved by NCAA officials in October on the condition that management of the event be handled by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

So Hobson booked games for Oregon not only in New York but also in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Peoria, Ill., and Des Moines before winding up with a New Year's Eve engagement against Stanford in San Francisco.

It was no small achievement for the Ducks to fold themselves into sleeping berths night after night as they lurched from city to city. With a 6-foot-8 center in Urgel (Slim) Wintermute and a pair of 6-4 1/2 forwards in Laddie Gale and John Dick, Oregon was among the taller teams in the country. L.H. Gregory, sports editor of The Oregonian in Portland, referred to the Ducks as the "Tall Firs," and the New York newspapers attempted to outdo each other in lining up the players for photographs accentuating their height.

Oregon's performance at the Garden was less than a smashing success. The Ducks, confused by officials' interpretation of legal and illegal screens to the moving picks set by City College of New York, fell far behind and rallied too late, losing 38-36. They lost twice more on the trip, to Bradley when Wintermute was troubled by a sprained ankle and to Stanford on the last night of the nearly three-week journey.

The Ducks returned to Eugene exhausted but confident in their ability to play against any team anywhere. They were enormously successful in conference competition, winning 14 of 16 games and defeating a strong Washington team four times (the Huskies lost only one other game all season). As the first-place finisher in the league's North Division, Oregon qualified to meet South representative California in Eugene in a best-of-3 playoff to decide the Pacific Coast championship and the conference's first entrant in the national tournament.

It would be a tight schedule if the teams required a third game in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday night. The West competition was set for the pavilion at Treasure Island on San Francisco Bay, site of a world exposition, starting Monday night and the trip by train required 24 hours. But Oregon solved that problem by beating the Bears, a team its own size, in the first two games, 54-49 and 53-47.

The Western playoffs weren't nearly as tough.

As it developed, the Ducks had more difficulty with the portable floor installed in the pavilion, site of livestock shows, rodeos and various pageants, than they did with either Texas or Oklahoma. Oregon dismissed Texas, 56-41, and then routed Oklahoma, a victor over Utah State in the other first-round game, 55-37. The Ducks' fast break, directed by 5-8 Bobby Anet and 5-11 Wally Johansen, was at its best in the Western final.

Meanwhile, a continent away in Philadelphia, Ohio State had triumphed in the Eastern playoffs by overpowering Wake Forest, 64-52, and Villanova, 53-36, at the Palestra. That the Buckeyes qualified for the NCAA title game was poetic justice. It was Harold Olsen, the Ohio State coach, who had pushed for a national tournament to be run by the colleges.

Irish had used the foundation of his popular intersectional doubleheaders to convince Madison Square Garden management to underwrite the first National Invitation Tournament in 1938. While Olsen thought a postseason tournament was overdue and applauded the exposure it gave college basketball, he was not pleased to see an outside organization profit from the college sport.

Olsen proposed his idea to the coaches' association, which submitted the plan to the NCAA. Once the concept was approved by that body, Olsen was appointed chairman of the first tournament committee.

Among matters requiring attention was the selection of facilities for the games. It wasn't until three weeks before the final that Olsen sought and received permission to stage the championship game at Patten Gymnasium on the campus of Northwestern University. It was a small field house by the standards of the Big Ten and the Pacific Coast conferences, but Olsen was operating on a tight budget and Evanston, just north of Chicago, was centrally located no matter what the identity of the opponents.

Two more nights on a train weren't about to bother the Oregon players, whose trips were so meticulously planned by Hobson that the Ducks ordered from their own limited menu at off-hours in the dining car. Hobson, an Oregonian who held a master's degree from Columbia, addressed the same attention for detail to his coaching. He charted shots not only in games, but also in practices and adjusted his offense to take maximum advantage of his players' abilities.

Offensively, the Ducks liked to run whenever possible. Smaller opponents invariably attempted to slow the game, which led Hobson to lobby for a shot clock. A guard in his playing days at Oregon, he also advocated a 3-point field goal, placing Hobson decades ahead of his time.

Unlike most teams in 1939, Oregon did not rely solely upon a man-to-man defense or a zone. It played a combination defense, adjusting to the offense it faced. That defense baffled an Ohio State team that had displayed its offensive firepower in the Eastern playoffs.

Following an exhibition of basketball depicting the development of the game from the days of the peach basket, presented by a group of Northwestern athletes, the Ducks brought a crowd of 5,500 up to date as they bolted to a 60 lead.

A free throw and a basket by Jimmy Hull, the Ohio State captain and Big Ten scoring champion, keyed a five-point run by the Buckeyes before Oregon stepped up the pace. With Anet and Johansen triggering the fast break, the Ducks opened an 18-11 lead. The margin at halftime was 21-16.

"We felt then we had the game well in hand," Dick said, "even though that was one of our poorest shooting nights."

One reason for the Ducks' confidence was their balance. Ohio State focused its defense on Gale and Wintermute, opening the floor for the other Oregon starters.

"I was a decoy," said Gale, the leading scorer in the Pacific Coast Conference. "Wherever I went, Ohio State sent two men."

Dick seized advantage of the overplay and scored a game-high 15 points, and the swift Anet, usually content to feed his taller teammates, added 10 points. The Buckeyes closed the deficit to a single point at the outset of the second half on two baskets by Hull, but four quick field goals by Oregon, including two by Dick, ended the suspense. The Ducks won as they pleased, 46-33.

Proponents pronounced the tournament a success, at least aesthetically. But a turnout of 6,000 for the two nights of the Western playoffs and a combined attendance of only 3,500 at the Palestra resulted in a net loss of $2,531. Since the coaches did not have that much money in the treasury, they requested that the NCAA underwrite the deficit and assume fiscal and organizational responsibility for future tournaments. The NCAA agreed.

As a pioneer in a brave, new world, the championship team was not overburdened with mementos. There was no outstanding-player award, nor were watches presented to the participants as they would be at future championships. Back in Dick's hometown of The Dalles, a community on the Columbia River east of Portland, the citizens proposed to do something about it.

On the day after the championship, a collection was taken and a gold watch was purchased and suitably engraved. Civic leaders then proposed to a railroad official that the train from Chicago make an unscheduled stop so they might present Dick with a token of their esteem. The official rejected the proposal.

But the residents were not easily discouraged. The fans contacted his superior and then another until they finally were granted an audience with the president of the line. They told him if he did not agree to stop the train, they would barricade the track. Reluctantly, he agreed. He gave them 10 minutes.

And so at 5 o'clock on a morning in early spring 1939, between 2,000 and 3,000 people assembled at the train station in The Dalles. Dick stepped off the train in the company of Hobson and Anet and received the first championship watch in NCAA Tournament history. Clearly, the event was an idea whose time had come.


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