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Utah The First Cinderella

March 22, 2010
March 22, 2010

Table of Contents
March 22, 2010

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NCAA TOURNAMENT PREVIEW 2010
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Utah The First Cinderella

Led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, the 1943--44 Utes peaked at just the right time and became the unlikeliest of champions

This is an article from the March 22, 2010 issue

As the dying days of the Depression gave way to World War II, LaVell Smuin presented his teenage son, Dick, with an unusual challenge. LaVell worked as a smelter in Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mines and in his spare time busied himself coaching the Kennecott Mining company's AAU basketball team and raising fighting chickens, which wasn't uncommon at the time. The father knew that college could spring his son from a miner's life if Dick could land an athletic scholarship. So LaVell sent him into the chicken pens with orders to catch a fully spurred bird.

Few assignments carry a greater incentive to adopt a perfect defensive stance. "The only way you can catch a fighting chicken without getting hurt is to have your knees bent, your back straight and your palms up," Dick's son, Jim, says today. "You've got to catch the bird coming up, because if you don't, it'll hook you with its spurs or peck you."

Dick Smuin did indeed earn a scholarship, to Utah, where he was a freshman forward on the 1943--44 team. He was the only recruit on the squad. The other players had responded to a notice of tryouts that coach Vadal Peterson had tacked to a bulletin board that fall. World War II had forced the schools in the Utes' Skyline Conference and most other colleges in the region to cancel the season, but Peterson decided that if he could find the players, he'd field a team.

Perhaps if he had known all the obstacles that would confront him, Peterson wouldn't have tried. The Army Specialized Training Program had commandeered the campus gym for use as a barracks, so the Utes practiced 90 minutes a day in the women's gym. For home games they moved to the Deseret Gym in downtown Salt Lake City, where a track overhead ruled out shots from the corners. The Utes, all but one of whom came from within 35 miles of campus, averaged only 181/2 years of age, and as the season wore on, military call-ups depleted their ranks. Graduate manager Keith Brown made up the schedule from week to week, hustling up games with a handful of college teams and military and industrial squads.

The Utes included two Japanese-Americans, one on release from an internment camp outside Delta, 120 miles away. The other, a 5'7" reserve, was thrust into the lineup when the Utes' center—their captain, best athlete and leading scorer—went down with a sprained ankle on the eve of the postseason. And war with Japan be damned, that Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, would enchant crowds during tournament play.

Today the NCAA tournament can be counted on to produce a Cinderella team. But there are Cinderellas, and then there is the Original Charwoman of March. The '43--44 Utes, variously known as the Whiz Kids, Blitz Kids, Squeeze Kids, Zoot Utes, Blitz Babies, Kids of Destiny and the Live Five with the Jive Drive, would go on to win the NCAA title in what still stands as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. That the Utes came together at the right moment in time was the result of a chain of improbabilities, including the starkly contrasting stories of two players, both Utah-born, who lived parallel childhoods in the city of Ogden.

Around noon on Dec. 7, 1941, 17-year-old Wataru (Wat) Misaka was going through his Sunday routine, listening to the radio as he swept and mopped the floor and cleaned the mirrors of the Western Barber Shop, which his family had run for decades.

Wat's father, Fusaichi (who was known as Ben), orphaned in his native Japan, had come to the U.S. in 1902, at age 19, to escape a life of farming. He worked on the railroad, then opened a barbershop on 25th Street, on Ogden's west side. He returned briefly to Japan in 1922 to marry Wat's mother, Tatsuyo, and bring her back to Utah.

A legacy of the railroad culture that built Ogden, 25th Street comprised a notorious gantlet of gambling joints, brothels, opium dens and bars. Nine out of every 10 robberies, knifings and murders in the city took place on Two-Bit Street. As Wat Misaka reached high school age, the street featured 11 whorehouses, including one, the Colorado Rooms, literally overhead. After Ben Misaka died in 1939, Wat's mother suggested that they go back to Hiroshima to live with her brother. "I said no, feeling like I'm a big shot," recalls Wat, the oldest of three children. "I told her, 'You can take [my brothers] and go. I'm staying.'"

