The 1968-69 Ingraham Rams were undefeated state champs. It's a team often overlooked when the state's best teams are discussed, but they deserve a spot in the conversation.

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“We had a magic group of people, and a coach who understood he didn’t have that much talent, but could get people to work together. That experience of recognizing a relationship of tremendous power and energy for a brief moment in time, it’s crystallized. … It’s something we now recognize was really unique.”
— Gov. Jay Inslee, a key member of the 1968-69 undefeated Ingraham High School basketball team

Coach Walt Milroy saw it coming.

His 1967-68 Ingraham High boys basketball team had gone 15-6 but missed the state tournament. Milroy knew much better things were in store the following season.

“I said, ‘We’re going all the way, and we’ll be undefeated,’ ” recalled Milroy, who turns 99 next Sunday and remembers seemingly every detail from the 1968-69 season. “I felt we had everything we needed. And it was hell, I will tell you.”

If the pressure of the bold prediction made the journey to a state title hard for him to enjoy, it was nothing compared with the pressure the Rams put on their foes. Full-court pressure. Every second of every game.

Fifty years later, Ingraham is enjoying a boys-basketball resurgence and has a chance to break a long (1975) drought of not making it to state in the coming weeks. Members of the 1968-69 team remember their season as if was yesterday.

The Rams were led by eight seniors who were all good. Collectively they were great. Normally they overwhelmed foes. When they didn’t, they showed the grit and resilience that elite teams possess.

“Our guys were tough, aggressive, smart, fast, and we could jump, and there was mutual respect all over the place,” center Ricke Reed said. “Because of that respect, because of that unselfishness, there was an incredible spirit.”

They finished 23-0, capped by a 39-38 victory over Hoquiam for the large-school state title.

The team is overlooked in the conversation of the state’s best ever, but Inslee thinks the team deserves at least one award.

“We did the most with the least, and that’s a certain category,” he said. “As far as loving the guys you played with, I think we’re probably up there on that score too.”

• • •

The leader

Milroy was the youngest of five children, raised by his mother after his father died suddenly and unexpectedly when Walt was 1.

He was playing baseball and JV basketball at the University of Washington when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Milroy joined the Navy, returned to UW after the war and captained the Husky baseball team in 1946. He landed a teaching job at Seattle’s Queen Anne High School, coaching baseball and sophomore basketball for 12 years.

When Ingraham opened in North Seattle in 1959, Milroy was thrilled because he lived a half-block from the new school. The job of baseball coach was spoken for, but Milroy became the basketball coach.

“I would have taken a job as the janitor,” he said.

Milroy’s first Ingraham team was 0-14. Two years later he guided the Rams to the state tournament. In 1964, Milroy brought back the 2-2-1 full-court zone press he had used coaching the sophomore team at Queen Anne.

“I used it when I had the right people — when I had quickness, with guards especially, and depth,” Milroy said.

Exactly what he had on the 1968-69 team.

“It was meant to be that we played (in Walt’s system),” senior center Chris Brown said. “It was like planets aligning.”

• • •

The great eight

Unlike most successful Seattle high-school teams today, the Ingraham players were all from the same neighborhood.

“We grew up winning all the championships, with the parks and AAU and all of that,” said Steve Merkley, who led Ingraham in scoring.

The top eight rarely played in the fourth quarter because Ingraham would be so far ahead and Milroy didn’t want to run up the score.

He often couldn’t help it.

The starting guards, the first line in the 2-2-1 press, were Merkley, considered the best athlete on the team, and Randy Leeland. They had quick hands, quick feet and were constantly attacking.

Brown, the tallest player at 6 feet 6, and Reed rotated at center and protected the basket.

The starting wings most of the season were Ed Kamins, considered the best shooter, and Mike Kroeger, built like a fullback. Steve Waite, who played multiple positions, and Inslee, who had played varsity since he was a sophomore and excelled on defense, were usually on the court at end of close games.

All eight could score, averaging between 6.6 and 14.4 points per game.

