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Humble beginnings

By Dennis Brackin, Star Tribune, 03/19/12, 10:16PM CDT


1913-1945: The Early Era was all about basketball 'the way it's supposed to be played'

State championship player George Smilanich with some of his teams trophies from 1941 and 1942. The trophies are kept at the Buhl Public Library. David Brewster, Star Tribune

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.
Martin Norton
F Minneapolis Central 5-10 1921 1

Made 37 free throws, a record that stood for 85 years. Fifty years later, legendary newspaperman and broadcaster Halsey Hall listed Norton on his all-time tournament team. Norton also won national tourney All-America honors in 1920.

Earl Moran
G Moorhead 5-9 1928

One of only two players during single-class era to make all-tournament team three times. Led the Spuds to three appearances in the state title game, winning the first two. Moran was regarded as a tremendous defensive guard.

John Klarich
F Buhl 5-10 1941

The leading scorer and all-state guard on an undefeated 1942 team, considered one of the best of the early era. He led Buhl to a pair of state titles, and after his death in 1972, Buhl named its gym the John Klarich Memorial Gymnasium.

Hal Haskins
C Alexandria 6-3 1943 0
The 6-3 center averaged 19.0 points — second most in tournament history at the time — to lead Alexandria to its only appearance in the state title game. Haskins was the first Minnesota prep to score 1,000 points  in his career. 
Jim	McIntyre
C Minneapolis Henry 6-7 1944
The Henry star shattered tournament scoring records, averaging 28.7 points as a junior, then 33.3 the next season. He scored a then-tournament record 43 points against Ely in the 1945 title game, and later starred for the Gophers.
1. Buhl, 1942 (28-0)
Team had it all: an all-state forward in John Klarich, a top big man in 6-3 Ed Nylund and tremendous balance. Won back-to-back state titles.
2. Minneapolis Henry, 1945 (24-1)
Jim McIntyre was the most dominant big man the state had seen, leading Henry to consecutive state titles and beating six opponents by an average of 20 points.
3. Minneapolis Edison, 1937 (15-1)
The early debate was whether Buhl or Edison was the best state team. Edison, led by guard Willie Warhol, won by an average of 46-25 in 1937, the third consecutive tourney for the Tommies.
4. Chisholm, 1934 (21-2)
The Iron Range team played in five consecutive tournaments starting in 1930, posting a combined 103-9 record. Finished runner-up the season before claiming the title.
5. Red Wing, 1922 (19-0)
Wingers also won in 1920, and might have had three in a row had two starters not missed the 1921 tournament because of the flu. Future Hopkins coach Butsie Maetzold was one of the stars.
1. Gaylord becomes the state’s first unofficial “Cinderella” champion in 1926, a tiny underdog that knocked off Moorhead, Austin and Gilbert. Gaylord had 27 boys in its entire high school.
2. Chisholm, the 1931 pre-tournament favorite, has the ball and a 14-13 lead over Glencoe in the semis with a minute to play. But a Glencoe steal and a basket by guard LeRoy Karstens give the victory to Glencoe, which claimed the state title a night later.

3. The shot of the early era comes in 1932 by Mankato’s Earl Pennington, whose half-court field goal at the buzzer lifts Mankato to a 17-15 quarterfinal victory over Northfield. But Mankato loses in the semis a night later.
4. The largest crowd in tournament history to date — 12,500 — watches tiny Buhl defeat Marshall 30-29 in the 1942 title game at the U of M Fieldhouse, which would be renamed Williams Arena.
5. Minneapolis Henry’s Jim McIntyre becomes the Babe Ruth of the state basketball tournament, scoring a record 43 points in the 1945 title game victory over Ely. McIntyre averages 33.3 points a game, more than 13 points a game higher than the previous scoring record.

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