The Misakas stayed. Two-Bit Street may have been the devil's own thoroughfare, but angels lurked on its corners. A white barber helped Tatsuyo get her license to cut hair. Other Japanese immigrant families, who ran noodle shops and dry-goods stores, kept an eye on her kids. Despite living in the rear quarters of the barbershop, Wat grew up largely oblivious to the vice around him.

He noticed subtle ethnic slights, to be sure. Moviegoers seemed to sit at a remove from him, and when the Misakas entered a store, they were usually the last to be waited on. But a whirlwind of sports and homework kept Wat too busy to dwell on his apartness.

Then Wat heard the news bulletin from Pearl Harbor that December afternoon. How, Wat wondered aloud to his mother, could the country of her birth do something so terrible to the country of his?

Across town, Chariton Arnold (Arnie) Ferrin Jr. was visiting his girlfriend on that day. The name Chariton came from a river in Missouri that an ancestor forded on his way west with the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young. Arnie's mother, Ellen, had died when he was four, and his father traveled the Rockies as a salesman, so Arnie's paternal grandparents, Chariton and Ida, raised him in a world bounded by church and basketball. In Utah in those days, Arnie recalls, "if you saw a barn without a basketball hoop on it, you'd think the family didn't have any male children."

Ferrin knew of 25th Street—"the toughest street in Utah," he calls it today—even though he grew up on Ogden's leafy east side. But the 14 blocks that separated his home from Wat Misaka's marked off two worlds. Arnie entered Ogden's two-year senior high school just when Wat left it after a fine basketball career to attend two-year Weber College. Arnie knew of Wat only from reading the sports pages, and Wat didn't know Arnie at all.

Upon hearing of the Japanese attack, friends pounded on the door of Ferrin's girlfriend's house to tell him the news. The next day young men all over Utah would visit their recruiting offices. But, only 16, Ferrin was too young to serve, and because of a trick knee, he would eventually be turned down twice for combat service. As for Misaka, he was determined to go to college—and besides, the U.S. military wouldn't accept soldiers of Japanese descent until later in the war.

In time, the lives of Ferrin and Misaka would be permanently intertwined. When the Utah team rode the rails during the 1943--44 season, soldiers and other priority passengers sometimes bumped them from their seats, and the two teammates from Ogden found themselves sleeping side by side in an upper berth. After college, though he had earned a mechanical engineering degree, Misaka would struggle to find a job until Ferrin put in a word for his old teammate at a Salt Lake City firm. (Misaka may have returned the favor three decades later, when he served on the search committee that hired Ferrin as Utah's athletic director.) Sometimes Ferrin would get the assist, sometimes Misaka—but only after the two had left Ogden and, each taking his own path, met that first day of tryouts at the U.

To give colleges a better chance to field teams during the war, the NCAA had suspended its ban on freshman eligibility. Meanwhile Uncle Sam offered deferments to young men who chose to study engineering or medicine or who, like Ferrin, were classified 4-F, unfit for duty. Despite their youth, the Utes were unusually tall for their time. Ferrin, a rangy 6'4", moved easily in and out of the lane to squeeze off his silken one-handed shot. Sophomore center Fred Sheffield, though only 6'1", had won an NCAA high jump title the previous spring and could long-jump 23 feet. Forward Herb Wilkinson, who grew up with a high jump pit in his backyard and would place fourth in that event at the 1945 NCAA championships, stood only 5'2" as a high school sophomore but had sprouted to 6'3" by the time he enrolled at Utah. Bob Lewis, a 6'4" guard, was a fine defender and a good enough tennis player to reach the NCAA doubles semifinals and later in life defeat Pancho Gonzales. Misaka, the sixth man, played with a lunch-bucket spirit, as did Smuin, who had grown up with immigrants' kids in copper-mining country. The two quickly became close.

Utah won 15 of its first 16 games, losing by only two points to Fort Warren, the Army team starring future Harlem Globetrotter Ermer Robinson. The crowds in the Deseret Gym, which numbered in the dozens at the beginning of the season, gradually approached a couple thousand. In February the Utes lost again, to Dow Chemical, an industrial team that featured 6'7" Milo Komenich, an All-America who had led Wyoming to the previous year's NCAA title. "We didn't realize that the teams we were playing were the equivalent now of pro teams," recalls Fred Lewis, Bob's identical twin, who was a reserve guard for the Utes. "We didn't know how good we were."

They did know they were improving. Their only other regular-season loss was by 15 points to Salt Lake Air Base, which featured a diaspora of Big Ten players, including Ed Ehlers, a star at Purdue. Ehlers scored 28 and guarded the Utes' fastest player "by holding me back with a hand in the stomach that the officials couldn't see," Misaka says. Ehlers apologized to Misaka afterward, confessing that he couldn't stay with him otherwise. Three weeks later Utah avenged that loss with a 62--38 home victory to end the regular season.

The Western pedigree of the Utes freed them from the hidebound, earthbound orthodoxies of East Coast basketball. Peterson let his players fend for themselves on offense. "We didn't have plays," recalls Fred Lewis. "We just took advantage of what the opponent gave us. Then, when somebody shot, we went after the ball." At a time when most players still kept both feet on the floor and both hands on the ball, the Utes played the game of the future: slashing, wrist-flicking basketball, with a preference for the pass over the dribble. Peterson would exaggerate only slightly when he wrote for a basketball guide, "If a boy can drop them in blindfolded from the center of the floor, using nothing but his right elbow, we'll gladly accept him."

At the same time, Peterson never tried to bulk up the supple physiques he had to work with. "We were in better condition than most of us would have liked," says Ferrin, who carried only 155 pounds. On defense each Ute would simply pick up the opponent nearest him. "It made us more of a team," Ferrin says. "We weren't sophisticated. We played as hard as we could, and Vadal let us play."

Having finished the regular season with an 18--3 record, the Utes received invitations to both the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAAs. They chose the NIT because the elder event promised to cover expenses, and it would take place entirely in New York City, which only Ferrin and Sheffield had visited before.

No one in the Utes' traveling party knew much about Kentucky, their first-round opponent. College basketball in the '40s consisted of a dozen or so clusters of interest, each in its own information vacuum, so Peterson bought a "scouting report" on the Wildcats from a sidewalk hustler for $25. The Utes were going to have to play with a gimpy Sheffield, who had sprained an ankle during a scrimmage with another NIT entrant, Oklahoma A&M, soon after arriving in New York.

Sheffield jumped center and promptly took a seat. But his injury gave an opening to Misaka, who made a huge impression on the crowd. "[His] spectacular play brought roars of approval," wrote Wilbur Wood in the New York Sun. "One wonders what would be the reaction of a Tokyo crowd at a sports event right now, if one of the players were named Kelly or Doolittle." But Kentucky's Jack Parkinson got loose for 20 points in the Wildcats 46--38 victory. The cigar smoke in the Garden seared the lungs of the innocents from Mormon country, and Fred Lewis remembers a gambler sprinting onto the floor to offer $20 to Misaka, whose late basket, the man said, had beaten the point spread.

The players put the loss on the shelf, for they had a city to see. They'd already taken in the Copacabana and the Empire State Building. When they passed an ocean liner retrofitted into a troop ship, Misaka turned to Ferrin and mused, "If I yelled 'Banzai!' and started running, what do you think would happen?"

The night of the apparent end of Utah's season, Keith Brown, the graduate manager, while strolling along Broadway with assistant coach Pete Couch, kicked a small blue object half hidden in the snow. He reached down to find a pocket Bible, one of thousands given to the troops, with an introductory message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finding a Bible, Couch declared, was a sign of their good fortune.