“We were a lousy-shooting team, but we pressed. That is the way we scored,” Milroy said. “If you look at our shooting charts, they were all layins.”

Some players dispute Milroy’s description of their shooting. No one denies the defense terrorized opponents.

“We really didn’t have a lot of offense,” Inslee said. “Our offense was our press. We would just stymie people and drive them nuts trying to get the ball across half-court.”

• • •

A terrific start

The Rams trampled almost every opponent through the first 15 games of the season, averaging 83.3 points and allowing an average of 54.5.

The goal was to score at least 80 and hold opponents under 40.

The Rams beat Shorecrest 101-39, Shoreline 97-47 and Cleveland 97-49.

Before playing West Seattle, Milroy had a message for his team.

“He comes into the locker room and says, “I’ve been talking to their coach, and he says they’re going to beat us at our game,’ ” Reed said. “That really fired us up.”

The Rams won 115-68.

“I really wonder if that conversation occurred,” Reed said.

After steals, they scored as quickly as possible. It didn’t matter who.

“If he had let us play the whole game, we would have every Metro League scoring record,” Waite said.

It seemed no one could stop the Rams, except maybe themselves.

• • •

A bump in the journey

A night in mid-February, after Ingraham won its 15th game, Milroy was meeting with players’ parents when the police called: Merkley and Brown had been caught with beer.

Brown said at first he didn’t think much of it.

“But the next day we’re driving to school and (we) hear on (the radio) that two Ingraham players had broken training rules and were going to be suspended,” Brown said.

Brown was initially defiant. He was almost 18, and kids his age were leaving after high school to fight in the Vietnam War. He thought he should be able to drink a beer or two. But after a day to ponder it, he said he realized his attitude was selfish.

A letter appeared in The Seattle Times sports section. It began, “Selfishness is the disease that can grow if not first detected and absolved,” and ended: “Athletics provide a tremendous chance (to be responsible) — one which should be better appreciated.”

It was signed by Brown and Merkley.

The two watched as Ingraham beat Roosevelt 44-43, the same team the Rams had beaten 83-51 two games before.

Meanwhile, the other players met with Milroy.

“The ballplayers said, ‘That’s punishment enough,’ ” Milroy said.

Said Leeland: “How do you kick someone out of your family? We realized that they’re too much a part of our family not to have them back.”

The suspension ended. The winning continued.

• • •

The state tournament

The headlines in The Seattle Times read “Well-Hated Favorite,” and “Rams vs. The World.”

Ingraham was the team to beat in the 16-team event, with a 19-0 record after rallying from a 24-15 halftime deficit to beat Garfield for the Metro League title.

The Rams were in a more precarious situation in the state tournament opener against Renton. The Rams, according to Milroy and a couple players, trailed by about 10 points with three minutes left.

What is documented is Renton led by three points with 49 seconds left and was shooting a one-and-one free throw. Most Ingraham players said it never occurred to them they might lose. Leeland was much less confident.

“We had a timeout, and we were all pretty much deflated,” Leeland said. “But the one guy that wouldn’t let it go was Inslee. He was screaming during that timeout that we could win this. Inslee was, ‘Don’t give up. We can win this game.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Jay, that’s crazy.’ ”

Renton missed the free throw.

Reed made a free throw to cut the deficit to two, and Kroeger had a tip-in to send the game into overtime, which the Rams dominated, winning 61-51.

“I thought there was too little time and too many points to make up,” Leeland said. “It was almost like it was destined to happen.”

Ingraham defeated Glacier and University in the next two rounds. In the title game March 22, the Rams faced Hoquiam, led by the 6-7 Quigg brothers, John and Pat. John later played for UW.

“You look at them and you wonder, ‘We might lose this game,’ ” Kroeger said. “We really have to play good.’ ”

Neither team did, as both struggled to score. Reed scored two late baskets and give Ingraham a 39-38 lead with about 10 seconds left. Hoquiam had the ball under its basket.

Reed, the last line of defense in the full-court press, read Hoquiam’s play before it happened. He envisioned two passes to half-court, then one of the guards getting the ball on the side.

