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Utah The First Cinderella
ALEXANDER WOLFF
March 22, 2010
Led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, the 1943--44 Utes peaked at just the right time and became the unlikeliest of champions
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March 22, 2010

Utah The First Cinderella

Led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, the 1943--44 Utes peaked at just the right time and became the unlikeliest of champions

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At the same time, Peterson never tried to bulk up the supple physiques he had to work with. "We were in better condition than most of us would have liked," says Ferrin, who carried only 155 pounds. On defense each Ute would simply pick up the opponent nearest him. "It made us more of a team," Ferrin says. "We weren't sophisticated. We played as hard as we could, and Vadal let us play."

Having finished the regular season with an 18--3 record, the Utes received invitations to both the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAAs. They chose the NIT because the elder event promised to cover expenses, and it would take place entirely in New York City, which only Ferrin and Sheffield had visited before.

No one in the Utes' traveling party knew much about Kentucky, their first-round opponent. College basketball in the '40s consisted of a dozen or so clusters of interest, each in its own information vacuum, so Peterson bought a "scouting report" on the Wildcats from a sidewalk hustler for $25. The Utes were going to have to play with a gimpy Sheffield, who had sprained an ankle during a scrimmage with another NIT entrant, Oklahoma A&M, soon after arriving in New York.

Sheffield jumped center and promptly took a seat. But his injury gave an opening to Misaka, who made a huge impression on the crowd. "[His] spectacular play brought roars of approval," wrote Wilbur Wood in the New York Sun. "One wonders what would be the reaction of a Tokyo crowd at a sports event right now, if one of the players were named Kelly or Doolittle." But Kentucky's Jack Parkinson got loose for 20 points in the Wildcats 46--38 victory. The cigar smoke in the Garden seared the lungs of the innocents from Mormon country, and Fred Lewis remembers a gambler sprinting onto the floor to offer $20 to Misaka, whose late basket, the man said, had beaten the point spread.

The players put the loss on the shelf, for they had a city to see. They'd already taken in the Copacabana and the Empire State Building. When they passed an ocean liner retrofitted into a troop ship, Misaka turned to Ferrin and mused, "If I yelled 'Banzai!' and started running, what do you think would happen?"

The night of the apparent end of Utah's season, Keith Brown, the graduate manager, while strolling along Broadway with assistant coach Pete Couch, kicked a small blue object half hidden in the snow. He reached down to find a pocket Bible, one of thousands given to the troops, with an introductory message from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Finding a Bible, Couch declared, was a sign of their good fortune.

A day earlier, unbeknownst to anyone in the Utah party, the Arkansas team had traveled from Fayetteville to Fort Smith for a scrimmage with a military squad to prepare for the NCAA West Regional. Returning to campus that night on a rain-slicked highway, a station wagon carrying several Razorbacks players had a flat tire. A narrow shoulder forced faculty adviser Eugene Norris to leave part of the vehicle exposed to traffic, and as starters Ben Jones and Deno Nichols changed the flat, another car rammed theirs from behind. Norris was killed, and Jones and Nichols critically injured. Only four days before the start of the NCAAs, Arkansas withdrew.

With a hole in the bracket and no time to spare, someone from the NCAA phoned Peterson in his room at the Hotel Belvedere. Would Utah like a second chance to play for a national title? At 2:30 a.m. the Utes' coach woke his players and gave them a choice: spend a few more days sightseeing or hop a train for Kansas City, Mo., first thing in the morning and try to win their way back to New York for the NCAA championship game, set for the Garden the following week. (There was no Final Four in 1944—only two four-team regionals and a title game.)

Ferrin voiced the sentiment of all the players in that meeting: "Let's go to Kansas City and win the [West Regional] title," he said. "Then we can return to New York and prove that our loss [in the NIT] was a fluke."

Because train schedules were held hostage by troop movements, it took nearly three days for the Utes to reach Kansas City. But in their NCAA opener against Missouri, another team of freshmen and 4-F's, Sheffield again jumped center before yielding to Misaka, who whipped the Utes to a faster tempo and a 45--35 victory.

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