A day earlier, unbeknownst to anyone in the Utah party, the Arkansas team had traveled from Fayetteville to Fort Smith for a scrimmage with a military squad to prepare for the NCAA West Regional. Returning to campus that night on a rain-slicked highway, a station wagon carrying several Razorbacks players had a flat tire. A narrow shoulder forced faculty adviser Eugene Norris to leave part of the vehicle exposed to traffic, and as starters Ben Jones and Deno Nichols changed the flat, another car rammed theirs from behind. Norris was killed, and Jones and Nichols critically injured. Only four days before the start of the NCAAs, Arkansas withdrew.

With a hole in the bracket and no time to spare, someone from the NCAA phoned Peterson in his room at the Hotel Belvedere. Would Utah like a second chance to play for a national title? At 2:30 a.m. the Utes' coach woke his players and gave them a choice: spend a few more days sightseeing or hop a train for Kansas City, Mo., first thing in the morning and try to win their way back to New York for the NCAA championship game, set for the Garden the following week. (There was no Final Four in 1944—only two four-team regionals and a title game.)

Ferrin voiced the sentiment of all the players in that meeting: "Let's go to Kansas City and win the [West Regional] title," he said. "Then we can return to New York and prove that our loss [in the NIT] was a fluke."

Because train schedules were held hostage by troop movements, it took nearly three days for the Utes to reach Kansas City. But in their NCAA opener against Missouri, another team of freshmen and 4-F's, Sheffield again jumped center before yielding to Misaka, who whipped the Utes to a faster tempo and a 45--35 victory.

In the regional final the next day Utah faced more formidable Iowa State. The Utes trailed 28--26 midway through the second half as Misaka played through foul trouble with two whistles, he says today, constituting the only time he ever felt discrimination on the court. Utah nonetheless pulled away for a 40--31 victory. The first team ever to play in the NCAAs and the NIT in the same season—a group ushered into the draw "through an undertaker's parlor," as Joe Cummiskey of the New York daily PM put it—then boarded the train back East for the NCAA final.

Awaiting the Utes was a Frankenstein monster of a team, pieces of several collegiate squads stitched together into a terrifying whole. The Navy had converted the Dartmouth campus into a training base, making it home to such basketball stars as Cornell's Bob Gale, Fordham's Walter Mercer and NYU's Harry Leggat, as well as future NBA guard Dick McGuire, who after playing in 16 games as a St. John's freshman received his orders from the Navy and immediately suited up for the Indians. Dartmouth's only loss all season had come to the country's best military team, before McGuire arrived in Hanover. In addition Dartmouth supplied a star of its own, big man Aud Brindley, whose 13 field goals had helped defeat Ohio State in the East Regional final.

The bookies installed Dartmouth as seven-point favorites, and the Indians players boasted that they ought to stage an intrasquad scrimmage to give fans their money's worth, according to Couch, who overheard them in a Manhattan coffee shop. A Dartmouth victory appeared so certain that a funk settled over the organizers of the Red Cross benefit game between the winners of the NCAAs and the NIT, which would be held at the Garden two days after the NCAA final. Word came down that the Navy had ordered Dartmouth's trainees to return to campus as soon as possible, ensuring that Utah, win or lose, would play St. John's, the NIT winner, in the Red Cross game. If the Indians beat the Utes, the benefit would be a meaningless anticlimax.

In the NCAA final, Utah threw double teams at Brindley and Gale, and neither team could build a lead of more than four points. With less than a minute left Utah held the ball and a 36--34 edge, needing only to play keepaway to secure the title. But in the final 10 seconds the Indians knocked the ball loose and found McGuire up the floor. Misaka remembers the shot, which forced the first overtime in an NCAA title game, as "a running lefthanded thing from quite a ways out."

McGuire's conjuring might have broken Utah's spirit. Dartmouth was the more mature and rugged team. But all those practices in the thin Wasatch Range air had given Peterson's regulars stamina to draw on. With the game tied at 40 and less than a minute left in overtime, the Utes found themselves with one last possession.

