University of Utah 1944 NCAA Basketball Championship

by KIT CHIPMAN

This is the story of the 1944 University of Utah basketball team and the effect that it had on the state of Utah.

It was December 1943 and Vadal Peterson was the head coach of the University of Utah basketball team. He had assembled his team of “blitz kids” and was preparing for another season. There was only one problem; they did not have anyone to play. At the time, it was in the middle of World War II, and many colleges and universities were having a hard time fielding teams in any sport. The University of Utah’s own newspaper, The Utah Chronicle, reported on December 30, 1943, that “Utah [was] the only school left which [was] trying to run off an athletic schedule.” In the same article the Chronicle also reported that “Colorado U, Utah State, Wyoming, and Colorado State have all given up the ghost because of the manpower shortage.” This “manpower shortage” most likely had to do with many of the young men in the army. To make things worse, the conference that the Utes were in would not allow the basketball team to play more games. Later the conference allowed the team to play more games. Also the quality of the opponents was not what they were used to. In Continuum: The Magazine of The University of Utah, an article written by Chad Nielsen states that the Utes played teams such as “Colorado College, Bushnell Hospital, and the Wendover Bombing Quintet” (Nielsen, 9). Even though the Utes had trouble finding teams to play they were able to win 18 games and were invited to play in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).

This is a post regular season tournament that teams have to be invited to participate in. There is also another post-regular season tournament, the NCAA tournament. Back then the NIT was the better of the two. Any college that won the NIT was considered the national champion. Kentucky was Utah’s first opponent. This was on the big stage: Madison Square Garden. Utah was the heavy underdog in this game, and lost 46 to 38. On March 21, 1944, The Ogden Standard Examiner reported that “the Kentucky – Utah game brought the Madison Square Garden crowd of 16,273 to its feet time and again as the teams swapped the lead 10 times.” It was not in Utah’s fate to win this game, even though it was close. The team did not know it yet but the Utes had greater things to accomplish.

The Utes thought their season was over and with all the turmoil were pleased with what they had accomplished. A few days after that loss coach Vadal Peterson received a telegram from the NCAA with surprising and good news. The NCAA was in need of another team because of a tragic event that had happened. Players on the University of Arkansas basketball team had been on the bad end of a car accident. On March 22, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that “Arkansas, cochampions of the Southwest conference, originally was chosen but was forced to drop out following an automobile accident … in which a coaching aide was killed and two players seriously injured.” It was said that the athletic director and two starters on the basketball team had been hit by another car while trying to change a flat tire. (Nielsen) Not wanting to play, Arkansas backed out of the tournament. The Utes had originally planned on playing only in the NCAA tournament but decided to play in the NIT when they got the invitation.

After Arkansas decided not to play The Salt Lake Tribune reported on March 22 that “Graduate Manager Keith Brown called Professor Walter A. Kerr, chairman of the University of Utah athletic council, about 1:30 a.m. about the invitation to the NCAA tournament and Professor Kerr was telephoning members of the athletic council most of the night to get a vote on the tourney. The council was unanimously in favor.” Later, the players were called to see if they wanted to play. Of course the whole team wanted to play. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Brown as saying that “the boys felt like they could have won the game with Kentucky, and they figure that if they win out at the Kansas City meet and get another chance at Madison Square Garden they can really do themselves proud. That’s their goal.” This gave Utah a chance that no one had ever been given before. This was the first time that any university had participated in both the National Invitational Tournament and the NCAA Tournament in the same year.

Before the Utes could get back to the Garden they had to go through Kansas City. Two wins and they were going to be back where they had lost less than two weeks earlier. They were able to beat Missouri and then Iowa to advance to the NCAA title game back in New York City. Yet again the Utes were the heavy underdog in facing Dartmouth. On March 28, 1944, the day of the game, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Utah was facing “a heavily favored Dartmouth quintet for the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.” The Ogden Standard Examiner noted that the Utes were 8-point underdogs. Even though the media thought it wasn’t likely that the Utes would win, everyone back home in Utah was ready to support the team to victory.

The day of the game arrived and the Utes were ready to play. This was the most important game of their lives and everyone knew it. Madison Square Garden was over capacity with 17,990 people in attendance. Dartmouth and Utah played a thrilling game that saw the Utes win 42 to 40. On March 29, The Deseret News reported “Utah … upset mighty Dartmouth, 42 to 40, to win the NCAA title in an exciting extra period game before 17,990 at the Garden last night.” The Utes had beaten the odds. But this was not the end.

