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Douglas Dynasty

50 years ago, the Huskies of tiny Douglas High School won the Southeast title and advanced to the state basketball championship

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Tucked up in a corner of the Juneau-Douglas High School gym is a wooden pennant that reads "DHS SE CHAMPS 53."

Besides being one of the few reminders in the building of why there is a "D" in JDHS, the tiny triangle serves as reminder of a basketball feat from a time long past, accomplished by players from a school that no longer exists.

Fifty years ago, 10 Douglas High School boys - playing basketball under a first-time coach and drawn from a pool of just 50 students - went 17-2, knocked off archrival Juneau twice, beat Wrangell for the Southeast championship and made it all the way to the state championship before falling short against Fairbanks.

"It was a sweet victory for us, and it was equally for the town - if not more so," Pat Wellington said last week of the team's wins; he was a senior that season. "Douglas was a small, tight-knit community. Our basketball team was taken pretty seriously."

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Almost exactly two years later, the people of Douglas Island voted to consolidate their tiny school with the larger Juneau district. The Douglas High Huskies were no more, but what the 1952-53 hoops squad accomplished during that magical season lives on to this day in the annals of state basketball history.

What's more, all 10 players - Leonard Bowman, Tom Cashen, Richard Isaak, John Jensen, Bob Johnson, Tony McCormick, Louis Pusich, Fred Stevens, Henry Stevens and Wellington - are still living, and all still spend at least part of the year in Alaska.

While the Douglas Huskies may have taken other teams by surprise that season, the players knew they were destined to accomplish big things.

"We knew that was going to be our year," Jensen said. "If we were going to do anything, we had to do it that year."

"Every 20 years, there was the big chance," McCormick said of basketball in Douglas and all small towns. "People kind of knew it was coming, when they had kids in the eighth grade (and said), 'boy, wait 'til they get in high school.' And if somebody moved to town..."

For the most part, the Douglas players were a well-tuned machine on the court, and their familiarity led to success.

"We played as a team since grade school," Cashen said. "We didn't have any big stars. We got a lot of mileage out of the talent we had."

The close-knit team made it easy for first-year and first-time coach Ken Portteus, a teacher at the school who stepped in to fill a last-minute coaching vacancy for the season before leaving town after the school year.

"He learned how to coach while he was trying to teach us," Jensen said.

"In a way he was a good coach because he never had any training as a coach. All of us guys had played together since we were kids, so he kind of just left it up to us," McCormick said. "The system was there."

And the system proved to be a winning one in the winter of 1952-53, much to the delight of the crowds that packed the Douglas High gym - still standing today but now known as the Mount Jumbo gym.

"That small gym at Douglas - we remember people so packed in there (during) our series with Juneau that their feet were on the lines," Jensen said. "You couldn't back them all off the court because it was so full. And of course, when somebody would make a basket, the whole place would explode. It would be reverberating back and forth."

"Every game we played was like a championship for us," Fred Stevens said.

Many of Douglas' games that season were against city league squads - a common practice in those days.

"Those guys were some bruisers," McCormick recalled of the adult teams. "They not only had the experience, they usually had an extra 30 pounds on you and they knew how to use it. You'd get sent head-over-heels, and sometimes the refs would just look at you and laugh."

But it was the games against other high schools that were most competitive - and the matches against Juneau topped them all.

On Dec. 17, 1952, the Huskies beat Juneau by a point in Douglas, 47-46. In the rematch on Juneau's court on Jan. 9, 1953, Wellington tipped in a basket in the final minute to give Douglas a 46-45 win and a sweep of the season series.

"There was a tremendous rivalry (between) Juneau and Douglas," McCormick said. "It was a good competition. Everybody would throw snowballs after the game at the opposing players."

At that time, Douglas was part of the Northern Division of Southeast schools, and in 1953 the Huskies had to beat Sitka to win the division title. Like the games against Juneau, the series with the Wolves was a barnburner.

Douglas won the first game of the three-game series, while the Wolves took the second. That forced a third and deciding game on Feb. 21, in which McCormick hit a free throw with just seconds to go to give the Huskies a 53-52 win.

Fred Stevens said games like that made the term "cardiac kids" a good description for the team.

Douglas moved on to face Wrangell, the Southern Division champion, for the Southeast title. In relatively easy fashion, the Huskies dispatched the Wolves by scores of 60-50 and 83-55 to win the best-of-three series on March 12-13.

By beating Wrangell, Douglas earned the right to face Fairbanks for the state title. The school chartered a Pan American Airways DC-6 to carry the team and some fans up to the Interior.

At that point in the season, with all that had been accomplished, there was a mix of community pride and fierce competitiveness among the team's fans.

"One guy, as we were getting ready to go on the plane, said, 'If you don't win, don't come back.' And somebody else, one of the mothers of the other players, said, 'Just remember boys, you're already winners, you're already champions,'" Jensen said.

The team was feted as it prepared for the championship games.

"We had a great time in Fairbanks," Isaak said. "They went all out. We had a steak dinner at the Elks Club the afternoon we got there, we ate out at Eielson Air Force Base for lunch one day, had a big dance."

The games were played in a high school building that now houses the Fairbanks City Hall.

The gym had an unusual configuration; one side opened up to an auditorium so that the gym floor could be used as a stage. Joe Tremarello, captain of the Fairbanks team that season, said there was just a few feet between the edge of the court and a drop into the orchestra pit.

Douglas got off to a good start in the first half of the opening game of the best-of-three series. The Huskies led by 10 at halftime of that March 18 game. But Fairbanks used the full court press to shut down Douglas, and the Malemutes wound up winning 58-51.

The next night, Fairbanks beat Douglas, 57-49, to win the series and the state title. Douglas lost the third game as well.

Tremarello said he and his teammates still have good memories of the series and of the Douglas players.

"They had a reputation of being a small school, but tough," he said. "They weren't small guys."

And the Douglas players were at peace with the outcome.

"No hard feelings - they played better games than we did," McCormick said.

The next season, Douglas beat Juneau for one last time. Wrangell won the state title that year, marking yet another memorable feat in Alaska hoops history.

On March 8, 1955, Douglas voters opted to consolidate their tiny school with the larger Juneau district. The school closed after that school year.

The move may have provided more opportunities for the youths on the island, but at the same time something was lost.

"The school was such a fusing, such a unifying thing for the community," Jensen said. "Everybody was involved in it and everybody talked about it. When that year passed and then the consolidation occurred shortly after, it seemed like the nature of the community changed."

"You have to have a central focal point ... and the school was it," McCormick said.

But while the school is gone, the memories are vivid.

There are still news clippings and photos documenting the games. There are still friends in other Southeast communities - friends made when teams stayed at each others' homes on road trips. There is still the Mount Jumbo gym. There are still the players and their classmates to reminisce about Douglas days.

And there is still the wooden banner hanging high on the walls of the JDHS main gym, reminding today's players and fans of the season, now 50 years past, when Douglas was king of Southeast.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.



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