Hail To The Chieftains

The 1952 Seattle Chieftains in Times Square

It’s a shame that legendary sportswriter Mickey Gordon, isn’t around anymore to share his first-hand accounts the 1952 Seattle Chieftains. Those old stories should never be lost to the annals of college basketball history, let alone forgotten by the good people of the Emerald City. As Mickey often reminisced to his readers, the Chieftains weren’t just another motley crew of ballers from a bygone era. To a lot of us growing up back then these guys represented the very best of Seattle, and in some ways the best of a country still stuck under the thumb of Jim Crow. The Seattle Chieftains were an exception to those unjust rules, an unlikely and diverse band of brothers who defended each other on the paint and on the road of life.

The unity the Chieftains forged, the records they broke and the chemistry they mixed up over four miraculous seasons, transformed a tiny, unknown Catholic school from Washington State into a Division One powerhouse! And yet, despite illustrious coverage over the years and reverence as local heroes to the present, some of the most important details about their meteoric rise, era-defining buzz beaters and civil rights journey across postwar America have never been stitched together until now.

As I write this I am approaching almost eighty and Mickey Gordon hasn’t written a column about the Chieftains since he bought the farm over a decade ago. Well, I may not have many years left myself so I figured somebody should remind the next generation about this team of rivals that set 1950’s Seattle on fire. A team that gave little kids like me something to look up to. This is as best as I can remember the events with a little help from my scrapbooks…

It all tipped off one rainy night back in 1948, in a packed high school gymnasium on the southwest corner of Jefferson and 23rd Avenue. The Garfield High Bulldogs were lighting up the boards and dominating their opponents as the first quarter winded down. The visiting team didn’t look like they stood much of a chance.

At that very moment, just a few blocks away, Father Archie O’Hanan was making a proposal before a stodgy Board of Directors at St. Joseph’s. The inspired, eloquent and seemingly incorruptible Irishman from Chicago had lofty plans for the freshly accredited institution he’d recently been hired to lead. After four decades, St. Joseph’s had proven itself academically but failed at establishing a sustainable endowment. Before the Chieftains came along, it had little to offer prospective students and seduce a growing pool of potential alumni donors. Archie saw that potential at St. Joseph’s but needed an old-fashioned miracle to help turn the school’s finances around.

The Priest’s strategy was risky and a longshot by any measure. He proposed securing lines of credit from Seattle Home Savings, using the gothic cathedral on First Hill as collateral to develop their athletics program and facilities. The idea fell on deaf ears. Father Tyler, the most rigid board member at St. Joseph’s aptly characterized the plan as “a boneheaded daydream.” He also insinuated that they couldn’t trust Archie on account of the fact that he regularly took confession at the Holy Name Cathedral where the notorious mafia loan shark known as “the Cap” frequented. Those were just wild, unsubstantiated rumors as far as we kids knew, though it it was common knowledge that the Cap was on the lam somewhere in Capitol Hill.

But as Father Tyler would eventually learn, Archie wasn’t just a daydreamer, he was a grand master of persuasion. His eyes seemed ablaze as he passionately urged the clergy sitting on the Board to think outside the box, to move past their prejudices. He asked them to imagine a spectacle that could bring in students and generate revenue streams to support academics! But the seven-member board ridiculed him, at one point going so far as to reconsider his fitness for the position. In a final push, he challenged the lot to see for themselves what excited him so much about the game of basketball and they reluctantly accompanied him down to Garfield High.

By the time they arrived at the gym, the Garfield Bulldogs were ahead in the fourth and the entire crowd was on its feet. They climbed to the top of the rafters, mid-court where some African-American students were sitting. Though great injustices divided the nation, some communities in Seattle had started making progress by desegregating public institutions. One of the kids in the crowd that day was the renowned music producer Duke Holbrook. Incidentally, Archie had known Duke since he taught school at the orphanage, a role he filled until taking the job at St. Joseph’s.