They worked the ball around the forecourt, from timeline to baseline and back again. "We spaced the floor well," remembers Bob Lewis, who from the right corner found Wilkinson open beyond the top of the key in the final 10 seconds. Wilkinson's set shot traced a high arc, true but short, and struck the front of the rim, bouncing off the backboard and seeming poised to fall away. But on the old newsreel footage it looks as if the front lip of the rim rises up ever so slightly to coax the ball into the basket. "I had a hard time seeing through the smoke," recalls Fred Lewis, who for a moment thought, What the heck happened?

What happened, Misaka says, sent him "about 10 feet in the air," which would be nearly twice his height. The final score was 42--40, Utah, and "the foundlings of postseason play," in the words of Irving Marsh of the New York Herald Tribune, were NCAA champions.

Two nights later the Utes returned to the Garden with a chance to prove themselves college basketball's undisputed best. A year earlier, after winning the NCAA crown, Wyoming had raised the profile of that younger event by winning the first Red Cross game. Now, before a crowd that would donate more than $41,000, the Utes tried to match the Cowboys' feat.

The New York fans might have been expected to favor the local team, St. John's, but the Garden then served as the home floor of several other colleges too, and followers of those teams didn't care to see the Redmen win. More than that, the Utes had won over New Yorkers during the previous two weeks with their fluid, hustling play. Misaka, in particular, "was so well received in New York," Ferrin recalls. "The port was closed, and there were troop ships there, but people responded to how hard he played."

Ferrin, the most valuable player of the NCAA tournament, dropped in several one-handers down the stretch to secure a 43--36 victory. As Peterson took the trophy around the locker room, rubbing it sacramentally on the heads of his players, he yelled at each in turn, "This is it, kid. It's yours—you won it!"

The team had been gone from Utah for 12 days and spent more than half of them on trains. After the Utes pulled out of Denver for the final leg of the trip home, the president of the Rio Grande Railroad, a Utahn, arranged for the players to be feted in his private car with steak and strawberries, rare delicacies in wartime. Meanwhile a welcoming party mustered at the station in Salt Lake City for a rally and parade. Smuin's mother, Helen, got her son's draft board to give him two more days so he could take part in the celebrations. In the flotilla of horn-honking convertibles driven by students was Pat Warshaw, who hoped to meet a basketball player. Alas, Coach Peterson climbed into her car first. But in 2005, after each had lost a longtime spouse, Pat would marry Arnie Ferrin.

Another woman met the team that day. Tatsuyo Misaka came bearing a letter for her son. "My greetings from Uncle Sam," Wat says. He had been drafted into the Army.

In mid-1942 some 120,000 residents of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, were rounded up and confined in internment camps. Only those living in the three states along the Pacific Coast were affected, so by the grace of the Sierra Nevada the Misakas could continue to go about their lives. But FDR's order instantly altered the way many Americans regarded their neighbors of Japanese extraction and, inevitably, the way Japanese-Americans saw themselves.

Those at the University of Utah flaunted their patriotism, purchasing more war bonds and stamps per capita than the student body as a whole. Reviewing Guadalcanal Diary, a memoir by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, for an English class, one Japanese-American student wrote, "This book shows how hard we will have to work to kill those Japs."

Some press reports erroneously described Misaka as a Hawaiian of Japanese descent. Misaka thinks Peterson was behind the errors but doesn't fault him. "The coach was very concerned about how I'd be accepted," he says. "Putting out that I was Hawaiian-born was a way to soften the blow." And Misaka believes Peterson never started him during his two seasons at Utah to protect him from fans' hostility: "That's what I choose to think, because he never treated me personally with any animosity."

The experience of the team's other Nisei, Masateru (Tut) Tatsuno, also suggests that Peterson, who died in 1976, was aware of the risk of suiting up Japanese-Americans during wartime. Tatsuno's family, which owned a dry-goods store in San Francisco's Japantown, was assigned to the Topaz camp near Delta, a collection of several hundred wood-frame buildings that opened in September '42. Tut would have been confined there with some 8,100 others if not for the university's pledge to accept up to 150 qualified internees of college age from camps around the West.