The next night in a charity event the University of Utah played St. John’s University. St. John’s was the winner of the NIT. This game was the unofficial, or mythical as they called it then, national championship. Another rousing crowd of 18,125 filled the Garden to see these two Cinderella teams battle for the title of National Champion. On March 31, The Ogden Standard Examiner reported that Utah “ruled today as mythical basketball champion of the nation by virtue of a 43-36 victory over St. Johnson’s last night.” Now with this title of National Champions there was a big party waiting for the team back in Utah.

People in Utah were very excited to greet these “blitz kids” as the team traveled back home. Many events were set up to celebrate this championship. On April 4, The Deseret News had a whole page honoring the team by saying, “all Utah and especially hosts in Salt Lake City pay homage today to a most amazing squad of young basketball stars, winner of the highest collegiate honor available in the hoop sport.” Right as the team got home there were fans waiting for them. The Utah Chronicle reported on April 4 “the blaring of the band, cheers of fans, the honking of automobiles, began the festivities which will honor the national basketball champions during the coming week.” There was a parade and a rally on the university campus that day as well. But while all of this was going on there was one player who had an effect on the team that will never be forgotten by those players.

A Japanese-American University of Utah basketball player, Wat Miska, was born and raised in Ogden, Utah. At this time in his life the U.S. was at war with Japan and many Japanese American people were being taken and put into internment camps. Because he was from Utah he and his family were not in the internment zone and were not forced to go to the camps. But it was not pleasant to be of Japanese descent at this time. Nielsen wrote, “Misaka was denied service at restaurants and avoided on the street, even after leading Weber Junior College to two Championships.” (Nielsen, 9) He even experienced terrible things during games. Nielsen said that “at road games, spectators threatened Misaka from the stands, shouting for the ‘dirty Jap’ to go home. Nielsen also stated “through it all, Misaka somehow still believed in America. And he poured his heart into playing basketball, like his teammates.” Wat has said that he didn’t think of himself as being different from his teammates.” (Nielsen, 9) Later he served in World War II in Japan and came back to play on the Utah basketball team and helped the team win the NIT. Nielsen noted that later in the summer of 1947 the New York Knicks drafted him to play basketball in the National Basketball League, which later became the NBA. Also Wat Misaka was the first non-white person to be drafted by any professional basketball team. In 1999 Wat Misaka was inducted in the Utah Sports Hall of Fame. (Nielsen, 10)

This story of the Utah “blitz kids” is a forgotten story that needs to be remembered and is important to Utah communication history because all that was in the news at the time was the war. This story was big. It was a way that people in this state could rally together during a hard time. It gave them comfort and an opportunity to think about something other than the war. Although the war was still bigger, this was news enough to help Utahns forget about the war for a few exciting weeks.

Kit Chipman is a sophomore at The University of Utah. He is a mass communication major.


Sources

“City Honors Victorious Hoop Team,” The Utah Chronicle, April 4, 1944.

Rulon Rasmussen, “Utes Face Lean Year With Few Games Scheduled,” The Utah Chronicle, December 30, 1943.

“‘U’ Wins In Overtime,” The Deseret News, March 29, 1944.

“Welcome Utah’s ‘Blitz Kids’ Basketball Champions of the U.S.A.,” The Deseret News, April 4, 1944.

“Utes To Play In NCAA Tourney,” The Salt Lake Tribune, March 22, 1944.

Glen Perkins, “Arnold Ferrin Stars as the Utes Lose in Famous Garden,” Ogden Standard Examiner, March 21, 1944.

Jack Coddy, “Indians and Utes in Cage Treat,” The Ogden Standard Examiner, March 21, 1944.

Joe James Custer, “Utah’s Cinderella Kids Take National NCAA Title in Overtime in New York Garden,” Ogden Standard Examiner, March 29, 1944.

Joe James Custer, “Indians Provide New Story Book Finish in Sports,” Ogden Standard Examiner, March 31, 1944.


Chad Nielsen, “That’s Just How It Was,” Continuum: The Magazine of the University of Utah (Spring 2010): 8-10.

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