BUHL, MINN. – Many of the street lamps in downtown Buhl during the 1930s were adorned with the same feature: a basketball backboard.
“There was a backboard on almost every light post in town,” said George “Pecky” Smilanich, a grade-schooler at the time. “We couldn’t get in the [school] gym, so we shot in the streets, in the alleys. Anywhere you could hang a backboard.”
All that basketball paid off. Buhl, a tiny Iron Range school, was synonymous with high school basketball prowess for a decade starting in the early 1930s. Buhl played in the 1935 and ’36 state tournaments, when Smilanich and future high school teammates such as John Klarich and Ed Nylund were wide-eyed grade-schoolers watching the exploits of Buhl guard Johnny Dick, who led his school to its first two state tournaments and would go on to star for the Gophers.
By the time Smilanich and the others were seniors — in a class of 57 students — Buhl had firmly established itself as Minnesota’s best high school team. It won back-to-back state titles in 1941 and 42 while reeling off 36 victories in a row.
And then, just like that, it was over.
Buhl never made it back to the state tournament before the school consolidated with Mountain Iron in 1985, a decision that contributed to the virtual demise of Buhl’s downtown.
On a recent afternoon, Smilanich, a starting guard on two state championship teams, and Bob Delich, the sixth man, reminisced about glories past.
The bustling mining town once included three grocery stores, a hardware store, bakery, hotel and a couple of bars. Just the liquor establishments, showing their age, and a post office remain. Students are bused to Mountain Iron. The highway exit for Buhl no longer mentions it by name.
“Buhl lost its identity when the school closed,” said Smilanich, who also was the head boys’ basketball coach at Buhl. “The identity was the school.”
There still are a few reminders of the past glories. The state championship trophies are kept at the town’s library, a half-block from the old high school, which is now Mesabi Academy, a 24-hour youth incarceration facility. The gym is still in use — same floor, same bleachers — but almost everything else has changed, with locked doors and steel bars covering the windows.
Buhl’s success was typical of the era, when small schools blessed with a handful of talented players could dominate bigger schools. Buhl’s titles capped a five-year “Cinderella” run in which the state champs preceding Buhl were teams from Thief River Falls, Mountain Lake and Breckenridge.
The Buhl championship teams featured eight players from one grade who had fiercely competed against one another in junior high during the town’s annual all-nation tournament, which matched Buhl’s diverse population groups — primarily Finns, Italians and Slavs. By the time they entered high school, the youngsters had a familiarity on the basketball court that so often defined small-town basketball success. They intimately knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and possessed a chemistry that is undefinable.
“There was never any animosity on that team,” Delich said. “We didn’t care who played, or who scored the most points. No one bragged or anything. It was a team.”
It didn’t matter who coached, either. The Bulldogs won the state title in 1941 under Muxy Anderson, who had the audacity to ask for a $50 raise after the state title. When he didn’t get it, Anderson left to coach at St. Paul Cretin.
Mario Retica was named the new coach in 1942. He instructed his players to “just keep playing the way you did,” Smilanich said. “Another coach might have put in his system. Mario was smart enough not to do that.”
The team’s chemistry never was more evident than in the 1942 state championship game against Marshall. The team’s undisputed star was Klarich, whose son John Jr. is now the Mountain Iron-Buhl superintendent.
Klarich, an all-state guard who died in 1972, picked up three fouls in the first six minutes — four was the limit then — and he fouled out early in the fourth quarter. Less than four minutes remained in the game, which was tied 27-27. Klarich had scored 15 of Buhl’s points.
Delich remembers nervously waiting for Retica to pick his substitute, hoping, he said, “that he wouldn’t pick me.”
But the coach did. Delich played his usual tough-nosed defense. George Klasna, knocked unconscious with three minutes to play — true story — recovered to score the final three points. Buhl held on for a 30-29 victory.
The game, played at what became Williams Arena, attracted a then-state record crowd of 12,500, partly because of Buhl’s aggressive, in-your-face defense.
“We pressed full-court the whole game,” Smilanich said. “That was our style. We could run other teams into the floor. We played basketball the way it’s supposed to be played.
And no one played it better.