Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: March 1939 - Before the Madness (2014)

By Terry Frei

It's a little surprising that this book wasn't written, say, 25 years ago.

We're coming up on something of a college basketball milestone this year. It's been 75 years since the NCAA tournament staged its first-ever competition in 1939. That makes it a natural for a look back - probably as it would have been 25 and 50 years ago as well.

The sport has come a long way in those 75 years, and Terry Frei hops in his time machine to review initial competition in "March 1939 - Before the Madness."

Frei has done a number of books over the years, and the titles always have been interesting. The books include the 1977 Broncos, the Texas-Arkansas college football game in 1939, and the 1942 Wisconsin Badgers, who were headed into World War II after their season ended. This one was a bit personal, since Frei spent part of his childhood in Oregon because his father was a football coach there.

The book follows the format you might expect. We are introduced to basketball in the 1930s, a game that was evolving at the time. We had only gone a couple of years without having a jump ball after every basket in the 1938-39 season, with other rule changes either just in or obviously on the way. Some people will have heard of some of the names that pop up along the way, such as Hank Luisetti, Adolph Rupp and Clair Bee. 

The Oregon players on that championship team didn't produce any national figures, although they obviously were good players. It's more of a reflection of the lack of a pro game and the relative novelty of intersectional games. The starters for the Webfoots (Ducks was down the road) were Bobby Anet, Wally Johansen, Slim Wintermute, John Dick and Laddie Dale. Howard Hobson, who literally wrote the book on uptempo philosophy, was a coach who was ahead of his time.

Frei goes over the background of each of the important figures in Oregon basketball, and eventually gets to that championship season. It was an odd time, what with New York City capturing much of the attention by hosting out-of-town teams in Madison Square Garden. Oregon made such a trip by train in 1938-39. It's almost charming just how unorganized it all was back then. The National Invitation Tournament was only a year old in 1939 and didn't really have a formal name yet, and the NCAA event was on the sports radar screen, but barely. That last part is not surprising, since they were making up the rules as they went along.

The Big Dance, although no one would have called it that then, rolled through March of 1939, and so did the Webfoots. Frei shifts into a day-by-day description of what was going on during each day of March. He precedes it by adding a paragraph or two on the news or the day, and there was a ton of it as Europe went on its slow but sure march toward the start of World War II the following September. I'm not a big fan of this technique - it gets overused - but it works well here because the guys on the court certainly knew that they were likely to be fighting overseas instead of playing basketball in their near futures.

Frei obviously did his homework, and doesn't go into overwhelming details. In other words, it's a quick read. Admittedly, the championship game wasn't a classic, as Oregon beat Ohio State relatively easily in front of a less-than-packed house.

The author admits that he would have liked to have started the research for this book earlier. After almost 75 years, everyone involved had either passed away or wasn't available for long interviews. But Frei certainly explored all the sources possible, and he does give the flavor for what it all what like.

"March 1939 - Before the Madness" is probably what students of college basketball are seeking - a nice treatment about how the tournament got started. In that sense, Frei succeeds nicely.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.