On March 27, 1939, the University of Oregon won the first NCAA basketball championship — actually, the first NCAA team championship of any sort — 46-33 over Ohio State.
That has been mentioned a time or two this week as the Ducks prepare for their Final Four game Saturday with North Carolina — 1939 being the only other time Oregon reached the final four.
Nearly 40 years later, while traveling with the UCLA Bruins on a road trip to Oregon in February of 1979, I had the pleasure of interviewing John H. Dick, the leading scorer (13 points) in the title game and a remarkable man.
We talked about the rigors of a national tournament in an age when railroads were still the primary means of continental travel … as well as how the game had changed and how it had remained the same, in 1979, from what Dick knew in 1939.
Perhaps the biggest surprise I had in the process of learning about a man who, in March of 1939 was a 6-foot-4 junior forward for the Ducks, came to my attention only this week.
John H. Dick rose to be a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and was captain of the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier from September 1967 to April 1969. Which is a very big deal; he would have been in charge of 5,500 men on board one of the navy’s greatest warships.
My 1979 story, which runs to perhaps 1,500 words, mentions only that he spent all of his career in the U.S. Navy … and clearly I did not press him on his service … and he did not drop it on me as a big “oh, and by the way …”
I learned this only when I saw his wiki entry … and then I looked at his obituary from 2011 (when he died at 92) and found out he also had neglected to mention he was the Oregon student body president as a senior at the Eugene school.
That sort of aversion to what might be considered “boasting” seems very typical of the Americans who won World War II and often have been described as the “greatest generation” in U.S. history.
He was 60 when I spoke with him. I thought he was quite old but he was younger then than I am now. I remember him as an imposing figure, with a deep voice and a clear military bearing — and lots of insights into basketball and memories of the team that won a championship … a championship Oregon has been unable to replicate over the past 77 seasons.
His memories from 1939 …
On travel: “We were one of the first teams to play intersectional games. You have to remember that in those days all travel was by trains. When we went to the East to play some games (in New York and Philadelphia) it took us the better part of four days to get to New York from Portland.
“It wasn’t easy riding all that time on a train that shook and vibrated. And those Pullman berths weren’t made for basketball players to sleep in. When you got off the train you didn’t feel quite right for a while.”
On officiating: “We didn’t have television, remember, so there was no leavening effect on officiating. There were liable to be different interpretations of the rules. One game we played on that trip we got called for a foul practically every time we set a screen. But what we were doing was considered perfectly legal on the West Coast.
“And you never knew what kind of playing conditions you’d find. Glass backboards were just coming into the game; we’d gotten ours just a year before. So you’d still find some wooden backboards and even some steel ones.”
On the team’s nickname, “Tall Firs”: “I think they called us that because for that time we had a very big team. Our center, Slim Wintermute, was 6-foot-8. The forwards, Laddie Gale and myself, were both 6-4. We were actually a bit bigger.”
On lower scoring totals in 1939 and shooting styles: “The players today are probably better shooters than we were. In fact, I know they are. We used to think we did well if we shot 35 percent or better. Now, a coach figures a team should shoot at least 45 percent.
“The two-hand set shot (still prevalent in 1939) was part of it because you needed some room to shoot it. I also know for a fact we took less free throws than they do today. Back then, you didn’t have a penalty situation. I also think the game was a little more physical. Now, it seems like the defensive player gets called for a foul every time there’s some sort of contact.”
Other changes in play: “There was no goaltending. Four fouls was the maximum. And there was a much stricter interpretation of traveling and palming fouls. Today’s players would get called for palming the ball all the time.”
On similarities between 1939 and 1979: “I don’t think there is any offense now that wasn’t used in some form then. There were high posts, low posts, zone defenses. We ran the fast break all the time.”
On the title game, played on March 27, 1939, at Northwestern University, with John Naismith, inventor of the game, in the stands: “I don’t know why the NCAA picked Northwestern. The court only held about 5,000 peo0ple. They were stuffed in there.
“We led by five at half. It would have been more but we weren’t shooting very well. We knew there was no way they were going to score much on us, and we were right.
“There’s one thing I will never forget about that game. They had this big championship trophy, about three feet high, with a figurine of a basketball player on top. It was sitting on a table alongside the court.
“Well, during the game [Oregon guard] Bobby Anet was going for a ball out of bounds and his hand swiped over the trophy and knocked the basketball player figurine right off the trophy. When we took it back to Oregon we had to hold it on to the rest of the trophy.”
On his hometown celebration: “I was raised in The Dalles, a town a little east from Portland. When the train got there the people in town stopped it to give me a gold watch. It was about 5 or 5:30 in the morning. The people in town had to go all the way to the president of the Union-Pacific to stop the train. They had told him they’d build a barricade on the tracks if he didn’t let them stop it.”
On arriving back in Eugene, population 23,000: “There were thousands of people waiting in the station. They gave us a parade through downtown and through the university. We all had gold watches by then. They gave us keys to the city and made us honorary mayors.”
After he retired from the navy, Dick returned to Eugene and became a regular presence at Oregon basketball and football games.
A year after I spoke with him, he became a charter member of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. In 1993 he was inducted into the University of Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame. The jersey numbers of all five starters on the 1939 championship team were retired, including the No. 18 worn by Dick.
He told me, in 1979, that no one on that 1939 team had any idea that the NCAA tournament would become the enormous event it is now.
“We never thought it would get this big. But I’m sure the players who played in the first World Series had no idea what it would become, either. Of course, in 1939 we couldn’t even conceive of television.”
On the impact of winning that first title: “It was a big thing in our lives. It’s something we’ll always remember.
“It doesn’t seem like it was 40 years ago. People are still talking about it, even now.”