Tatsuno occasionally traveled with the Utes during the regular season as their 10th player. But even though he practiced with the team until the day it left for the NIT, the Utah postseason traveling party of 14 included only nine players. He was odd man out.

Peterson phoned Tatsuno during the Utes' journey home to tell him to show up at the station and be sure to wear a suit. Over the following days he took part in the whirl of celebrations and received an inscribed championship watch. After school let out, Misaka visited Tatsuno at the camp in Topaz to present him with a personalized Utah-red commemorative blanket in front of his family.

Tatsuno's older brother, Dave, captured Misaka's visit with an 8-mm movie camera he had smuggled into the camp. In the footage, which appears in the 2009 documentary Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story, the teammates mug for the camera. "It was the first and only time I'd been in camp, and it was a real shock to me," Misaka said last May, speaking to a multigenerational audience after a screening of Transcending in San Jose. "I'd heard stories and seen pictures, but to see the bleak desert environment was very depressing. I smiled a lot in that film, but I felt the injustice of it all."

Tut Tatsuno died in 1997, and today his daughter, Marice Shiozaki, summarizes the jumble of emotions her father felt during that long-ago basketball season and its aftermath: bitterness at being left behind, embarrassed surprise at being showered with trinkets and recognition for accomplishments from which he had been thousands of miles removed, and, over time, a gradual pride at having contributed nonetheless.

Misaka, for his part, spent two years in the Army, including nine months with U.S. occupation forces in Japan, where he interviewed survivors of the atomic-bomb blast in Hiroshima. One day he showed up at the home of his uncle, whose house—the one in which Wat's mother had grown up—had been shielded from the blast by a hill. "A personal no-man's land," Misaka has called the emotional territory he covered during that period. "No matter where I looked, I was a traitor in someone's eyes."

Tatsuno's daughter recalls the red of that commemorative blanket, spread across her parents' bed until it became so threadbare that they finally framed it for the wall. "As time went on, he was able to reconcile all these things," Shiozaki says. "He understood that they had to take Wat, and to take two [Japanese-Americans] probably wasn't a good idea when you had to travel across the country." But over the years those old feelings of unworthiness would rear up. "I tried and tried to get him to come," says Misaka, who helped organize team reunions. But Tatsuno never did attend. There's an old Japanese expression: Shikata ga nai. Accept your lot and go on. Tut Tatsuno's daughter uses it to describe her father's attitude. As he looks back, Misaka invokes it too.

His teammates lived in a different world. "We didn't think it was difficult for Wat," Fred Lewis says today. "[It was like] we didn't know he was Japanese."

Early that season, however, Smuin had made clear to Misaka that he would look out for him. If other teammates were comparatively oblivious to what Misaka was going through, says Bruce Alan Johnson, codirector of Transcending, that was a kind of gift from Misaka himself: "Wat was so able to overlook racial inequality that he made others able to overlook it too."

In the fall of 1946, Misaka, Ferrin and Smuin reunited on the Utah varsity. Rival colleges fielded teams again and packed their gyms when the Utes came to campus. At Utah State, Misaka heard, "Dirty Jap, why don't you go back home?" (I am home, he said to himself.) At Wyoming, where the court was known as Hell's Half-Acre, Ferrin remembers making several trips up and down the floor with only three other Utes. He swears that a couple of roughneck spectators had detained Misaka behind the baseline, an incident Misaka doesn't recall.

That March, with the help of a splendid forward named Vern Gardner, Utah returned to New York to win the NIT. Though he still rarely started, Misaka played virtually the entire final, holding Kentucky's Ralph Beard, the player of the year, to a single point. "You know how Beard scored his one point? I fouled him," Ferrin confesses. The crowd booed when Misaka wasn't named MVP. A few months later New York Knicks general manager Ned Irish, who had now watched Misaka charm the Garden fans in three competitions, made him the team's No. 1 draft pick.

