SALT LAKE CITY — A group of teenage basketball players and three adult chaperones were driving from Cincinnati to Utah’s capitol 50 years ago in their 1960s-era vehicles — green station wagon included — when Mother Nature threw a cold wrench into their travel plans.
A snowstorm along their 1,650-mile trek forced them to take shelter for a frigid night in Evanston, Wyoming. While checking into a motel, the front desk attendant gave them some tools and handy advice: “If you want your car to start in the morning, you’d better take your battery out tonight.”
After a warm night in the hotel, the boys and batteries got back into their cars and headed to their destination without further incident.
A half-century later, that is one of the fun stories this group from Ohio will share with each other while reminiscing about what ended up being a magical journey. The Cincinnati First Ward junior (ensign) basketball team left home hoping for a top four finish in the 1969 All-Church tournament. They returned as champions of what was billed as “the world’s biggest basketball tournament” — a 32-team playoff that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used to annually host along the Wasatch Front from 1929 to 1971. There were also tournaments for men (seniors) and for church teams from colleges.
About 100 people with connections to that Cincy junior team — from players, to their coach and even their former stake president — are gathering in Salt Lake City this weekend to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of their unexpected championship run.
With memories as fresh as if they’d happened yesterday, the former athletes still get big smiles on their faces while recalling becoming the first team east of the Rockies to win any division of the then-47-year-old All-Church tournament. They’re quite proud to have won the sportsmanship award as a team, too. Team member Larry Scott jokingly said they received that because they didn’t punch anyone and because they “sucked up to the referees.”
Whatever they did, it worked on all levels.
“Truthfully, I just couldn’t believe that we won,” Mel Fish recalled. “I came planning on just trying to get as high as we could and go home.”
Former teammate Marshall Hamilton is quick to point out that Fish was named the most valuable player of the tournament and still jokingly calls him, “MVP.” That elicits a playful groan from Fish, who received a partial scholarship to play hoops for the church-owned school that eventually became BYU-Hawaii thanks to his play that week. But you get the sense that he secretly loves that memory. And why not? He helped lead his underdog team from the other side of the country to a coveted championship after beating teams from Kearns (14th Ward), Phoenix (16th Ward), South Weber (2nd Ward), Bountiful (8th Ward) and California (Westminster Ward) in consecutive nights from March 10-14, 1969.
The reunion will take place at the Riverside Stake Center in the same cultural hall gym where the Cincy boys won their second game that week, 51-38, over the squad from Phoenix. They also won games at the Rose Park Stake Center, Liberty-Wells Recreation Center, the Deseret Gym and at the University of Utah’s Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse.
Every night after their game, the Ohio crew celebrated at the same North Temple restaurant with some crispy chicken and the fixings and eagerly called a designated contact to spread the good news around the Cincinnati First Ward via an organized phone tree.
The group also handed their dirty uniforms over to Randy Wardwell’s sister, Judi, who drove up from BYU each night to cheer them on and then kindly did their laundry so they’d be fresh for the following day’s game. Decades later, she still helped them out as one of the reunion’s organizers.
Judging by an interview with Fish, Hamilton and Scott — all of whom now live in Utah — this get-together will include a lot of fond memories and good-natured teasing.
They’ll reminisce about being the first team to win all three prizes — the championship, sportsmanship and MVP. That merited spots in Utah newspapers — it was big news among Church members — and a cherished article and team photo in the Cincinnati Enquirer upon their return home.
They’ll smile recalling how some family and ward members drove to higher-elevation areas around Cincinnati in an effort to pick up legendary sportscaster Paul James’ call of the championship action on KSL Radio’s 50,000-watt signal. (The game was also televised on KSL-TV.) One player’s mom even flew out for the championship game.
They may give their coach Gary Fish — “a sadist,” Hamilton jokes — grief for running them ragged the day they arrived in Utah’s thin air so they’d get used to the altitude, and they’ll likely remind Stan Fish about how he nearly got into a fight with one of the two forwards on Phoenix’s team. (Don’t tell whoever voted for the sportsmanship award that part.)
They could razz Wardwell for making a near-disastrous turnover in the final seconds of the semifinals that seemingly sealed their doom but will then congratulate him for picking off the ensuing inbounds pass and making a game-winning layup.
Hamilton will fondly smack his lips while fantasizing about how the boys ate Kentucky Fried Chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire week at the old Harmans Cafe across from the Travelodge Hotel.
They might talk about washing cars and doing bake sales to earn money for the trip — even at 18 cents a gallon back then, gas didn’t pay for itself — and how their female host and her friends wrote “All-Church champions” on their cars for the long ride home. And how Merlin Fish bought airplane tickets so three of the 18-year-old players who attended college — Mel Fish, Wardwell and Jerry Sink – could fly back to be home in time to take exams at the University of Cincinnati.
They’ll give the Cincinnati Second Ward credit for giving them an even bigger challenge in the stake championship game — an overtime thriller that required a furious last-minute rally — than anybody did in the All-Church tourney.
Perhaps they’ll re-read the celebratory telegram they received after their exciting victory from their stake president — John A. Taylor, who’s now 90 and will be in attendance — after he stayed up late to listen to the fuzzy broadcast on his old Zenith radio six states and two time zones away.
Maybe they’ll bring up how they went to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s broadcast and met a general authority, the late Elder Marion D. Hanks, who served his mission in Cincinnati and made sure to greet the team at a fireside the night before the tournament began.
And, of course, they’ll talk about the incredible experience that began with weekly practices beginning in September 1968 and concluded with a riveting win in front of about 4,000 people on the Runnin’ Utes’ homecourt six months later. And to think the players were intimidated coming into the tournament because of all the stories they’d heard about teams from the Beehive State, Idaho and California.
“The story that we got back in Ohio was that church ball competed with high school ball for some kids,” Hamilton said.
“We actually had thought about losing the first game on purpose, so we could get into the losers bracket and work our way up to third place,” Mel Fish admitted. “We didn’t think we’d have a dog’s chance.”
That all changed after taking a big lead in their first game against the Kearns 14th team.
“We came in at halftime and we looked at each other and said, ‘We can win this game,'” Mel Fish recalled. “We thought we were going to get blown out, that everybody in Utah was really great. … We’d heard all this hype and then we got there and we found, ‘Yeah, we can play.'”
Over the next four nights, they showed all of their competitors, including the defending champions from the Ogden area, and anyone who paid attention to church basketball that that indeed was the case.
These kids from Cincinnati definitely could play.
“Melvin Fish and Jerry Sink had never been heard of around the All-Church junior hoop tournament,” the Deseret News wrote of the championship win. “But Westminster did Friday, and came away convinced the two Cincinnatians are nothing but trouble. Fish hit three jumpers in the final minutes and Sink clinched a 55-52 victory underneath for a unique ‘eastern’ victory.”18 comments on this story
Some of their teammates might still poke fun of Fish and Sink for being nothing but trouble — a good kind of trouble, of course.
The group might share heartfelt messages of the bond they still share and life lessons learned from this special experience, too.
“No matter what people tell you, you can do things if you work hard enough,” Scott said. “We didn’t believe to begin with, but we got the belief.”
And all of the hardware — from a tournament that ended a few years later because of the church's growth — to take home back in the spring of ‘69 and to dust off exactly five decades later.