As war loomed, a band of young men from Washington State College surprised themselves, their coach and their fans by nearly winning the NCAA tournament in 1941.
The 1941 Washington State College basketball team is largely lost to time. But don’t feel bad. That’s the way they would have wanted it. Even their children are foggy about much of it: Dad was too humble, too private, too proud to peel away the layers of his past.
Three teams from the state of Washington have made the Final Four in the 75 years of the NCAA tournament. The 1958 Seattle University team that lost in the title game included the great Elgin Baylor. The 1953 Washington team finished with the best record of the three despite losing in the semis. But the runner-up ’41 Washington State team lets us look at a year when sports and society collided in a way few teams ever have.
The players exist today in black-and-white photos but played that season in a gray year of uncertainty.
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Three weeks before the national-championship game, 100 sirens wailed as downtown Seattle went black. It was the first time a major U.S. city attempted a blackout in preparation for war. Two days before the title game, Takeo Yoshikawa stepped off a ship in Honolulu and was greeted with a lei around his neck. He spent eight months gathering intelligence for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
And yet in the shadow of the most devastating war the world has ever known, a group of college kids just kept playing basketball — and winning.
Kirk Gebert is a junior and one of the smallest players on the ’41 team that made it all the way to the NCAA championship game in Kansas City. His sons will only learn of his exploits in small chunks growing up. Then, a few years before his death, he will free himself of a burden he locked inside for 60 years.
Phil Wainscott is the team’s student manager. Every game that season, he will file brief reports on anything from sportsmanship to the crowd. He will join the army after graduation, but he won’t serve because of a medical condition. It’s a blessing and curse he will shoulder during the years his friends are overseas.
And then there’s Jack Kelleher, a three-sport athlete from Ellensburg. The big Irishman will play in only four games. Before his junior year, he will leave school for the army, and few will know his story.
The ’41 season started with a team picture, one of the few college basketball traditions that hasn’t changed through the years. Yet so much else is different.
Every guy on this team comes from Bremerton or Longview or some other Washington town, big or small. None is on an athletic scholarship, which the NCAA won’t allow for another 11 years.
Away from the court, Americans still hope their boys won’t go to war. But the players on the ’41 team know the stakes even before Pearl Harbor makes it official later that year.
The day after Washington State crushes Eastern Washington 78-39 in front of 250 people on Jan. 4, Wainscott, who players call “Manage”, writes a letter to his aunt and uncle.
An agronomy major, Wainscott is also a company captain in the ROTC program. When he graduates, which he will do in 1941, he will enter the army as a second lieutenant in the reserves.
“I would still rather have a civilian job,” he writes to his family, “but the USA comes first with me no matter what happens. If we would declare war today I’d be one of the first to volunteer for action. The world has been ruled long enough by incompetent mustached mice. I get mad every time I think about it.”
Sensing something special
Before we go any further, a few more introductions are necessary.
Dale Gentry, a 6-3 forward, is the best rebounder on the team. Classmates once called him “Piggy” because he was pudgy as a boy. He used that as motivation to sculpt his trademark barrel chest.
Paul Lindeman is the star. He’s 6-7, 230 pounds, and controls the basket like he owns it. His team-high 10.2 points per game might not seem like much now, but it comes at a time when teams routinely score in the 30s.
Ray Sundquist is the team’s captain. He’s an excellent shooter who also draws attention for his All-American looks.
Three women once waited for Sundquist outside the locker room at Oregon’s McArthur Court. As they made small talk, they realized they were waiting for the same guy: Sundquist. When he finally emerged, all that was waiting for him were the pins he had given each woman.
This is not a team carrying weighty expectations. In fact, the only expectation is that the Cougars won’t be very good.
They knock off Whitman and Montana a couple times early in the year, sneak by Gonzaga and then lose two games to Oregon State. But Washington State immediately responds with two wins against division rival Oregon, the team that won the first NCAA tournament in 1939. Wainscott senses something special building.
This could be the year, he writes.
Unlikely tournament run
Let Jack Friel, the coach who smokes cigarettes during his halftime speeches, explain the improbability of Washington State’s run.
Friel is in his 13th season as coach of his alma mater, and the school eventually will name its court after him. But he will never have another team like this, even if he didn’t think much of his players when the season started.
Friel is a thinking man, a heavy reader who enjoys politics and history. He wants to preserve the memories his team is making, so he jams his suitcases full with newspapers and pictures to show his wife and son back home. Not even Friel’s wife, Catherine, believes that Washington State could go on such a run and skips the trip.
“You didn’t think we’d get this far, did you?” Friel writes her during the tournament. “I wasn’t so sure myself. I remember — you used to expect us to lose conference game after conference game, but the kids fooled you, and me, too.”
The NCAA tournament Friel is writing about is not the March Madness we know today. In 1939, after much debate about whether the NIT or NCAA would serve as the sport’s premier event, the NCAA hosted its first tournament — and lost $2,500.
