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GENERATIONS: 1960s BHS athletes reminisce about the glory days of basketball

For the past four years, Jerry Phillips (BHS class of 1964) and Larry Higgins (1961) have invited interested BHS athletes from the 1960s to get together and reminisce about the heydays of BHS basketball and other highlights of their high school careers.

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BHS class of 1960s graduates gather at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge during the All School Reunion. Pictured from left: John Boyer, Dan Christenson, Bob Fortier, John Dow and Jerry Phillips.
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On a perfect summer’s day, 16 former Bemidji High School athletes gather on the patio outside Ruttger’s to remember, share thoughts, and spend time with old friends. There are hearty handshakes, happy greetings and even a few manly embraces.

For the past four years, Jerry Phillips (BHS class of 1964) and Larry Higgins (1961) have invited interested BHS athletes from the 1960s to get together and reminisce about the heydays of BHS basketball and other highlights of their high school careers.

This year, the group met during the All School Reunion with guests from as far away as Kansas and Florida.

I am a “fly on the wall” here to observe, listen in, and record what I can of the conversations. There is preliminary chatter about upcoming events for the reunion and a lot of recounting of basketball memories from the 1960s.

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BHS alumni, from left, Dave Gruel, Roger Johnson and Denny Aguiar visit at Ruttger's during the All School Reunion.
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After handshakes and greetings have been exchanged and everyone has found a place to sit, Higgins hands out three-ring binders of the history of 100 years of BHS basketball from 1896-1996.

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Inside are short pieces from guest writers Bun Fortier (coach), Jim Carrington (Pioneer sports writer), Higgins (athlete) and his mother Barbara (fan). Higgins has spent a lot of time searching through old microfilm, collecting, organizing, and printing newspaper articles and yearbook pages about a century of BHS basketball.

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BHS alumni Larry Higgins, left, hands out folders to Spencer Price and Bill Rabe during the All School Reunion.
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He hands me a copy, too, which is now on display at the Beltrami County Historical Center. One highlight is the 1936 state championship story and photo of the BHS champs, their first-ever state title — first not only in basketball but in any sport.

Flipping through the binder inspires discussions with play-by-play details from crucial games — the memories of which are as clear as if they happened yesterday instead of 60-some years ago.

There are stories about buzzer-beating game-winning shots and shots that could have won games but didn’t; changes over the years in rules, style, strategies and coaching; stories about speeches given, one-point losses, fouls not called, incredible shots made, free throws missed and bad ref calls that still sting.

An 8-by-10-inch photo is passed around and picks the scab off an old wound from the 1961 state championship game between Bemidji and Duluth Central when Bemidji’s Lee Fawbush launched a shot that could’ve won the game and was hit by a Duluth player as the shot was released, but no foul was called. Duluth won 51-50.

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BHS 1960s alumni athletes gather at Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge during the All School Reunion.
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That sports moment was notorious enough to be recounted in a March 27, 2022, Minneapolis Star Tribune story about a reunion of players from Minnesota’s one-class high school basketball teams from 1960-1970. Higgins was at that event and shared copies of the story with his old teammates at the Bemidji gathering.

Bits of conversations fly around the table — enough for these guys to spur sports memories, but not enough for me, the fly, to grasp: “That Richfield game …,” “… only two seniors on the team that year…,” “… concession stand…,” “Last shot … ball in the air … would win if it went in…,” “North vs. South …,” “…dribbling right-handed, switched to left.

Bun told him not to…” “Ranked #1 in state …,” “… played six years on that team …,” “… sudden death overtime,” “… Ada … 35-point win during the year … got beat at regions by 1 point, 51-50!” “… game against Crookston, five seconds to go … at the line for free throws … Bemidji wins!!” “Bob Glas got the ball, put it up, won the game …”

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The Bemidji HIgh School basketball team is pictured in a 1962 yearbook photo.
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Later, I flip through the pages of a scrapbook lent to me by Jim Neuenfeldt (class of 1962). Articles clipped and saved inside fill in a few blanks for me. There’s an undated story about Bemidji beating Crookston 47-46 after what coach Bun Fortier called a “dandy” play by Bob Glas.

A clipped story in the scrapbook, “Bemidji Wins in Thriller,” describes the tense final minutes of that game in which “the Lumberjacks (fought) an uphill contest most of the way, (including) the last 40 seconds when Bemidji tied the score on two rim-hanging free throws by Jerry Strowbridge for a 44-44 tie.”

Crookston got lucky nine seconds later to put them up by two. “Then,” the story continues, “it was Glas’ turn. He took the ball on a pass near center court with time running out and on a hanging layup which he sailed several feet through the air just barely curled the ball through the nets” and was fouled on the play. After a time-out, Glas “calmly sank the free throw for the game-winning point.”

The colorful description by an unnamed “special correspondent” fleshes out the story for me. I can see why this one has been locked in their memories for 60-odd years. Higgins awards a 1960 Region 8 runners-up trophy to Bobby Glas, who is not at the gathering but whose brother Rich (class of 1966) is, and is entrusted with delivering the award.

The server stops by to take lunch orders. I’ve been the fly on the wall long enough. These guys are re-living the glory days of basketball, and why not?

Jerry Phillips sums it up well: “You spend a lot of time with your teammates —- school, lockerroom, games, bus rides. Ray Kavanagh (former history teacher and football coach at BHS) once told me nobody ever came back to him asking to see the 2nd quarter history test, but they want to see an old game film.”

Jim Neuenfeldt laughingly refers to himself and the others as “has-beens,” but what good are games and friends and teammates if you can’t share memories together six decades later? The camaraderie celebrated here is as priceless as the times that built those memories.

Related Topics: GENERATIONSBOYS BASKETBALLBEMIDJI LUMBERJACKS
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