Duke offered two nuns flanking Archie a seat, one obliged, and their attention turned back to the game. What that Board of Directors witnessed next would not just enlighten their minds but awaken their spirits. Five guys, from completely different ethnicities, in sync and effortlessly dominating their challengers. These were the 1949 inner-city Garfield High Bulldogs. Their starters and back benchers were Chinese, African-American, Jewish and bound not just by their love for the game but by their loyalty to one another.

With just a few minutes left in the game, Garfield’s challengers brazenly clawed their way back, forcing the Bulldog’s coach Ed Fries to call a final timeout. The team huddled, holding their gold cross necklaces out toward center as was tradition. Then Ray Mason, their team captain, pulled out his silver Star of David from under his shirt and joined them for a prayer. Coach Ed reminded them sternly, “Don’t get cocky, kids — the good Lord’s watching…. and so are my old friends.” He looked up and briefly connected with Archie in the rafters. Ed winked back at his pal, a little detail only unearthed because I just happened to capture it in one of the photos I took from the game that night. The Bulldogs broke out of the huddle and took their positions for the last six seconds.

At the whistle, the ball went inbound to Ray, who faked the field goal and passed to Leo Wu, the Chinese forward from King Street. Leo broke through the pack line for a game winning layup. Ray’s shoulders slumped and his hands rested on his hips in exhaustion as Leo tackled and embraced him to celebrate the win. The Bulldogs were city champions once again!

Thunderous applause and pandemonium rippled across enthralled spectators who, like me, spilled onto the court. Archie searched in vain for Coach Ed, hoping to introduce him to the Board. But Ed had already made his way to the lockers. Archie glanced back at the clergy, who had not left their seats! Based on the smiles of all but Father Tyler, he knew right then he had sold them on the idea. This wasn’t just an exciting game, it was part of the heart and soul of Seattle.

At the next Board meeting, Father Tyler gave Archie the third degree again. But Archie emphatically defended his proposal over the objections, insisting that athletics would turnaround the U. After all, college basketball was becoming a huge deal in the northwest and especially Seattle. The Washington Huskies, Gonzaga and others were making big investments. That summer, the Board decided to throw their support behind Archie and give him four years to produce a winning team. If they were to fail they’d heed Father Tyler’s warning and shutter the program entirely. That would include Archie. Until then, he carried a vote of confidence.

With the wind at his back and under his wings Archie’s next step was to convince Garfield’s head coach, Ed Fries, to accept the top job at St Joseph’s. Archie actually played collegiate ball with Ed at Northwestern. One morning a few weeks after the Garfield city championship, Archie approached him in Pike Place Market. He was working the off-season throwing fish. Nobody noticed this at the time but Ed had been in the dumps for years, never quite recovering from a knee injury that cut his playing days short. He had emotional and irrational regrets over having missed the war. Still, Archie knew he had greatness in him just waiting to be unleashed.

He urged him for months to put together a program at St. Joseph’s. It was tempting but Ed remained hesitant, insisting he didn’t have the experience to manage the team’s business affairs, let alone coach. Finally, Archie made Ed one final offer, promising to pay more than twice his salary with summers off. With a baby girl on the way and at his young wife’s urging, he agreed to give it a shot.

Ed’s first year was spent on the road, scouting for St. Joseph’s. He started by convincing Harry and Buddy Odell, two twin sophomores from Woodinville to transfer in, promising full scholarships. The Irish brothers were both All-State in high school, with Harry being the wiser of the two and Buddy bringing the muscle and the mayhem. Both went on to the big leagues. As two of the only Irish kids in Woodinville at the time, they probably faced a healthy share of ridicule, but it built character. Buddy always said it taught him not to expect any handouts. On the court he’d often jest “Small potata’s, small potata’s” if a call didn’t go his way.

