Oregon Trails: First NCAA Champs

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PORTLAND, Ore. — In a little over a week, we should know who will be the king of college basketball for another year, with the NCAA champion crowned. The Oregon Ducks won’t be it, but they did make a good run in the tournament after years of little playoff experience. 74 years ago, it was the Ducks who were the first NCAA champions. In this Oregon Trails, NewsWatch 12’s Ron Brown takes a look back at the team that made many Oregonians proud. They called them “The Tall Firs.”

A claim to be the first is always something special, and for University of Oregon basketball, the honor goes back to the waning days of the Great Depression when the clouds of war were on the horizon. The Oregon Ducks basketball team is one of those that comes along once in a generation, it seems. Made up entirely for guys from Oregon and Washington, they became Pacific Coast champions in 1939, and won the right to play in the inaugural NCAA basketball tournament. The team was made up of 6’8″ senior center Slim Wintermute of Longview, Washington.

Forwards Laddi Gale of Oakridge, Oregon and John Dick of The Dalles were both 6’4″. That front line led to the “Tall Firs” nickname. They played in the old MacArthur court, and while the team did have a height advantage, they were also fast – for the time. Keep in mind, this was just a couple years after the center jump after each basket was done away with. Coach Howard Hobson used guards Bobby Anet and Wally Johansen of Astoria to run the early version of a fast break offense.

The Ducks had five members of the 1938 team that reached the Pacific Coast conference championship game, and four were seniors, John Dick was the only junior of the starting five. To give the team experience, Coach Hobson took them on an east coast trip early in the season, playing eight games in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. That was the first time a west coast school had made such a trip. A two point loss to city college of New York, and a loss to Bradley, and then a loss to Stanford in San Francisco led to a ten game winning streak in conference play.

By the end of the season, they were 24 and 5 overall with a 14 and 2 conference record. They then swept the conference title series, sending them to the NCAA west regional in San Francisco. There they beat Texas 56-41, and Oklahoma 55-37. There were only ten teams in that inaugural series.

The title game was March 2l7th at Patten Gym on the Northwestern University campus, against Ohio State. Five thousand fans packed the gym for that game. The buckeyes were not able to stop the combination of Gale and Wintermute, and John Dick who pumped in 15 points in a 46-33 win and the title. The Ducks led by five at halftime.

Ohio State only shot 17 percent for the game. Afterward came what Dick called “a two-handed trophy presentation”. That’s because during the game, Anet had broken a figure off the top of the championship trophy while attempting to get possession of the ball along the sideline! So, with the first ever NCAA trophy in hand, the Ducks returned by train to Eugene to hundreds of adoring fans.

Coach Hobson was inducted in the basketball hall of fame in 1965, and Gale followed a dozen years later. The entire team is in the Oregon sports hall of fame, and Anet, Dick, Gale, Hobson, Johnsen and Wintermute were inducted as individuals. All five of the team’s starters have had their numbers retired by the university.

Oh, and that new floor at Knight Arena on the U of O campus, with its fir tree shadows around the edge of the floor? That is reportedly partially in honor of that 1939 team that will always be remembered as the “tall firs.”

The nick-name “tall firs” was coined by legendary Oregonian sports Writer L.H. Gregory in 1939, for the tall size, at least for that time. He is also credited for first using the name “webfoots” for Ducks teams. Gregory is also credited with coining the moniker “Black Tornado” for Medford High School after a convincing win over a Portland High School. Medford later adopted the nick-name, replacing the old “tigers” title.