Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fifty Years Ago--1959

The 1950s had been a pretty good decade for Minnesota basketball. The greatest player and the greatest team ever assembled had played weekly at the old Minneapolis Auditorium. Hamline had won a third national championship, and the Gophers remained in contention for a Big Ten title right down to the final game of the year. But the fact was that all of that had happened by 1955, and Minnesota's signature programs were all in decline by the time the decade of the 1950s was drawing to a close. The Lakers had had a 19-53 record in 1958 and the Gophers, at 9-12, had had their first losing season since 1945. They would decline further to 8-14 in 1959. Hamline had won just one MIAC title since 1953. And, so, the highlight of the year was the performance of a team that won 33 games while losing 39.

Story #1--Minneapolis Lakers bounce back behind Elgin Baylor

Their 19-53 record in 1958 won the Lakers the first draft pick and they used it wisely, choosing Elgin Baylor from Seattle University. The Lakers still finished 16 games behind the St. Louis Hawks in the Western Division, and lost one game to the Boston Celtics 173-139--those 173 points remaining to this day the NBA record for points in a game. But the Lakers shocked the Hawks four games to two in the division finals. They then were swept by the Boston Celtics in the NBA finals, but the season was nevertheless accounted as a success.

Story #2--Wayzata wins state high school title

Wayzata defeated Carlton High School 55-41 to win the MSHSL state championship. Because Wayzata had finished third in the emerging powerhouse of the Lake Conference, Wayzata was widely described as a Cinderella. Ironically, Carlton was a real Cinderella. Had they won the title, they would have been the smallest school ever to do so. Instead, Edgerton would win that honor the very next year. A better game than the final, however, had been played in Wayzata's semi-final victory over defending state champion Austin 55-52.

Story #3--Duluth Branch emerges as MIAC powerhouse

Yes, the so-called Duluth Branch of the University of Minnesota, now the University of Minnesota-Duluth, was a member of the MIAC in those days, and in 1959 they won the second of what would become four championships in five years under coach Norm Olson. And, for the second straight year, the Bulldogs defeated St. Cloud State in their post-season playoff 67-65 (in overtime) to advance to the NAIA national small college tournament. 

Player of the Year

1. Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers, forward
2. Dave Baker, Duluth Branch, forward
3. Ron North and John Pierson, Carlton, forwards
4. Ron Johnson, Minnesota Gophers, center
5. Tom Kezar, Austin, guard

Coach of the Year

1. Jack Thurnblad, Wayzata
2. John Kundla, Minneapolis Lakers
3. Norm Olson, Duluth Branch
4. Dick Nielsen, Carlton
5. Bill Reinhard, DeLaSalle

Top Teams

1. DeLaSalle--5th state title in 6 years
2. Duluth Branch
3. Minneapolis Lakers
4. Wayzata
5. St. Cloud State

Games of the Year

1. Minneapolis Lakers 98 St. Louis Hawks 97 (game 5)
2. Boston Celtics 173 Minneapolis Lakers 139
3. Duluth Branch 67 St. Cloud State 65 (ot)
4. Wayzata 55 Austin 52, state tournament semi
5. Minneapolis Lakers 106 St. Louis Hawks 104 (game 6)

The Aftermath

After 1959 a new decade dawned and change overtook the Minnesota basketball landscape. Kundla left the franchise he had led to seven world championships, and moved across the river to the University of Minnesota. The Lakers themselves would play just one more year in Minneapolis before high-tailing it to Los Angeles for the 1960-1961 season. The Duluth Branch would win two more MIAC titles, but would eventually return to its roots in the Northern conference. Hamline and legendary coach Joe Hutton won one last conference title in 1960 but never again, to this day, have the Pipers claimed another.

Only Wayzata's performance was in any way prophetic. Only the second Lake Conference team ever to win a state title, they would be followed by five more in the first nine years of the new decade. The dominance of the Lake Conference was so dispiriting to Minnesota's other high schools that it was, in effect, the last nail in the coffin of the single-class tournament format. So Wayzata's performance was of a piece with the Lakers' and Duluth's after all. It promised change, whether we recognized it in 1959 or not.

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