The return of the state tournament to Seattle rekindles memories of an era when high-school sports was king.

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As a player, he lost a state championship in overtime. As a coach, a referee’s decision cost him another chance at the elusive state title. So why does legendary coach Ed Pepple laugh when he is asked about the state tournaments in Seattle he’ll never forget?

Because his first memory is hilarious. Pepple skipped junior-high school in the 1940s and walked into Edmundson Pavilion to watch the state tournament. When it was time for a hot dog, he headed to the concession stand and saw an irritated woman who was about to change his day.

His mother.

The school called to report her son missing, and she knew exactly where to find the basketball-crazy kid.

“She grabbed me by the ear and dragged me back to school,” Pepple recalls with a laugh. “I was in big trouble.”

This week, the state tournament returns to Seattle for the first time in six years, and a lot of kids — and adults — will be playing hooky and imprinting memories.

The atmosphere and intensity of a 16-team state tournament is a feel-good event, a four-day slice of America that rings as true for teenagers today as it did more than 50 years ago. But the event also harkens to a simpler, plainer era of Seattle sports, a time before the Sonics’ arrival ushered in major pro sports, a time before millionaire athletes and half-billion-dollar sports venues.

Those memories are flooding back to Pepple and a lot of other sports fans with this week’s state-tournament homecoming.

“That day was the first big recollection of the state tournament — the pageantry, the excitement, the bands, and all the teams,” said Pepple, who played basketball at Lincoln of Seattle. “I made up my mind I wanted to be part of that at some point.”

Pepple has done just that. Four state championships in seven appearances in the finals. A state-best career record of 914-291 in 46 seasons as a head coach.

Pepple isn’t the only coach who traces his passion for basketball back to the state tournament.

Mac Fraser, who won three state titles at Mount Vernon, remembers skipping school at Ballard with his friends. They would memorize the program, pick favorite players and try to emulate them in pick-up games.

“It was like the circus,” said Mac Fraser, now 56. “I couldn’t wait for March.”

Neither could a lot of folks.

Leaving Seattle

From 1923 to 2000, Seattle was home to at least one state tournament. The tournament home for more than a half century was the University of Washington, then it marched into a succession of other venues — Seattle Coliseum, which was remodeled into KeyArena, nearby Mercer Arena and the Kingdome before it was demolished.

In 2001, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association moved the 3A tournaments for boys and girls to the Tacoma Dome, with its side-by-side courts, because the McCaw Hall construction project ended Mercer Arena’s availability for basketball. The WIAA prefers to have boys and girls sites at least within walking distance of each other to accommodate schools with both boys and girls teams competing.

The decision to return home to Seattle is partly economic — gross revenues had fallen from $325,464 in 2000 in Seattle to $232,639 last year in Tacoma — and partly geographic — Seattle’s Metro League is 3A and is bordered by 3A suburban leagues to the south and east. (The Tacoma Dome remains the 4A tournament site). There also were complaints that the state’s largest city deserved high-school tournaments.

Among those delighted with the return to Seattle is former Garfield star Levi Fisher, who played in three state-title games at Edmundson Pavilion from 1961 to ’63. He then played college basketball as a Husky on the same floor.

“During the time I played for the University of Washington, it was never as loud as the state tournament,” said Fisher, now 61 and an official in the federal Administration for Children and Families.

Fisher isn’t exaggerating. One reporter wrote in 1961, “The first thing you notice when you enter the Pavilion is that the noise comes in three sizes — loud, louder and loudest.

Loud and proud

This was the era before major-league sports arrived in Seattle. High-school athletics commanded front-page attention before the pay-for-play teams arrived.

One athlete who earned both World Series and NBA championship rings said there was “more adrenaline” pumping through him at the 1947 tournament than at the pro championships.

Gene Conley of Richland said his first impression of Edmundson Pavilion was awe.

“This is so big!” he remembers thinking.

“I thought it was big time,” said Conley, speaking by telephone from his home in Central Florida.

Back where it began

The first state tournament was held in the now-defunct Men’s Gymnasium on upper campus at the University of Washington in 1923. Teams arrived by train and stayed in fraternities to reduce expenses.

Washington basketball coach Clarence “Hec” Edmundson and baseball coach Tubby Graves were the organizers and agreed to cover any losses. There weren’t any — the first-day crowd of 3,000 showed that the tournament would be a success, even with the low admission fee of 25 cents per game or $1 for an all- tournament pass.

The tournament moved to new UW Pavilion in 1928 and the building was renamed Hec Edmundson Pavilion in 1948.

Venerable Hec Ed has since been renovated and expanded, but history still seems to ooze from the place. In 1936, the Pavilion was the stage for the biggest surprise in state basketball history when Valley High School of Menlo (now Willapa Valley High School) won the title.

The rural school, which was playing the big schools only because the Depression forced cancellation of the small-school event, had an enrollment of only 96.

