Back in 1988, when I was Oregon sports editor for The Associated Press, I got a message from one of the bosses in New York.
Was anyone still around from the University of Oregon team, the “Tall Firs,” that won the first NCAA basketball championship in 1939?
“Heck,” I replied. “The coach is still alive.”
Howard “Hobby” Hobson was just 35 years old when he directed Oregon to that national title.
He’d come to Oregon in 1935 after four years at Southern Oregon Normal School.
I first met Hobby in 1973, when I was a senior at Oregon working on a story on the Tall Firs for a history of the school’s athletics for the student newspaper, the Daily Emerald. A soft-spoken, exceedingly kind man, he invited me to his Lake Oswego home to discuss those old days.
After I came to the AP in late 1975, I’d see Hobby often. He was a fixture at Portland Trail Blazers contests, sitting in the upper press section, still analyzing the game he loved.
That ‘39 team’s starting lineup was Oregon grown, and very tall for the era. The front line was 6-foot-6 John Dick, 6-6 Laddie Gale and 6-8 Urgel “Slim” Wintermute. Wally Johansen, 5-10, was one guard. The heart and soul of the team was 5-9 playmaker Bobby Anet. Johansen and Anet had played together since junior high.
The NCAA tournament was founded by the National Association of Basketball Coaches to compete with the prestigious National Invitation Tournament, which rarely invited West Coast teams.
Champions of eight regions squared off. Oregon beat California twice to advance to the regional tournament on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, where it beat Texas 56-41 and Oklahoma 55-37.
“We had a heck of a travel disadvantage,” Dick told me back in ‘88. “We had to play Cal on a Thursday and Friday in Eugene; then we had to get on a train and go to San Francisco, play there Monday and Tuesday, then get on a train to Chicago and be ready to play on Monday.”
The title game against Ohio State was played in a rickety gym on the Northwestern campus.
“It was terrible,” Hobson recalled. “I don’t know why they had it there except Tug Wilson was prominent in organizing the thing and he was athletic director at Northwestern.
“We beat Ohio State on a Big Ten floor with Big Ten officials in front of a Big Ten crowd.”
The court was elevated, so coaches had to crane their necks to see the action. Basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, was among the 5,500 people in the crowd.
“They said they had 5,500 people there,” Hobson told me. “I think they gave half the tickets away.”
The first tournament lost $2,600. Oregon beat Ohio State in convincing fashion, 46-33. Hobson went on to coach at Yale and wrote several basketball books. He died in 1991, a month shy of his 88th birthday.
Oregon’s triumph barely caused a ripple nationally, but it was a very big deal back home.
“We expected the students, the people who were close to the program and the people who were interested in athletics to be excited about it,” Dick said in that interview 32 years ago. “But it seemed to touch across all parts of our society here in the state, from the governor on down.”