VANCOUVER — Cloudy, sunny periods, scattered showers, and a chance of … a lifetime.
Excuse my indulgences today as I supplement the weather forecast of a certain spring day here almost 63 years ago because through the gift of hindsight, it all seems especially apropos.
April 21, 1958.
That’s the day on which perhaps the most amazing collection of basketball talent ever assembled in our province’s history took to the springy, horse-hair infused parquet of UBC’s War Memorial Gymnasium to play a game which, over the decades, has somehow managed to fade into obscurity.
The event in question?
The National Basketball Association, not even a dozen years old at the time, had sent 20 of its brightest stars on an ambitious 21-game tour through a host of non-NBA cities, all of which were based in the U.S. with the exception of Vancouver.
Playing in an East vs. West format, our west coast village was one of the earlier stops on tour, and when the caravan arrived on the Point Grey campus, it was no exaggeration to say that its incalculable talent was matched only by the pioneering ways in which it would push the borders of possibility within the dimensions of our Dr. Naismith’s grand invention.
In total, 15 of the 20 players who took part in the game that day – a 134-127 East victory – would eventually go on to achieve hoops immortality through their enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Think about that for a moment.
Bob Cousy, who as the Celtics’ point guard, pioneered creativity and deception in the modern backcourt player.
Bill Russell, who in Boston’s front court, defined the template of modern-day defence.
And of course Bob Pettit, the relentless St. Louis forward, and the certified scoring machine who just nine days before playing at UBC had scored 50 points against the Celtics in that season’s sixth-and-deciding game of the NBA Finals, a 110-109 victory.
To this day, that 50-point performance remains the record for most points scored by one player in an NBA Finals-clinching victory. Maybe, perhaps, he was still tired from that series, and that’s why he scored only 18 points for the West, but it’s no stretch to say that the Vancouver fans lucky enough to see Pettit that day saw him at the absolute height of his powers.
But then wrap your head around the fact that there were still a dozen more future Hall of Famers taking part that night, guys like K.C. Jones, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman and George Yardley. The list goes on and on. In fact the East team was so loaded that only one of its 10 players, Santa Clara’s Kenny Sears, did not make the Hall of Fame.
Other East Hall of Famers-to-be: Neil Johnston, Richie Guerin and Paul Arizin. Other West Hall of Famers-to-be: Dick McGuire, Cliff Hagan, Slater Martin, Clyde Lovellette. East players who didn’t make the Hall of Fame: Dirk Garmaker, Larry Foust, Gene Shue, Jim Krebs.
Yet on that day, the biggest news was the entertainment value that the game provided, because in these parts, you had to be both sleuth and fanatic to even follow the NBA on a day-to-day basis.
“It was the best players in the world coming to Vancouver and we all certainly knew that, and you’d heard of the Celtics players like Cousy and Russell,” explained Ken Winslade, who was in his first year with the Thunderbirds senior varsity in 1957-58, and would go on to be enshrined in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame as one of the greatest basketball players to ever don the blue-and-gold.
“But it was also at a time when there wasn’t television coverage… there was no Game of the Week,” added Winslade, a caretaker of the game who has so passionately preserved the entire history of boys high school basketball in B.C., one which matches the NBA’s official 1946 birth year “You would see highlights, but most of the stuff you could pick out back then was from radio. So on that night, you’re not thinking about stuff like the Hall of Fame. In fact, I don’t even think the Hall of Fame existed.”
Winslade is right. It didn’t open until the next year, a fact that paints an even thicker layer of karma on what that day was simply 20 of the greatest players in the world. Period.
Thus Vancouver’s first glimpse at an absolute galaxy of all-star talent was more about just letting your jaw drop.
And that’s just how both The Province and the Vancouver Sun newspapers covered the game in their April 22nd editions.
Wrote The Province’s Al Hooper, with a blend of enthusiasm for the product and a refreshing innocence for the NBA brand, which was still under a dozen years old and thus really didn’t have any brand: “…these very professional people exhibited a brand of skillful, willful basketball that hasn’t been matched here, even by the best of the Harlem Globetrotters’ retinues. They did it for 48 minutes in accordance with the pro rule of 12-minute quarters. And they did it with cold-blooded perfection.”
It was an era not given to hyperbole, yet seeing the world’s best in-person without the constant stream of highlight packages and games now afforded us, nonetheless made it tough not to gush.
And the Vancouver Sun’s Arv Olson was masterful in the understated eloquence with which he led off his piece.
“A centennial year only comes once in a lifetime,” Olson typed. “So does something like the spectacle seen Monday night at UBC War Memorial Gym.
“Some 3,500 fascinated fans were sent home spellbound, adjectives still spilling from their lips.
“They had witnessed 48 minutes of basketball — basketball they’ll never forget. Basketball they may never see here again. The best basketball in the world.”
Both reporters waxed on about Cousy and Pettit, describing all manner of set shots and hooks executed by the two hardcourt wizards. And Olson makes mention of Russell’s time being limited due to a sore ankle.
Indeed, Russell had suffered a serious ankle sprain in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and many historians have pointed towards the injury as the key reason Boston lost the series, one which would lead to instant redemption the following season with the first of a record eight-straight championships.
All of which helps us run a fast-break transition towards an unmistakable truth: The difference between a 1950’s NBA player, and one from 2020.
First consider that sixth-and-deciding game of the 1958 Finals was played on April 12th in St. Louis.
According to the schedule for the so-called ‘1958 Professional Basketball Tour,’ the first of 21 games in 26 days was supposed to be played on the same day the sixth game of the NBA finals had taken place, and six of the 20 tour players were playing in those finals.
So even if the April 12 opener slated for Lincoln, Nebraska was cancelled (and it likely could have been, as reports of the day have the Vancouver game as the eighth of the series, not the ninth as the schedule would indicate), the league’s superstars of the day were not begging off promotional duty for their league.
Russell, a max-salary player in any era you would choose to put him in, was in fact in Vancouver, and according to reports, still not 100 per cent healthy but playing.
In keeping with the style of day, here’s a hand-typed line-score from the game, just to honour the old-school ways of 1958:
East (134) — Braun 14, Schayes 19, Russell 3, Johnston 12, Guerin 14, Arizin 22, Sears 14, Cousy 26, Sharman 10.
West (127) — Garmaker 23, Pettit 18, Yardley 18, Foust 6, McGuire 20, Hagan 22, Shue 10, Lovellette 10.
Said Olson in closing his Vancouver Sun report: “In short, there was enough talent on hand to last any fan a… well, a hundred years.”
Knowing what we know now, that much is undeniable. And perhaps by the time the game’s actual centennial birthday arrives just past mid-century, the basketball gods will have blessed those lucky enough to have a chance, to jump in the time machine and experience it for themselves.
So here’s to future days, and here’s to what the Vancouver weather forecast might well be on April 21, 2058… the game’s 100th birthday: Cloudy, sunny periods, scattered showers, and a chance of … an NBA franchise of our own. Again. Finally and forever!
Varsity Letters extends a big thanks to Ken Winslade for not only being an eye-witness to the actual game in question over 60 years ago, but to buying the game program that night, keeping it in pristine condition, and allowing its pages to help our loyal Varsity Letters basketball nation more clearly re-live a great moment in B.C. basketball history.
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