Friel and his team shatter preseason expectations with 13 straight conference wins and storm into the increasingly popular eight-team NCAA tournament as the West’s representative.
The Cougars continue their run in the first round with a 48-39 dismantling of Creighton. Lindeman, Washington State’s powerful center, leads the way with 26 points. In awe of his dominance, Omaha papers dub him “mountain man.”
In the semifinals, the Cougars run into Arkansas, a buzz saw of a team that hasn’t lost all season. Some call the Razorbacks the greatest in the land.
Back in Pullman, students chip in money so a radio broadcast is piped home. Listening with a 10-minute delay, they hear the Cougars take control after five minutes. They hear Vern Butts score 11 points despite being sick and only playing in the first half. They hear their boys shoot 41 percent, a scorching display described by one observer as “unbelievable.”
After the game, observers and sports writers reach a consensus: The Cougars are the best team in the field. Even Chuck Taylor, of the famous sneakers named after him, calls Washington State the greatest team he has seen.
That leaves only one hurdle before the Cougars can call themselves national champions: a meeting with Wisconsin.
Plans for a giant celebration in Pullman are already in the works. A feast. A band. The ringing of the bell atop College Hall.
The ultimate loss
The Cougars don’t have much time for practice. Municipal Auditorium, the site of the tournament in downtown Kansas City, is hosting an indoor track meet earlier in the week. Lindeman and his teammates don’t mind. They explore the city, go to dances and banquets and drive to see famed University of Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen.
Back home, the campus is waiting to erupt. In less than a year, fraternity houses and male dorms will become near ghost towns, and the train depot will become an all-too-common place for tearful goodbyes. But on this night, Pullman’s attention is on the Cougars.
Ray Sundquist is back in the lineup against Wisconsin despite not playing the second half against Arkansas because of a bruised hip. He limps through most of the game and isn’t a factor.
After graduation, he will enter the army and serve three years in the South Pacific. He will come home with the rank of captain and a Purple Heart, become a prominent WSU booster and eventually open the Misfit Restaurant with friend Bill Moos, who went on to become WSU’s athletic director.
Sundquist’s offensive struggles come on a bad night: Dale Gentry and Paul Lindeman can’t get anything going, either. The Cougars go nine minutes in the first half without scoring. Wisconsin takes control.
Lindeman, the team’s unquestioned star, faces two and three defenders every time he touches the ball. It’s maybe the worst game of the season for the future All-American who will play pro basketball and be inducted into the Pac-10 Hall of Honor after his death in 1990.
Gentry, too, will go on to have a professional career. Once his service in the South Pacific ends, he will use that barrel chest to become a bull at defensive end for the Los Angeles Dons. But all his strength won’t shield him years later after his 16-year-old son is killed in a car crash. Gentry will die the next day of a heart attack at age 50. Some say he died of a broken heart.
In the second half against Wisconsin, the Cougars make one last push behind the awkward, one-handed shot of junior Kirk Gebert. Yet he rarely misses, and scores 21 of his team’s 36 points.
He will play for the Cougars the next year, his senior season, and become student-body president. The son of a Longview minister will join the army, land in France not long after D-Day and get wounded.
He will return home with a Purple Heart, but he won’t reveal much to his sons. Then one day, late in life, he will take them to his small workshop out back and finally open up about his past, about the time he shot a German soldier.
“It was a burden he wanted to let go of,” his son, Ned, says. “He needed to tell somebody.”
Gebert’s scoring outburst against Wisconsin isn’t enough, and the Cougars lose, 39-34. They are given trophies and wrist watches as consolation, manager Phil Wainscott notes in his final report.
Wainscott will join the army, where he will get sick and hear the news: Doctors diagnose him with ulcerative colitis. He thinks the army is sending him home to die.
Instead, he meets a nurse who takes care of him — and marries him. He will feel guilty that he stays home when many of his friends are overseas, but he will never forget that season.
“Dad was just so proud to be on the coattails of that team,” his daughter, Penney Tee, says. “That was one of the high points of his life.”
And then there’s Jack Kelleher.
No one is quite sure where the deep reserve was the night of the championship game, when the greatest run in Washington State basketball history finally ended. What’s known is this: Kelleher’s real promise lies in track, where he won his first varsity race that year. He will join the army after his sophomore year and leave behind a girlfriend he intends to marry.
He will land on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and will be wounded on July 12. He will write a letter to his parents telling them he’s fine and quickly return to combat.
Two months later, he will get injured again. This time he won’t be able to write home.
Jack Kelleher died Sept. 23, 1944.
He never returns to Ellensburg, never raises a family or tells his kids about the 1941 basketball season, when college kids are still just kids, when the world is an endless possibility and not a battlefield.
When the Cougars could have been anything and anyone.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or email@example.com