After the twins, Coach added Leo Wu from Garfield, son of an immigrant Chinese grocer to play Point Guard. Leo had triumphed phenomenally, side-by-side with Ray Mason at Garfield. Curiously, when the two were kids in elementary school, Ray was egged on by a gang of bullies to beat up on Leo after the bell. Ray, who was a little younger but much bigger, gave into the peer pressure and one day chased Leo out of the sandlot and into the streets. Ray must have tracked him half a dozen blocks before he finally caught up.

The two boys didn’t realize that an off-duty cop just happened to be sitting in a bodega right around the corner and had seen all the commotion. He surprised the two, ordering them to put down their fists. Leo refused to rat on Ray that day. Part of him wanted to, but the other half just wanted acceptance from the kids in the neighborhood. And something also clicked for Ray Mason at that moment. His guilt forced him to reflect on the soul of his actions. And from that day forward he and Leo would start to share a deep bond. He had his back, no matter what it cost. Their ensuing friendship helped lead to two state championship titles for Garfield.

The last two starters brought on were Less “Wildman” Higlin from Mercer Island and Dwayne Stanford from Capitol Hill. Dwayne had been through hell, his mother killed before he had a chance to even know her in a tragic trolley car accident. His father worked as an engineer for St. Joseph’s, a position he’d risen to from janitor. Dwayne was like Elgin Baylor, before Elgin Baylor was Elgin Baylor. His boards were so consistent that he would have been an all-star anywhere he went, in any generation. Luckily, the Chieftains landed him first. They now had their five starters but talent alone wouldn’t keep them safe though the journey ahead.

Keep in mind, each of these players, the Odell brothers, Leo Wu, the “Wildman” and Dwayne Stanford, were big fish from small ponds. Great talent, but huge egos at play. Coach Ed’s challenge was to find a way to get them all to swim together in the same lane without anybody drowning! The next year they brought on their sixth man, Ray “carefree” Mason from Garfield. They hoped Ray could bring the Chieftains together the same way he had the Bulldogs. He could play center, guard, you name it. The only problem is that he was a Sephardic Jew, and this was a Catholic University, not a synagogue. Ray would need a waiver to the school’s religious policy, an appeal rarely granted. The committee chair responsible for signing it was none other than Father Tyler. To make things worse, the Board had already looked the other way when it learned the “trouble making” Irish Odell twins had been admitted. They also had begrudgingly accepted Leo Wu and Dwayne Stanford for the semester. But these men were all either Catholic or Episcopal. Ray was a Jew.

Archie and Ed took the unusual step of escalating Ray’s appeal directly to the whole Board. The maneuver incensed Father Tyler who accused the two men of poisoning the school’s reputation and priorities, decisions he insisted they were bound to regret. To Coach Ed and Archie though, Ray’s addition was the final ingredient in their secret formula. They knew he was a natural leader… a brother, a practical joker, a winner, the glue that would cement them all together. But it wouldn’t happen overnight.

The first ten weeks of the second season were as dreadful as the first, with loss after loss to low ranked Washington and Oregon State teams. With a bench consisting mostly of lower classmen, the losses weren’t entirely unexpected but they were problematic for the Board, whose meetings grew increasingly contentious as finances dwindled. Undeterred, Archie marched forward. On many occasions he even drew from his own salary for jerseys, nets and other bare necessities. That’s just an example of the kind of guy he was. Nobody ever saw that stuff and like a good Catholic, he wasn’t exactly the type to call attention to it.

Most of us Chieftains fans didn’t even realize the team’s used, battered Ford touring bus was a hand me down from the rival Washington Huskies. Archie had purchased it having known that Coach Ed was terrified of flying. The first time it broke down was in the middle of a five-day road trip down to Portland. No heating and as freezing outside as a well-diggers ass. The guys just bundled up like Eskimos. You get real close in a situation like that. As the story goes, they were about fifteen miles outside the city limits when that rotten jalopy just finally gave up. The next few hours out in the cold rain and snow together would change their lives, alter the team’s whole character and transform the way each of them thought about what “winning” really meant.