“They hit Doug Bitar, an all-state guard, down in the corner,” Reed said. “I was flying toward him with the pass but didn’t get there in time, and so I jumped when I was probably 15 feet away.”

Reed blocked the shot with his elbow, knocking the ball into the stands.

Inslee had never seen Reed jump like that.

“That image, of Ricke, up in the air, I still carry it to this moment,” Inslee said. “It was like, ‘This is a miracle. Ricke Reed is off the ground.’ It shows you what humans are capable of.”

A couple of seconds were left. Milroy brought in the 6-6 Brown to disrupt the inbound passer. A wayward pass was intercepted by Inslee, and a second later the Rams kicked off a wild celebration.

“It was heaven,” Kroeger said.

• • •

Primed for success

After the title, the Rams went to the State Capitol to be honored by the Legislature.

“Mike Kroeger’s sitting in the (Lieutenant) Governor’s chair, and he says to Jay Inslee, ‘I am going to be the governor,’ ” Reed said. “And I think Jay said, ‘I am going to be the governor,’ back. Obviously, Jay won on that.”

Nearly 50 years later, Inslee is reminded of that moment during an interview in his office.

He moves to a shelf of memorabilia and comes back with a photo of the moment.

“We know Mike Kroeger sat in the chair because we have a picture of it,” he said, laughing. “But I do not remember making that statement, so I maintain plausible deniability (laughing even harder).”

The eight leaders all graduated from college and went on to successful careers, as teachers, lawyers and businessmen. And one leads the state.

Two players have died, including Ed Kamins in 2004 from multiple myeloma, 11 years after his diagnosis when he was given one to five years to live. George Sparling, a reserve senior guard on the team, died last year.

Milroy retired as Ingraham’s coach in 1980. He is like a proud pop when talking about his players, and they still revere him.

“He deserves all the accolades and praise a person can receive,” Reed said.

Inslee said he didn’t contemplate going into public service until his late 30s. But his teammates and coach are not surprised by where he landed.

Inslee was a U.S. congressman for 13 years before being elected governor in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.

“He and I don’t necessarily see eye to eye politically, but he’s a great person, he’s got great leadership qualities and is genuine to the bone,” Leeland said. “No amount of success or accomplishments would surprise me, because he is very driven to do the right thing.”

The bond and trust built 50 years ago on the basketball court are appreciated more now.

“That closeness, I searched for (it) in college, on every basketball team I played for, in every job setting, and it’s become more and more precious to me,” Brown said. “I feel so blessed to have been part of that, because now I realize it doesn’t happen to everybody.”


Sustained success

The eight seniors who led the 1968-69 Ingraham High boys basketball team had successful careers, and half are still working full-time. Here is what they did after high school.

Chris Brown: Played basketball briefly at Washington State, then at Bellevue College before graduating from Western Washington. Taught special education students for decades, and still teaches part-time.

Jay Inslee: Played freshman basketball at Stanford before transferring to UW. As a U.S. representative, he was a star on the legislators’ basketball team, and has a picture in his office of him playing basketball with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Ed Kamins: Graduated from UW with a degree in civil engineering and became a contractor.

Mike Kroeger:  Spent a year in the Coast Guard Academy before graduating from UW and had a long career in the banking business.

Randy Leeland: Had a stellar basketball career at Pacific Lutheran before going to law school. He is still practicing law full time in Yakima.

Steve Merkley: Went to WSU on a basketball scholarship, then switched to baseball after a coaching change. Became a teacher and baseball coach, and works full-time at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo.

Ricke Reed: Played basketball at Bellevue College and Lower Columbia College, then two years at Seattle U. He became a teacher and works full-time at a Sedro-Woolley middle school, while also teaching a class at Sedro-Woolley High and two nights a week at Skagit Valley College.

Steve Waite: Played baseball and basketball at Lower Columbia before playing baseball at Gonzaga. Taught three years at a middle school before becoming a manufacturing engineer and corporate instructor.