By Michael LeCompte
Like so much of modern sport the Division I men’s basketball Championship has simple, humble roots. March Madness wasn’t always even angry, long before the month-long festival of athletics, advertising, and a distracted American workforce that we know today, it was a quick ten day tournament.
Following the 1938-39 regular season schools from the east and midwest were pitted against the best in the west in an eight team, single elimination tournament.
The University of Oregon Webfoots (their official name at the time, although they were often referred to by the nickname “Ducks”) won the Pacific Coast Championship with a 26-5 record and were one of four teams that comprised the western half of the inaugural bracket.
Oregon played an up-tempo, fast-break game that was somewhat revolutionary at the time, overwhelming opponents with their speed and size. Center Urgel “Slim” Wintermute stood 6’8″ and forward Laddie Gale was 6’4″ On their run to the title the tandem became known as “Tall Firs.”
Oregon won its first two tournament games and then overmatched and outran Ohio State 46-33 for the first National Championship.
Gale went on to serve in WWII and then played for the Detroit Eagles of the National Basketball League (the precursor of the NBA) in the late 1940’s.
Wintermute was Gale’s teammate in Detroit for a few years and mysteriously vanished in 1977 while yachting. (His yacht was found, but he never was).
Oregon is again in basketball’s postseason tournament, but aside from that everything has changed since that first Championship in 1939. The tournament field is 8 times its original size, the student-athlete moniker has been reversed, and players at powerhouse programs dream of the NBA, rather than real-life careers.
It’s enough to make one pine for a simpler time. When a team of “Tall Firs” could win it all. When March wasn’t quite so mad.