When they finally got the engine running before nightfall they learned of a new and messier problem. The side of the road was muddy and they were knee deep in it. Their frustration reached a boiling point, but before they turned on each other like cannibals, the indelible Ray Mason wisely reminded them that they’d freeze to death if they didn’t pull it together. He told them things could always be worse… they could be sitting through another one of Coach Ed’s pep-talks! With a light-hearted nod toward their beloved coach and a few heave-ho’s, the guys launched the bus back onto the interstate and they were back on the road to fight another day. That’s when they pulled off the Clackamas Highway and things took a turn for the worse.

It all went down very late that night. Not much of it was in the papers but we all heard about it. Coach Ed wanted the team to get a good meal and rest before the last stretch to Portland. They were uncomfortable, but spirits remained high when they saw Nancy’s Diner in the headlights. That was until the diner’s manager saw Dwayne Sanford and Leo Wu walking in. It’s a night the Chieftains would never forget as the owner refused to serve, in his words, the “colored boy and the chink.” Ray Mason immediately led a fierce chorus of objections. It was one for all, and all for one. Like I said, they were more than just a team of rivals, they were a band of brothers. Over the jeers and insults of the diner patrons, they walked out in unison. But that wasn’t exactly enough for the racist and livid manager. He riled up a few men and followed the young Chieftains outside to their bus.

“Get the hell back here, boy,” one of the thugs called out to Dwayne. And before he had a chance to turn around he was dodging a fist, which ended up connecting with the “Wildman’s” jaw. It caught him by surprise and yet barely phased him. And the Chieftains were about to learn why they called him the “Wildman” as he went into the brawl like a knight on horseback. It didn’t take long for Coach Ed and the police to come out and break up the fight, but it left the whole lot of them battered, with everybody but the Wildman’s face bloodied and bruised.

I suspect that moment must have been the very instant it all came together for our beloved Chieftains, uniting them against all odds. A bond which made four quarters of basketball on any court feel like a walk in the park. For the rest of the season they would stay almost undefeated, crisscrossing county lines and becoming local legends along the way. They had stood up for what was right. They had stood up for each other.

The last game that year culminated on sacred ground at Madison Square Garden as an innocent homecoming for NYU turned into a big upset. That night, the two battled before a mesmerized, capacity crowd to become the first two college teams to break the 100-point barrier in the same game. The Chieftains emerged on top with an electrifying two-point victory and became the toast of Seattle. The sight of them all, breaking barriers with big wide smiles would excite crowds and sell more than just papers. Father Archie’s plan was finally working and St. Joseph’s was attracting the academic talent and tuition needed to keep the school thriving!

A couple of years later they were all seniors with the exception of Ray. For the past three years they had played remarkably but hadn’t won a championship. Admissions were up but not enough for Father Tyler to suppress his doubts about the future of the basketball program. Even the Board was getting nervous. They needed a big win. Luckily that year, for the first time ever, the Chieftains made it to both the NCAA and the National Invitational Tournament, the NIT.

It was a grueling NIT competition that year with the Chieftains struggling each step of the way, round-by-round. As they headed toward the semi-finals they faced another religious school, Holy Cross. They’d also begun to get a little cocky, something Coach Ed had warned them about. And then, for the first time in many moons they were badly beaten. The devastating loss gave Father Tyler the excuse to begin cutting budget and preparing to shut down the program over objections of students and fans like me.

Then surprisingly, out of the blue, on the road back to Seattle from the Big Apple, Archie received a call from Mickey Gordon who’d just been promoted to Sports Editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He’d recently fielded an odd request from Howard Hobson, Yale basketball coach and United States Olympic Committee member. The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters had scheduled a three-game fund-raiser to raise money for the Olympics and they were short a challenger.

UW was Hobson’s first choice, but the Huskies refused the invite because they worried about injuries, knowing how rough the Globetrotters manhandled college teams back then. The Chieftains were a willing alternative. Those days they’d play anyone. And coming off the loss to Holy Cross they needed a win badly.

