SALT LAKE CITY — March always takes Arnie Ferrin back to that spring in New York, when the city was theirs. The media clamored over the wide-eyed kids from Utah who won the NCAA basketball tournament, 70 years ago Friday.
So naturally he was reveling in all the upsets last week: Stephen F. Austin, Dayton, Mercer, Harvard, North Dakota State.
“I cheer for the underdog — every single time,” Ferrin said.
Those big-name East Coast teams? Fuggedaboud‘em.
Tennyson wrote that in spring a young man’s fancy is turned to love. Clearly, he never knew the spring-like joy of filling out an NCAA bracket.
“This time of year,” Ferrin said, “I get up every morning and think about what we did 70 years ago.”
What they did was cause underdogs ever since to dream.
When the team returned to Salt Lake after its 42-40 championship win over Dartmouth, civic and university officials staged a parade. Ferrin’s girlfriend, Pat, now his wife, convinced her father to use his convertible for the occasion. She had hoped to glide down the avenue in the open air with the lean, handsome basketball star. Instead she ended up with 51-year-old coach Vadal Peterson.
The 1944 team’s success was acknowledged four years ago when a film called “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” launched. It detailed Misaka’s rise from humble beginnings in Ogden, to an NCAA championship with Utah, to becoming the first Asian-American to play professionally.
Misaka has always downplayed his role in history.
"Why now?” he said in 2010. “It's lucky that some of us are still around. Most aren't, but still there are a few."
Misaka wasn’t the only unique thing about that Utah team. It featured four freshmen as starters, yet was surprisingly cohesive. Coaches in the 1940s weren’t allowed to talk to the players during timeouts. So along with inexperience, there was little time for teaching, except at practice and during halftime.
“If the coach wanted to tell us something during games, he sent in a sub to tell us. We didn’t have a substitute ready, so Vadal didn’t get to talk to us until halftime,” Ferrin said.
Utah hadn’t planned to even be in the NCAA tournament. Players voted to attend the NIT that year, because it got more exposure and paid more than the NCAAs. Plus, it was in New York; the NCAA tournament began in Kansas City.
But when a roadside accident sidelined Arkansas for the NCAA tournament, Utah agreed to stand in after losing to Kentucky in the NIT. It beat Missouri and Iowa State before returning to New York for the championship game.
Dartmouth had some of New York’s best players, who had been stationed at the college for Navy training. Yet the Utahns won, thanks to Ferrin’s 22 points and an overtime buzzer-beater by Herb Wilkinson. Because so many New Yorkers cheered for St. John’s, they gravitated toward Utah when Dartmouth took the court.
“It felt almost like a home court to us,” Ferrin said.
Fans couldn’t resist the story of a “Little Indiana.” Country kids playing in the big city was a recurring theme in the New York press for decades. Ferrin amused the media by saying that if you traveled in Utah and didn’t see a hoop on the barn, the family had no boys. Additionally, the LDS Church’s youth basketball program was the largest of its kind.
"In 1944, we were really out in the sticks," Misaka said in 2010. "When we went to New York, Salt Lake City, Utah, wasn't a place they knew much about. So this kind of put Salt Lake on the map."
So Utah won a title on the rebound, making history in several ways after losing in the NIT. Sports Illustrated labeled it “The First Cinderella.” Following the NCAA tournament, Utah also took the “mythical” title by beating St. Johns in the Red Cross benefit game.
The team was so close, Ferrin said, that even wartime tensions didn’t keep them from bonding.
“Some ugly things happened in some places, but in my memory, that (NCAA tournament) was an occasion where sports transcended war,” he said.
The NCAA is planning a Final Four program this year that includes a piece on the ’44 championship team.
“It’s surprising how many legs a story has,” Ferrin said. “I don’t know why they’d remember 70 years ago.”
They always will, as long as underdogs exist.
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