Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Mad Hoops,” written by former longtime Seattle Times reporter Bud Withers. The book, due out in the fall, tells the stories behind coach Dick Harter’s 1970s Oregon men’s basketball teams, nicknamed the “Kamikaze Kids” for maniacal defense and diving on the floor. Harter’s teams were adored in Oregon but reviled elsewhere. Withers details Harter’s extremes on and off the floor, including a couple that involved Washington and Washington State.
Huskies win face-off with Ducks
The string of victories ended on a late-February night in 1976 at Mac Court against Washington. Kamikaze fever might never have burned hotter; on the heels of the 20-point thrashing the Ducks administered at UCLA, ticket manager Herb Yamanaka said there was a 2,000-person waiting list for seats.
Decades later, anybody who might remember the evening’s events no doubt has long forgotten that a winning streak expired. What remains emblazoned on the mind is another in the cavalcade of head-shaking sideshows that attached themselves to the Harter era.
Early in his tenure, the Ducks adopted an in-your-face routine minutes before tipoff. In a sort of psychological confrontation with opponents, half a dozen Oregon players would break from teammates warming up and stand a couple of feet from the mid-court line, arms folded, and stare like sentries at the opposition warmups. Consider it one more thing Harter did to attempt to provoke opponents.
The Huskies, led by 7-foot center James Edwards, came to town ranked No. 8 in the nation. Another of their players was forward Kim Stewart of Seattle, whom Oregon had once hosted on a recruiting visit.
Stewart had been joined on his trip to Oregon by a couple of decorated prospects from the East — Kenny Carr, who would become an All-American at North Carolina State; and Brad Davis, who would have a fine career at Maryland. They did the ritual trip down the river. And they also attended an Oregon practice.
“It was three hours of pure hell,” says Stewart, who was horrified enough that he eliminated the Ducks.
On this night, Stewart sensed something was afoot. He thought he saw UW assistant coach Denny Huston slipping something to a handful of players before the game. And Stewart also fretted to himself that he wasn’t getting up enough shots in warmups, because his “rebounder” had left him.
Moments later, there were six Huskies almost nose-to-nose with the Ducks at center court — wearing Groucho Marx masks, featuring bushy eyebrows, mustaches and oversized noses.
“The crowd went silent,” Huston remembers. “And then they cheered. And then at the end, they were booing like crazy.”
Stu Jackson, whose season had soured with diminished playing time, looked up and had to bite his lip. “James Edwards and I still talk about that today,” he says. “I find humor in really stupid stuff. I almost lost it.”
Warmups concluded, and the Huskies trooped off the floor and headed downstairs for last-minute instructions. Huston heard the head coach, Marv Harshman, sound a sobering note: “We’d better not lose.”
They didn’t. And one can only imagine Harter’s fury. “I never saw Dick madder,” says Jack Fertig, the former UO grad assistant. “ ‘How could those bastards come in and beat us?’ “
Washington won 67-62, Harshman donned a Groucho mask gleefully in the UW locker room, and the game would prove consequential in selections for the NCAA tournament. UCLA won the league and Oregon State and Oregon tied for second at 10-4, with Washington fourth at 9-5. Oregon State likely disqualified itself in a legal tangle that resulted in Lonnie Shelton being declared permanently ineligible, so a second NCAA berth came down to Oregon and Washington.
The Huskies had a 22-4 record at the time of the selection, with two victories over Oregon, which was 18-10 at that juncture. Washington was ranked 10th in The Associated Press poll, the Ducks were unranked after being No. 17 when they played the Huskies. A three-game edge over Washington in the standings, and a split in the season series, might have proved persuasive. Instead, the Huskies were announced as the Pac-8’s at-large team — on the day of Oregon’s season finale against OSU.
That wasn’t the only downer. Consigned to the NIT, the Ducks lost their opener to North Carolina-Charlotte in Ronnie Lee’s final game.
How high were baskets at WSU’s Bohler Gym?
From the start, it seemed that there would be something different about the night of Jan. 24, 1972, and sure enough, Dick Harter made it happen.
This was a game matching the two worst teams in the Pac-8, but there were degrees of suffering. Like the Ducks, WSU had a first-year coach, Bob Greenwood, but the Cougars entered the night 7-7, winless in three games in the league. The difference in capability, however, was underscored by their performance in the Far West Classic. WSU won games against Michigan and New Mexico — teams that had vanquished Oregon — before getting blown out in the tournament final against Florida State.
It was an 8 p.m. tipoff. Per routine, Washington State came out to warm up about 7:30 or 7:35. But there was no Oregon. Soon, it was 7:45 and 7:50, and still no Ducks. Something was up.
At about 7:55, the Ducks emerged, but not running onto the floor at Bohler Gym. They were walking. And the next thing you knew, a custodian strode onto the floor, carrying a stepladder and tape measure. Harter had spoken to an official and alleged that a basket was less than 10 feet high.
One basket was decreed to be half an inch short. The other was an inch and a half shy of the requisite 10 feet.
Harter had options: He could allow his team to play, he could demand a forfeit, or he could play it under protest. He decided simply to play it, and custodians set about adjusting the baskets.
Tipoff didn’t happen until 8:25.
Of course, Harter could have pointed out the discrepancy after the Ducks discovered it in practice. But that wasn’t Dick Harter, who never missed an opportunity for a confrontation.
Not a word was written about it on this occasion, but Greenwood had preceded Harter at Rider back in the 1960s, going 48-29. Surely some slight grew out of that Rider coaching handoff, and Harter availed himself of the chance to stick it to Greenwood.
Peter Murphy, Harter’s close friend, remembers the coach giving him a heads-up on the incident.
“We’re gonna measure the baskets,” Harter told Murphy.
“What do you mean, Dick?” Murphy asked.
Murphy remembers Harter telling him some of his players were suddenly able to dunk.
Decades later, it remains a mystery exactly how the height discrepancy was discovered. My story of that night said Paul Halupa, 5-11, discovered he could dunk, but 46 years later, Halupa said he doesn’t remember that. Instead, he says, he was such a stickler for practice that he could sense when a basket was amiss.
Doug Little says it was he who alerted Harter, telling him a basket was about two inches lower than standard.
Anyway, the fun was just beginning on a star-crossed night. In front of a half-full crowd of 2,500 at normally frothing Bohler Gym, they projected the American flag onto a wall for the national anthem — and had Old Glory upside down.
With 16 minutes left, WSU guard Dan Steward and Oregon big man Al Carlson got tangled underneath the basket and Cougar center Steve Bergstrom came off the bench in support of Steward. That fracas resulted in all three being ejected. Then, in the waning minutes, during a dead-ball situation when players were walking to the other end, Oregon guard Walt Reynolds not-so-slyly stuck out a foot from behind and tripped a WSU guard — in full view of an official. So Reynolds became the fourth player to be tossed.
The game, per se, was mere subtext. The Cougars won 73-56, getting 23 points and 14 rebounds from sturdy forward Rick Rawlings, who afterward told me, “That basket thing gave us a hell of a lift. I don’t know if Harter tried to screw us up with that, but that kind of thing just pisses me off.”
Nearing half a century later, the Cougars of that night are wont to laugh and shake their heads at the memory.
Steward invoked a phrase occasionally used by future coaching giant Jud Heathcote, who had been on Marv Harshman’s WSU staff before Harshman departed for Washington in 1971. “It was, in Jud’s vernacular,” Steward said in 2018, “pretty bush league.”