Exterior of Vito’s Restaurant — Frequented regularly by “The Cap”

What follows next is pure conjecture but as rumor has it, Archie called on “the Cap,” whom he’d always been suspected of being close to, for a little help.. The Cap wasn’t exactly the kind of guy you would ever want to cross. But Father Archie knew him (we assumed through confession at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago) and as the future dimmed for the Chieftains, Archie may have turned to him for a wager. It was a gambit that put not just Archie’s life in jeopardy, but everybody’s future at the University. Some folks say that the good Father put his entire nest egg up as collateral, betting that the Chieftains could top the Globetrotters. If he won, he could probably keep the program open, but there was really no guarantee. I’m still not sure what really happened but it sure seemed strange at the time. Most of their meetings took place at Vito’s, which is still around actually.

With the NBA still in its formative stages, the Globetrotters represented marquee entertainment. They were celebrating their silver anniversary. Center Goose Tatum and guard Marques Haynes were touted as the highest-paid basketball players anywhere. In their familial red, white and blue uniforms, the Globetrotters came out to a rapturous applause and took the stage. The band played their theme “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the crowd grew restless for the tip-off.

Their opponents, our wonderful Chieftains, outnumbered and intimidated, tried not to watch the sideshow on the court and instead stuck to their warm ups. At one point Globetrotter’s owner, Al Saperstein, sauntered over to Coach Ed and supposedly said something like, ‘Is this all you got?” All the Chieftains heard it and winced. Well, let’s just say that’s when the guys knew they were about to turn the tables and possibly make history. Coach Ed had drilled into them their mantra, “‘Don’t think about who they are boys, think about what we’re doing.”

One of Hollywood’s leading ladies at the time, Joan Caulfield, was on hand that night for the ceremonial tip off. I recall that the ball fell to the ground like a brick and every man on the court stood paralyzed by the starlet. Once the wooing was over the Globetrotters took initial possession. But only a few minutes after the whistle, the St. Joseph Chieftains came out swinging and advanced, with the O’Dell twins scoring most of baskets in the quarter. The Chieftains were winning and it was absolutely an unbelievable sight to behold!

I distinctly remember that in the second half officials let the game get rough and screens got very physical, lots of elbows, no fouls called on any grabbing and pushing. Harry O’Dell, the State’s leading college scorer at the time, was continually fed the ball inside but a host of defenders, including the great Goose Tatum, couldn’t stop his short hook shots that night. Dwayne Sanford’s buzzer-beating lob over Marques Haynes ended the half giving Seattle a seven-point lead over the cadre of stars.

During the intermission, if you can believe it, the great Louis Armstrong and singer Velma Middleton performed a string of riveting duets beginning with “Can’t We Be Friends.” Duke Holbrook even joined Satchmo for a few bars as the local talent. It was by those of us still alive to remember, a deliciously magical moment. It set up the second half of the game for a breathtaking climax and later that night, after a battle for the ages, the long-shot Chieftains managed to defeat the great Harlem Globetrotters by just three points.

That historic matchup in Seattle is still considered by many sports fans, including yours truly, as one of the five best games ever played. As a result, St. Joseph’s received a generous cash “donation,” probably from “The Cap,” only a few weeks later. Those funds did help keep the doors open and those doors eventually hit Father Tyler on his way out. As for the Globetrotters, they actually canceled the rest of the collegiate fund-raisers that year. They gradually eased away from competitive matches, choosing to play staged games with a stooge team.

This coming October will mark 67 years since those Chieftains played their final game together. It may be a lifetime ago, and Father Archie and St. Joseph’s University may no longer be with us, but it’s certainly not ancient history. The obstacles and challenges we all face as individuals and teams may be a little different now, but the best solutions are very much like they were in 1952, found in the perfect balance between independence and unity. If we can see past the colors on our faces, we’ll discover that we’re all still wearing the same jerseys. Hail to those magnificent Chieftains who learned and lived that great lesson so many years ago and hail to those willing to learn it now and pass it on to the next generation.