The Huskies' Trip to the Final 4

Such is the state of Husky Basketball that we have to go back 50 years to find the highest achievement in its history. Admittedly, for the better part of the past half-century, the proverbial basketball well has been running pretty dry. But once upon a time there <b>was</b> a golden age of basketball at Montlake. To hear details from that era, it must have been a wonderful time to live in Seattle.

To conclude that '53 campaign, Washington beat California to win the conference championship, before heading down to Corvallis to play in the NCAA tournament. Their first opponent was the Seattle Chieftains, who in another five years would be playing Kentucky in the NCAA Championship game. But as of 1953, Washington and Seattle had never played before.

Previously the Huskies had specifically avoided scheduling the Chieftains, which lead to cries of protest that the Dawgs were ducking their opponent. But Washington also had turned down scheduling overtures from the Harlem Globetrotters, as Husky coach Tippy Dye wanted to focus on winning the conference and not be distracted by games of this nature.

Leading up to that Husky-Chieftain game, among its citizens the city of Seattle was a bubbling caldron of anticipation. The Huskies were 25-2 and had the Helms Foundation National Player of the Year in Bob Houbregs. They also had quick and defensively tenacious guards in "Slippery Joe" Cipriano and Charlie Koon; a tremendous pure athlete in 6'8" forward Doug McClary, and the power and defensive skill of Captain small forward Mike McCutcheon. Collectively, this team worked well as a unit and had a tremendous amount of camaraderie. Simultaneously, Seattle University was lead by the legendary O'Brien twins (who were recently featured with the Stewart twins in a nice Seattle-PI piece). According to Husky All-American Center Bob Houbregs, it is impossible today to fully appreciate the level of excitement running through the Puget Sound region when it was learned that these two teams would be squaring off in the tournament.

"The Washington and Seattle players got along great", Houbregs recently told "But with the fans it was a different story. There was a lot of animosity… It was definitely far more intense than any Apple Cup game, because both teams were in the same city. Sometimes the Seattle fans said things to us that . . . weren't very nice" (Houbregs smiles).

It was to be the first live game ever televised from out of state, and KING-TV was carrying the broadcast. Seattle was favored and Houbregs even had an uncle that later confided to him that he had placed a bet-- and had taken Seattle and given 19 points in the process!

The game itself was over as soon as it started. "The Huskies came out and absolutely crushed Seattle," legendary accountant Ron Johnson told "Houbregs had a big game with 45 points, and I believe that Washington won 92-70."

The following night Washington took on Santa Clara and beat them 74-62, to set up an historic trip to Kansas City. It would be Washington's first (and only) trip the NCAA Final 4.

They arrived Sunday and had a lousy and fatigued practice on Monday. Come Tuesday's game before a partisan crowd, Washington played "far and away the worst game in three years", according to Houbregs. Kansas employed a choking press that made it difficult for Washington's guards Cipriano and Koon to get the ball inside. For the only time in his collegiate career, Houbregs fouled out of a game. He had accumulated 4 fouls by halftime, and was out of the game just three minutes into the second half. The Huskies never recovered and were blown out by the Jayhawks.

(As food for historical thought, there were subsequent whispers in later years that one of the refs had it in for Washington's coach Tippy Dye, apparently harboring resentment from run-ins from back in their Big-10 days. When I questioned Houbregs about this, he preferred to not dwell on it, and added that Kansas had a tremendous team and perhaps Washington hadn't yet recovered from their emotional win over Seattle the previous Friday.)

In any event, Kansas went on to the Championship game, and Washington took on Louisiana State and their All-American Center Bob Pettit. The Huskies of old returned in this contest, with Houbregs winning the scoring duel against Pettit 42-36, and Washington triumphing easily 88-69, to take home the 3rd place trophy.

After reaching this zenith back in 1953, Washington hasn't really gotten off the ground since. The 1984 and 1998 Husky teams reached the Sweet 16, and the Dawgs enjoyed some prosperous years in the Marv Harshman era. But aside from these examples, history has proven to be a vast, scorching, arid, lifeless, hellish desert for Husky basketball fans. Fallen by the wayside have been a legion of wayward coaches, transferred players, and countless losses.

Let's pray to the rain/basketball gods to lend some help; perhaps new coach Lorenzo Romar can be a type of Moses to us long-suffering hoopaholics.
To read more of Derek Johnson's visit with Bob Houbregs, be sure to catch the April edition of Sports Washington.

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories