Fifty years ago the Marshall Tigers 1963 basketball team won the State Tournament in a one-class system that pitted teams of every size against each other, competing for one title. Previously in this series, I shared articles published during that exciting time in Marshall's history. In the next few weeks I will share personal reminiscences of some of the players, as well as those of others who witnessed their journey from pick-up games in Marshall to a packed arena in St. Paul.
In a Feb. 22, 2013, interview, Loren "Whitey" Johnson remembered that back in 5th and 6th grade Glenn Moran was the basketball coach traveling between West Side Grade School, which Whitey attended, and East Side. Then in 7th grade he and his classmates had Stu McDonald as their coach. They were "kind of a step ahead of everybody," so after they'd played a 7th grade team from Tracy, Stu would take them to Canby to play their 9th grade team, which was no problem for these close-knit 7th grade players. Eventually they each knew each other's moves and played so cohesively together that it was the beginning of their future as state champions.
High school basketball coach, Glenn Mattke, kept an eye on this group when they were younger, and then in their sophomore year he put Whitey, Terry Porter, Dennis "Red" Schroeder, and Sandy McDonald on the Varsity squad, along with John "Yogi" Nefstead who was a year older. That year they made it to District competition where they played against Lake Benton's very competitive team. Whitey recalls that he and his buddies played together all summer long late into the evenings on the lighted tennis courts over the years. Those lights were supposed to be off at 10 p.m., but the guys would turn them back on after the police left, getting in trouble "a few times here and there."
Whitey and Terry both had older brothers who played against them in pick-up games, so that helped the younger boys develop their skills as well. They were often playing eight to 10 hours a day in the summers, which Whitey credits as the key to their success, as well as the fact that they played all over town, not just at Legion Field. When they were younger, the guys played on the nicest home-court in town owned by a local business family, the Ray Baldwins. (Their house faced Marshall Street behind the old 1890s school with a court on the alley).
"They didn't know us, and we didn't know them, but we just eventually went over there and started shooting," Whitey said. The Baldwins let them play all the time on their alley court. The boys eventually dubbed it Williams Arena. On the other side of the alley was another home-court which wasn't as nice. Whitey and the guys would encourage less-skilled players to use that court.
It was in their junior year, when Johnson, Porter, Schroeder and McDonald were starters on Varsity, along with senior Nefstead, that they went all the way to the top. The team had eight juniors and four seniors that season.
One night Glenn Mattke called Whitey to go along with him in order to scout the Granite Falls team that they would eventually play in Regions. Marshall played Cottonwood in Districts, which was not easy competition. Whitey claims several teams in the Districts were tough and any one of them could have done well in Regions. But Marshall prevailed and went on to play Ivanhoe and then previously undefeated Milroy. Milroy used to play twice in regular season against Central Catholic High School which had 6'5" future pro-football player, Greg Lens, on their team. Whitey and the guys tried at one point to offer Greg money to transfer to Marshall Senior High and play with them. But his mother, "a staunch Catholic," wouldn't allow that. Ironically, that year Milroy beat Central by over 40 points in each game, and Marshall subsequently beat Milroy by 18 or 20 points. So, the guys "loved to rub that into the (Central) boys!"
Regions at St. Peter was an eye opener for the guys as the refs at that level "didn't call anything," according to Whitey, and "you could get pushed and shoved" more than they were used to. It took them awhile to adjust, but after being down 14 points in the game against Hutchinson, they came back to win by a couple of points. The game against Granite Falls went similarly. The next game, in Austin, saw them up by 15 or so at the half, but they "stopped playing ball - trying to stall or whatever," which allowed Austin to catch up and put the game into overtime. Marshall did prevail and went on to play Anoka "which was a blow out." Coach Mattke only played the starters the first half of that game to rest them, which was good because the following day was the final game against Cloquet, a team that "loved to run, and they were quick." Whitey claims he couldn't even get his breath after that game, telling Sid Hartman in a post-game interview that he'd love to have a Coke. When he returned home after the tournament, Whitey found five cases of it left in his front yard by local Coca-Cola Bottling Company owner, Sherman.
Whitey says Nefstead told him later that about a minute-and-a-half into the game he heard the crowd go wild behind him while Whitey was bringing the ball down court. Whitey had dribbled behind his back - a first in state tournaments - which amazed everyone. Cloquet already had a State Championship under their belts from the previous year and had annihilated second-seeded Bloomington leading up to this game. So, Whitey speculates, they probably figured third-seeded Marshall would be easy competition. He remembers looking up at the clock early on and thinking Cloquet had run up 9 points pretty quickly. But after a time-out, the Tigers came back to tie Cloquet at halftime and continued back and forth by 2 points "down to the wire" when Red got the final 2 free-throw points to win the State.
Besides the tournament itself, being in the Twin Cities was a new experience for many of the players. Whitey recalls they stayed at the Curtis Hotel in downtown Minneapolis and were even able to get in a practice at a suburban school through connections Coach Mattke had.
The ride back to Marshall afterward "was so beautiful," Whitey remembers. In Redwood Falls they saw a banner wishing "Good Luck Glenn and Bennett" to the Marshall and Cloquet coaches, both of whom were natives of nearby Morton. The Milroy corner was full of cheering people as they passed, and then when they got to Marshall "it seemed like there was a million people!" Local churches hosted big dinners for the boys, and the Gophers' Coach John Kundla made a special trip down to congratulate them.
Basketball was in the Johnson genes, Whitey figures. His uncle was on the first Marshall team to make it to the state championship playoffs in 1926. That uncle went on to become an All American in both basketball and football. Whitey's older brother, Codge, also did well in basketball, holding all the records until Whitey and his buddies came along. Whitey's son, Aaron, too had quite a talent for basketball, often playing with Porter in their backyard, though he didn't pursue the sport. Whitey received a basketball scholarship from Mankato State but only attended one quarter as he wasn't ready for college. He subsequently joined the military and played basketball at Fort Bliss, winning a championship for the post. The team was disbanded when the war in Vietnam escalated. After his discharge, Whitey married, started a painting company and enrolled at Southwest Minnesota State where he earned a degree. A year after graduation, he sold the steakhouse at Valhalla which he owned at the time and with a friend bought a liquor store in Montgomery, Minn. Two years later, they sold that for double-their-money and bought another liquor store in St. Cloud. Later, Whitey moved back to Marshall, where he continued running his painting company and bought the Silver Dollar Bar in Ghent. Eventually, he sold the Silver Dollar and strictly ran the painting business until retirement.
Over the years, Whitey and the guys have been able to get together and reminisce about their basketball glory days and the state championship title which is all the more impressive considering there was only one class in those days.
(Continued next week)