Standing: Robert Brown, Joe Henson, Jerry Johnstun, Terry Durham, Mike Green, Don Judd, Asst. Coach Fred Durham, Head Coach Elmer Wessels
Kneeling: Kirk Gangewer, Dennis Hesler, Tom Wyatt, Dave Daniels, Scott Spence, Ken Wilson, Mike Estes
March Madness and the college basketball season are behind us now…, and if there were any real memorable moments…, I missed them. But I didn’t watch many games this year. Never was a big fan…, I usually don’t pay much attention until the NCAA tournament starts. This year I didn’t watch any games until the Final Four. So I missed seeing one of those, “It’s all over now…, no…, wait…, it‘s a miracle comeback in the final seconds…, unbelievable!” Those are the exciting moments you long for when you really have no interest in who wins or loses. It can become memorable if a sentimental favorite team pulls it off and you experience it from in front of the TV. But it becomes an indelible memory if you have a front row seat at the game. If you were a high school junior sitting on the bench watching your teammates pull off one of those miracle finishes to secure the District Championship and vault you into the State Tournament…, it becomes something more like myth or legend. I know…, I was that kid in 1969. It was Thee Game.
My wife Julie is a great sport…, but not much of a sports fan. Usually at least once a year she will inquire about the score of the game I am watching and make a remark about who’s going to win based on that score. I know that she is just fishing…, wanting to hear the story again. Oh, she will pretend that she doesn’t…, and she is a great little actress. I will say, “Did I ever tell you the story of how we were 5 points behind with 17 seconds remaining in the District Championship game…, and came back to win? And that was before there was such a thing as the three point basket.”
She will reply, “Only about a milllllion times.”
So I grant her wish to hear it once again…, I don’t make her beg. I am honest…, I tell her the truth. That I was watching from the bench. If she chooses to think that I was sitting there because I had fouled out…, instead of because that is where my playing ability dictated I should be…, it doesn’t bother me…, or deter any from the story. The fact is, I had been cut to the JV squad after just a few games early in the year and only brought up to the varsity for the tournaments…, out of pity. And the concern I was experiencing as the clock was stopped by a timeout with 17 seconds left and our team behind by 5 points, wasn’t just losing the game My good friend Monte Vanderpool and I had already planned an early spring motorcycle ride for the next day, on the muddy logging roads that were still partially snow covered in the shady spots. I was thinking, “Well, there goes that play in the mud plan, down the drain”
Our Weippe Gorilla team was undefeated…, at the moment…, in the double elimination tournament. But it looked to me like when those 17 seconds ticked off the clock, we would have to return to Nez Perce the next day to face the Indians again…, on their home court…, to settle the matter of which team would move on to the State Tournament. We shouldn’t have been in that position. We had already beaten our opponents once in the tournament to give them their first loss…, quite handily in fact. I remember, because even I got into that game…, and for some reason in the final seconds I launched one from half court, though we were far ahead and didn’t need another score.., it went in as the buzzer sounded. It didn’t look to me like there was going to be a chance for even a shot like that to save us on this night. It looked to me like it was going to take a miracle.
We had the ball and Don Judd had been fouled with those all too short 17 seconds left on the score clock. During the timeout our coach, Elmer Wessels, told Don to make the first free throw and miss the second one. This was 1969…, well before the three-point basket was even a dream…, we needed three possessions of the ball to score five points. If Don could make the first one and we could somehow get the rebound on a missed free throw…, and put it back in…, we could cut the deficit to two points. Don performed to perfection, calmly (it looked like to me) sinking the first free throw…, one of the most important of the 27 points he scored in that game. He then bounced the second shot off the right side of the rim toward Terry Durham. Somehow Terry went up between the two Nez Perce players bracketing him on that side of the key…, and came down with ball..., as a few more precious seconds ticked off the clock. He was fouled before he could try to put up a shot, so he was awarded a one-and-one free throw. Make the first one, he gets to shoot a second. Miss the first one, there is no second shot. He looked to the coach on the sidelines, who signaled him to make both free throws. Terry looked a little surprised at those instructions, thinking I suppose, that the coach would instruct him to do as Don and make the first and miss the second. That surprised look wasn’t comparable to the surprised looked when that first free throw went awry. This time it was Don Judd who went up between a couple of Nez Perce defenders, took the rebound away from them and put it back in the basket…, as more precious seconds ticked off the clock. The lead was down to 2 points now…, as those damn seconds kept ticking away.
Nez Perce got the ball in-bounds without us securing a steal, so Robert Brown immediately…, and wisely…, fouled one of the Indians in the back court. That stopped the clock and gave them a one-and-one free throw…, but just one point would have sealed the game for them. The “unlucky Indian” as the local paper, being kind enough not to mention his name, dubbed him…, missed it. Jerry Johnstun swept the rebound for us and made a quick outlet pass to Ken Wilson on the wing. Ken threw a long pass down court. A Nez Perce defender, trying for an interception, knocked it out of bounds on the side. That stopped the clock with just a very few seconds left. The scoreboard said we were still two points behind.
A timeout was called and I don’t remember what kind of play Coach Wessels set up or who was supposed to take the shot…, but as anyone who has played the game will honestly tell you…, set plays seldom transfer from the clipboard to the court. So with just seconds left on the clock, the ball came in to Terry Durham, who had previously missed a crucial free throw that could have cost us the game…, if not for a heroic rebound and put back by Don Judd. Terry took the inbounds pass and without a hint of hesitation, turned and fired…, and nailed an 18 foot jumper. Nothing but net, just as the buzzer was sounding. Game tied.
I remember thinking, “I might get to go motorcycle muddin’ tomorrow after all.”
My all-time favorite teacher, Vaughn Overlie, who I credit with teaching me that there are other things in life besides sports…, like great films, inspiring literature and meaningful music…, was showing a bit more enthusiasm than I was. He was a devout sports fan too, and the little red-headed fireball was out on the court, bouncing around like he was on a trampoline, pounding every player he could get to on the back and screaming, “You’re gonna win…, you’re gonna WIN !!!!”
Mr. Overlie was right…, as usual. Nez Perce scored two points in the overtime period. We scored six points. It would be more accurate to say that Don Judd scored six points for us. A week later we went on to win three straight games by wide margins…, and take the Idaho State A-4 Championship trophy back to Weippe. My name is engraved on that trophy and I am in the team picture behind it. I am honest with Julie…, as usual…, and tell her that I only scored four points in the State Championship and I didn’t get named to the All-State team like Don Judd did. If she chooses to think that it was because I had a bad game…, instead of the fact the we won by such a wide margin that both teams emptied their benches at the end and I got off a couple of lucky shots…, well…, she has a mind of her own. I’ve learned not to mess with that.
In fact…, she is probably thoroughly disappointed that she hasn’t heard the story…, even once…, this year. I will have to make sure I am more thoughtful and watch more games when the NBA playoffs roll around…, and give her many more chances to hear the story of how we came back from 5 points down with 17 seconds left…, with me on the bench no less.