“History has a way of making heroes obsolete,” write Josh and Tres Ferrin in Blitz Kids; The Cinderella Story of the 1944 University of Utah National Championship Basketball Team. Actually, the daily onslaught of life has a way of making everyone and everything obsolete. So much information assaults our senses that the memorable—friends, plans, headlines—get sent to the remainder bin so much quicker.
It’s what happens when accumulation meets evolution, a battle that defines sports. Julius Erving was once the maestro of basketball aerial acrobatics, until Michael Jordan came along. Nolan Ryan was something special—an AARP-friendly fireballer—until Randy Johnson showed up and won meaningful games. With sports, something new and exciting forever promises to reveal itself.
Unfortunately, that condition does not breed shining legacies, especially with a sports media endless hyping games and players. To endure in the general public’s memory, past teams and retired players have to go beyond the fuzzy boundaries of legendary. When we hear about a team, a player, or a coach, we must recognize them beyond stats or championships, like the generations-long, almost inherited greatness of the New York Yankees. Bill Russell, proud and regal, and his 11 rings. The advice of Lombardi and Wooden successfully packaged as motivational rhetoric or a return to simpler times.
Most need an ally to resurrect those memories. Blitz Kids is a product of a family wanting to record its own personal history. Tres Ferrin’s father, Arnie, was a star player on Utah’s championship team. Josh, Tres’s son, grew up hearing stories of Arnie’s basketball days. “To a child of the 1980s,” Josh Ferrin writes in the foreword, “my grandpa was Rocky.”
Years later, Josh Ferrin wanted to share Arnie’s story with his two boys. “As I look at all the idols of our society today and the variety of influences that will come into their lives,” he writes, “I want them to know of their history and the stories that inspire me, stories that teach that they can accomplish anything, no matter the odds against them.” We might feel required to admire the book after reading those intentions. The Ferrins don't put us in that position. Their book has an easygoing, straightforward charm, like friends swapping stories around the living room. Even better, father and son have a story worth sharing.
Because of the World War II draft, the 1943-44 University of Utah basketball team had exactly one scholarship player. Coach Vadal Peterson had to hold open try-outs, like he was putting together a junior high team.”You can try out if you have your own shoes!” a cranky Peterson told an inquiring Arnie, fresh off a prestigious high school career. The talent available was minimal. Prospective players included first-year students whose majors (e.g., pre-med, engineering) allowed them to postpone service until after graduation. Peterson described these applicants as “Eggheads.” Others, like Arnie, had an injury exemption. Even after assembling a makeshift team, the Runnin’ Redskins—fortunately, now called the Utes— belonged to a conference that was a phantom thanks to the government’s gas and government restrictions. It didn’t help that the draft had pretty much brought basketball programs everywhere to an abrupt halt.
Peterson might be deemed insane for embarking on a season, but he was adamant, employing a determined graduate assistant named Keith Brown to find games whenever or wherever. More teams came forward when Utah started winning. Improbably, the beanpole skinny kids—Peterson abhorred weight lifting of any kind; he cherished endurance—were invited to both the NCCA Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament, then college basketball season’s most prestigious post-season event.
Utah chose the NIT, where the hustling kids won over the Madison Square Garden crowd in their loss to the University of Kentucky. That alone would be a heart-warming story. What happened next makes it hard to believe that Utah’s path to a championship isn’t regularly cited as one of the great dramatic events in sports history.
Hours after Utah lost to Kentucky, Peterson received an invitation to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Two days earlier, basketball players from the University of Arkansas were involved in a car accident that seriously injured two starters, one of whom, Deno Nichols, lost his leg and quickly spiraled into despair. The players’ driver, Everett Norris, a physical education instructor, was killed. Arkansas bowed out of the tournament. Their slot was Utah’s for the taking.
The choice was not an easy as it appears. The team was scheduled to enjoy several more days in New York. That would be a treat to the kids, some of whom had military service in their future. Or, sleepy and bone tired, they could board a train to Kansas City, the site of the first game, in a couple of hours. A return to New York was only possible if they made the finals, which was a remote possibility. But the chance for revenge was sweet: The winner of the NCAA Tournament would then face the winner of the NIT.
Of course, the book’s title gives everything away, as does the Ferrins’ earnest, pie-eyed dialogue, which puts the events in permanent soft focus. Their book is really a sweet tribute to young men—always referred to by their first names—whose passion for a game trumped everything else. But the admiration for the team and its accomplishments is absolutely genuine. We root for these guys. My favorite player was Japanese-American Wat Misaka, who endured racial epithets and frosty treatment. In one game, a referee kept whistling him for non-existent fouls. But his placid, dignified demeanor and fevered play triumphed over all; three years later, Misaka was the first minority to play professional basketball. He even founded a bowling league for Japanese Americans after they were denied the right to play in other leagues.
The book offers more reminders: Basketball was once a slow-moving, physical game. A career in the NBA was not the Valhalla it is today—after three seasons, Arnie didn’t re-sign with the Minneapolis Lakers; he wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids. Today’s basketball scene is stronger and faster and hardly includes any players that look like Eddie Haskell. That doesn’t make the players and teams from the past ordinary. Blitz Kids inspires us to look back every once in a while. We’ll be amazed at what we find.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.