“We thought we’d play two games and go home,” Valley player Joe Drazil said in a 2006 interview.

Instead, the farm boys upset giants Lewis and Clark of Spokane, Walla Walla, Everett and then beat Hoquiam 32-18 in overtime for the title.

Hec Ed memories

Memories in Hec Ed kept mounting over the years — the unbeatable 1940 Everett team, the talented 1949 Lewis and Clark team from Spokane — but one of the most famous games had one of the smallest crowds.

That was the semifinal in 1953 when Renton, coached by Irv Leifer, played Elma that featured 7-foot-1 Gary Nelson.

Leifer had played in the 1940 tournament for tiny Pine City High School and in 1941 for St. John, both in the wheat country of Southeast Washington. St. John almost upset Bremerton in the title game, losing 30-29.

Only about 4,000 fans attended the Renton-Elma game because the historic NCAA regional between Washington and Seattle University in Corvallis, Ore., was on TV.

Renton played ball control and led 7-5 at halftime.

“We took the ball and started passing, and the crowd started counting our passes, and they got into the 40s. We passed the ball 40 times before we took a shot,” recalled Leifer, a veteran of Iwo Jima who is 84 and living in Renton. “We treasured the ball. We wanted a good percentage shot or we wouldn’t take one. It was kind of exciting to hear the crowd counting your passes — 35, 36, 37 … The kids felt it was quite an accomplishment, fighting the big 7-footer.”

The primary defender on Nelson was future UW and NFL tackle George Strugar, who held the “Elma Elevator” to 13 points. Nelson had scored 40 the previous day in a 66-38 win over Bremerton.

Nelson breathed from an oxygen tank during timeouts, but part of Renton’s strategy was to avoid calling a timeout.

Renton went on to win the tournament. Leifer’s teams won again in 1960, 1966 and 1967.

One of the most anticipated championship games was in 1976, when two champions of the previous season — Cleveland, which had won the AA (now 3A) title “opted up” to AAA (now 4A) for the season and played defending champion Lincoln of Tacoma.

Cleveland, with four future Division I players including eventual NBA center Jawann Oldham, came from behind to win 42-41.

Changes, more changes

As the state has grown, the number of tournaments has expanded and the nomenclature has changed.

The biggest change was the creation of a sanctioned girls tournament in 1974. Just like the first boys tournament more than 50 years earlier, it started as an event for schools of all sizes. Before long, there were multiple tournaments for different classifications as Title IX gathered steam.

A big decision for boys was adding a third tournament — Class A for medium-sized schools — in 1958 and moving the Class B tournament to Spokane. In 1969, the present 3A (then AA) class was created.

Today, there are six classifications — 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, 2B and 1B, with girls and boys tournaments for each.

The big-school tournament format dramatically changed in 1964, when only four regional champions advanced to Seattle. The move was triggered by complaints about missed school time and concern about students on their own for four days in Seattle.

Tournament purists hated the change.

“They destroyed it when they went to that silly regional thing,” complains Len Fiorto of Seattle, an amateur historian of the tournament’s first 40 years. “The change minimized factors such as depth and endurance because teams played two games one weekend and two the next.”

The format was tweaked in 1974 and in 1980. Finally, in 1988, all classifications returned to the 16-team, single-site tournament, a format the A and B tournaments never abandoned.

1981: Was it late?

The most controversial big-school title game occurred in 1981 and involved Pepple.

That year at the Coliseum, Mercer Island appeared to have won its first state tournament and started to celebrate. Then the scoreboard changed.

The 10-foot baseline jumper of Shadle Park’s Greg Schmidt looked late to many fans, but referee Chris Manolopoulos counted it. Shadle Park won, 66-65.

“I’m at midcourt celebrating,” Pepple recalled. “We’ve got people cutting down the nets. The people that run the tournament had put the ladders out there. And our fans were streaming down out of the stands. The announcers on the radio were saying Mercer Island wins! … Then the score changed.

“That’s the lowest feeling of all time.”

The automatic scoreboard buzzer wasn’t working and official timer Don Davis had to blow the horn into the microphone to signal the end of quarters and games. Davis thought the shot was late, but Manolopoulos, who later defended his call, didn’t consult him.

There was pushing and shoving between fans of both schools. Pepple helped avoid a brawl by taking the microphone and telling fans to meet the team back at the high school.

Shadle Park was awarded the trophy in the locker room instead of on the court. Schmidt has said a policeman told players that their bags would be delivered to their hotel because players needed their hands free “in case you have to fight your way out.”

Mercer Island lost the title game in 1982 to Roosevelt and to Juanita in 1984. MI won the title in 1985 and in the final seconds the band stripped to T-shirts that said, “Finally!”

That describes the feeling of many fans glad to have state-tournament basketball back in Seattle.

Craig Smith: 206-464-8179 or csmith@seattletimes.com