The pro National Basketball League had fielded black players in the 1942--43 season, but Misaka became the first non-Caucasian to play in the Basketball Association of America, the other league that would soon merge with the NBL to form the NBA. Misaka scored seven points in three games, but shortly after the Knicks' first road trip he was let go. He never received an explanation. During a stopover in Chicago on his way home he briefly considered accepting a standing offer from Abe Saperstein to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, but instead he returned to Utah to finish his studies.

Every regular on the 1944 Utah team except Bob Lewis would either play pro basketball or be drafted to do so, and Ferrin would win two NBA titles with the Minneapolis Lakers. But the Zoot Utes' greater successes may have come away from the game. Sheffield and reserve Jim Nance went on to become doctors. Wilkinson became a dentist. Fred Lewis and another backup, T. Ray Kingston, joined Bob Lewis and Misaka as engineers. Smuin left the mines behind, becoming a teacher and coach, while Tatsuno took business classes at Cal and helped reopen the family's store in the Bay Area.

Wilkinson sees all this as a logical outcome of the championship. "Anything like that gives you more confidence to do other things in life," he says. "You think, Gee, if we won the NCAAs and weren't expected to, we could probably do a lot of other things we didn't think we could do."

Today Ferrin agrees, having watched Misaka bowl a 299 at age 80 and having won an all-church golf title in middle age himself. He muses on what once was—and nearly wasn't—as well as what might have been. "Maybe we were just a flash in the pan," he says, "but it would have been nice to have stayed together to find out. We'll never know. So we can say anything we want to."

Dick Smuin, that crouching catcher of fighting chickens, died in 2001, two weeks after Sept. 11. When Jim Smuin visited his father at the hospice on the day of the attacks, Dick was watching the coverage on television. "This is going to be exactly like what Misaka had to go through," Dick said, alluding to what he feared was in store for Arab-Americans.

Two years ago Jim paid a visit to the home in Bountiful, Utah, that Wat Misaka shares with Katie, his wife of 58 years. Wat pulled him aside and said, "Your dad promised me that he'd have my back. That he'd make sure nothing ever happened to me. He did."

Misaka then gestured at a table covered with pictures of his and Smuin's Utah teams. They're evidence that Dick Smuin knew when to get out of his crouch and stand up. "I want you to look at these," Misaka said. "Look who's next to me in every picture."

Now on SI.com

For historical coverage of other NCAA championships, go to SI.com/vault

Sometimes Ferrin would get the assist, sometimes Misaka—but not until after the two had left Ogden.
The Utes played the game of the future, with a preference for the pass over the dribble.
The Utes, and Misaka in particular, won over New Yorkers with their fluid, hustling play.
Peterson let his players fend for themselves on offense. "We didn't have plays," recalls one Ute.
PHOTOPhotograph by BETTMANN/CORBISPASSING INTO HISTORY Ferrin (with ball) and Misaka (21) helped the Utes beat favored Dartmouth 42--40 in overtime in the NCAA final.PHOTODEANNE FITZMAURICEBOUND FOR THE TOP The success that Misaka, 86, and Ferrin, 84, had at Utah has followed them through life, as both have had long, satisfying careers.PHOTOSPECIAL COLLECTIONS DEPT./J. WILLARD MARRIOTT LIBRARY/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH[See caption above]PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBISTWICE AS NICE Two nights after the NCAA win, Bob Lewis (31) and Misaka helped Utah beat NIT champ St. John's.PHOTOSPECIAL COLLECTIONS DEPT./J. WILLARD MARRIOTT LIBRARY/UNIVERSITY OF UTAH (TROPHY)WELL DESERVED Peterson took the trophy around the locker room, telling each player in turn, "This is it, kid. It's yours—you won it!"PHOTOUNIVERSITY OF UTAHWELCOME HOME Upon their return to Utah, the victorious players were greeted with a parade—and a couple of them with draft notices.PHOTORICH CLARKSON/NCAA PHOTOS