By Clinton Dick
Hanging in the south end of the gym in Stewart Field House is a large banner. It is faded blue with red letters that read, “National Intercollegiate Basketball Championship 1939.”
The banner has hung in Stewart since it was presented to the winning team in ’39. It represents the year Builder basketball triumphed 70 years ago; it was a year the Builders reigned as champions.
Expectations ran high before the 1938-1939 season. The previous year, the team went 21-6 and won the Pan-American Games in Mexico City, beating Southern Illinois in the finals 47-43.
“There were expectations,” said Mike Kirkland, head women’s track coach and former athletic director. “There was talk that the ‘38 team might have even been as good as the ‘39 team.”
1937 was the year that the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball came into existence. The NAIB was formed for small colleges and originated with eight teams. One year later, the league expanded to 32 teams.
The ‘39 season would be the first time SC played in the NAIB National Tournament, but first they would have to earn their place.
They opened the year with a 33-22 win over Kansas State. In the early days of basketball, not only were the games much lower scoring, but there was no division of teams that played each other.
“There wasn’t any separation as far as school size or talent level,” said Kirkland. “The game was much simpler back then.”
The Builders won their first 10 games, beating out teams such as Colorado State, Northern Illinois and Oklahoma City.
A rough patch proceeded as they lost two of their next three games to St. Benedicts and Pittsburg State.
Four straight wins, including a 36-29 redemption victory over Pittsburg State, catapulted the Builders to a 15-2 finish of the regular season.
The NAIB Tournament took place at Municipal Arena in Kansas City, the same place that the NAIA division I national basketball tournament is currently played.
The Builders knocked out Wisconsin Eau Claire, Westminster, Maryville and Glenville in the first four rounds of play, none of the teams came closer than six points to the team.
The finals pinned Southwestern against San Diego State. In their closest game of the season, the Builders prevailed by a final score of 33-32, handing the National Championship to the small college in Winfield.
Those who played on the champion squad included Eddie Hinshaw, Harold Stevens, Charles Grigsby, Owen Tucker, Price Fugit, Don Smith, Russell Briar and All-Americans Harold Bratches and Lloyd Tucker.
Others who were a part of the team, by their last name, were Deckert, Porter, Bryant, Dix and head coach George Gardner.
Stewart Field House, just 15-years-old at the time, was a huge asset for the Builders during the season. According to Bill Stephens, former athletic director, fans were very supportive of the team.
“The townspeople supported us,” said Stephens. “The gym was always full when we played. I remember looking back at old Moundbuilder yearbooks and seeing how crowded it was.”
Kirkland agrees that it was a fight just to get a decent seat.
“Stewart was built for about 1,380 spectators,” said Kirkland. “Some nights there would be up to 4,000 packed in the gym and there was standing room only.”
Thanks in part to the support of the community and students, the Builders continued to have success for years to come.
“There was certainly a lot of carry over,” said Kirkland. “We went back to the National Tournament in 1940 and didn’t have a losing season until 1951.”
1939 will continue to be the season that is remembered by those who happen to glance at the banner hanging in Stewart.
“History is something you just can’t forget about,” said Kirland. “It may have been back in 1939, but it is still a part of our heritage.”
Clinton Dick is a sophomore majoring in convergent journalism. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.