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'Blitz Kids': Utah manager finds 'lucky' Bible, team gets 2nd chance

Excerpt from story of '44 University of Utah hoops champs

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 8:42 p.m. MDT

The The "lucky" Bible found by Utah manager Keith Brown. ()

Editor's note: Deseret News designer Josh Ferrin, grandson of former Ute great Arnie Ferrin, co-authored the recently released book "Blitz Kids" with his father, Tres Ferrin, about the 1944 University of Utah NCAA Championship basketball team. This is the second of a four-part series in which the Deseret News will feature excerpts and some thoughts from that NCAA Tournament run. Read part one here.

The season was over. After the University of Utah lost to Adolph Rupp's Kentucky squad in the first round of the 1944 NIT, Utah coach Vadal Peterson wandered the streets of Manhattan with the team's graduate manager Keith Brown.

Luck hadn't been on Utah's side the whole trip. Due to war-time rubber restrictions, players had to bring their own shoes and jockstraps. Coach Peterson had been in charge of the footlocker containing their precious rubber cargo but lost it, thus forcing the Utah players to use borrowed Chuck Taylors and athletic supporters.

Utah lost to Kentucky in their first game in the NIT in 1944, but got a second chance with an invitation to the NCAA tourney. () Utah lost to Kentucky in their first game in the NIT in 1944, but got a second chance with an invitation to the NCAA tourney. ()

Their starting center, Fred Sheffield, sprained his ankle in a practice game and was unable to play. Facing a tough Kentucky team in the first round didn't help matters. It had been Utah's one shot at winning big in Madison Square Garden, and Utah had blown it.

Utah had started its season playing in the girls gym at the university because Einar Neilson Fieldhouse had been requisitioned by the Army and filled with soldiers' cots.

Home games during the season had crowds that barely reached 1,000. In their premiere in New York, the crowd was nearly 18,000. The lights had been too bright. And Utah let the game slip away.

There were still patches of snow on the streets of New York that late March night in 1944 when Brown noticed something sticking up from a snowbank. It was a servicemen's Bible.

Arnie Ferrin () Arnie Ferrin ()

"Whaddya know!" Brown cheered. "It's a sign, Vadal. I heard it's good luck to find a Bible!"

"Sure, it's a sign someone's wandering around Manhattan lookin' for his Bible," Peterson said.

Peterson was walking again, but now he was headed back for the hotel. It was about time this day ended.

Running after him, Brown didn't relent. "No, no, it means something! Just you wait; something good is going to happen!"

When they got back to the hotel, there was a telegram waiting for the team. A team had withdrawn from the NCAA Tournament and there was an open spot in the bracket. Utah's second chance had come.

When the team arrived in Kansas City, NCAA officials were so sure that Utah wouldn't get past the first round that they only paid for their rooms for one night.

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But Utah beat 8-point favorite Missouri by 10 points. Next, they dismantled Iowa State. After sweeping the Western Regionals, the team boarded a train back to New York to face Dartmouth College in Madison Square Garden for the championship.

Dartmouth was faster, older and stronger but Utah — with four freshmen starters — were wild.

They battled back and forth into overtime. With a few seconds left on the clock and the score tied, the ball ended up in Utah's Herb Wilkinson's hands.

Two Dartmouth defenders turned toward him and he looked above their heads at the distant basket. It was his only choice. Herb's competitive instincts took over as he lofted the ball with a one-handed set shot. The screaming fans in soldout Madison Square Garden fell silent as they witnessed the soft leather ball take flight and bounce gently on the iron rim.

It wasn't a pretty shot but it went in. A few nights later Utah beat St. John's, the winner of the NIT, in a Red Cross benefit game at the Garden. It was the largest crowd in basketball history up to that point.

No one was more surprised at Utah's unlikely road to the national championship than the members of the University of Arkansas basketball team, as it was their spot Utah had taken in the NCAA tournament.

After an exhibition game against a nearby Army team, Arkansas' starting five rode back to campus in assistant coach Everett Norris' car. They were forced to change a flat tire on the road since the shoulder was too muddy from days of rain. A car, driven by an undertaker no less, didn't see them and plowed into the back of their car where Norris and two players were standing. Norris didn't survive. Players Ben Jones and Deno Nichols had compound fractures. Nichols would have to have one leg amputated. While he did heal, he never truly recovered. From that moment these two teams' fates diverged. The Utes went on to the championship. Arkansas is mostly forgotten.

Because no one had anticipated the participation of the Utah team nor its incredible tenacity, the media dubbed them the "Blitz Kids."

The tournament championship game stretched into overtime for the first time in NCAA history. After playing the entire game, Utah's star freshman Arnie Ferrin was fighting exhaustion but played on. And in an irony only a war-torn country could understand, the tough New York crowd was standing and cheering for the intense defensive play of the spirited and tireless Wat Misaka, a 5-foot, 7-inch Japanese-American center. For a few moments the country seemed to have forgotten its woes and fears, as they united behind a team that by all rights shouldn't have even been playing in the championship game.

Check back tomorrow to read another excerpt from the recently released book "Blitz Kids" about the University of Utah's unlikely road to the 1944 NCAA basketball championship.

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