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Updated Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 11:28 AM

Washington, Seattle U hoops epic is worth savoring 60 years later

By Steve Kelley
Times staff columnist

Seattle's sports landscape was starkly different in 1953. It would be 14 more years before the NBA would come to town, and the Mariners and Seahawks still were more than two decades away from their debuts.

Sixty years ago, the Northwest was far away from the hum of big-league sports and the chatter of sports-talk radio or the clatter of Twitter. It was a much quieter, quainter time.

In 1953, college was king in Seattle, and in the winter of 1953, the University of Washington and Seattle University were basketball royalty.

Washington was ranked second in the country and Seattle U was ranked 14th. Both schools had consensus All-Americans — Bob Houbregs at Washington and Johnny O'Brien at Seattle U.

These two schools, so far away from the game's traditional roots, were growing up and making the rest of the country take notice. Yet these two schools, just a few miles apart, had never played each other.

When UW and SU meet Thursday night at KeyArena, it's fitting that the first, epic matchup will be celebrated. At halftime, some of the players who made the night in 1953 special will be honored and the game will be remembered.

Even though Seattle's hoops fans clamored for this dream matchup between two national powers, Washington coach Tippy Dye showed no interest in scheduling Seattle U. He told people that Washington had nothing to gain by playing its crosstown competition.

"We were the upstarts. The new kids in town," Seattle U's Eddie O'Brien, Johnny's twin brother, said. "I don't think they were too anxious to play us."

It took the madness of March to bring them together. On March 13, 1953, they finally met in an NCAA West Regional game in Corvallis, Ore.

"It was something of a David and Goliath story," Seattle sports historian David Eskenazi said. "All the reasons people follow sports were encapsulated in this game. It was classic sports drama."

Washington was the giant state school. Seattle U was a small Jesuit university. The Chieftains, as they were then called, were led by 5-foot-9 twins Johnny and Eddie O'Brien. The Huskies' star was the 6-8 Houbregs.

"It was kind of like the Democrats against the Republicans," said Mike McCutchen, who was Washington's captain. "There were divisions within the same family."

These two teams from this city made the 22-team NCAA tournament field. And for one night in March the Pacific Northwest was basketball's Mecca.

"The atmosphere in the city before that game was electric," said Roland Halle, a Husky reserve. "The whole town was excited for the game. It was the only time in my college career that I felt such amazing interest in a game from everyone."

KING-TV televised the game, the first time it had broadcast a game played outside of the state.

"As often happens, however," Eskenazi said, "the drama didn't play out on the court."

In front of the 10,214 fans shoehorned into Gill Coliseum, Washington jumped to a 24-11 lead and easily beat the Chieftains, 92-70. Dye pulled his starters with about 2 ½ minutes to play.

"I never had a doubt we could beat them," McCutchen said. "We just had too much. But I was unhappy after the game because Tippy Dye didn't leave us (starters) in, so we could score 100 points on them. They were a good team. We respected them, and we thumped them."

Dye's game plan called for a double-team of Johnny O'Brien. McCutchen fronted him and Doug McClary played behind him. O'Brien finished with 25 points, but many of them came late, after McCutchen and McClary left.

"Mike would never tell you this, but he did a really great job on Johnny," Houbregs said. "Johnny was such a great shooter, but we didn't give him much of a chance that night."

Houbregs set a tournament record against the Chieftains, scoring 45 points.

"Our game plan failed on us," Eddie O'Brien said.

The plan was to allow Houbregs to receive the ball in the low post and force him to his left, so that he couldn't shoot his deadly right-handed hook shot. But Seattle U's weakside help was late all night, and Houbregs had his way.

"We didn't stop him. That's all there was to it," Eddie O'Brien said. "Bob was one of the most underappreciated players in Seattle. He was one of the greatest to ever play sports here."

But the first time he touched the ball that night, Houbregs received a pass in the lane, wheeled to the basket and clanged his short hook off the back of the rim.

"You won't believe this, but that's what I remember most about that game," Houbregs said. "I wasn't feeling too good after that."

At the other end of the floor, Johnny O'Brien, a remarkable free-throw shooter, was fouled. He missed the first free throw.

"I've never told Johnny this," Houbregs said, "but seeing Johnny miss that free throw calmed me down. He was such a great free-throw shooter, and it made me think that he was probably as nervous as I was."

Houbregs set an NCAA record with 20 field goals in the game.

"In Seattle, you were either a Seattle U fan or a Washington fan," Houbregs said. "You took one side or the other, or you weren't really living in Seattle. The town was really divided, and it was just wild (inside Gill Coliseum). The crowd went nuts the moment we came onto the floor, and it didn't stop all night."

At halftime of Thursday night's renewal of the Washington-Seattle U rivalry at KeyArena, the 60th anniversary of this game will be celebrated.

"I don't know what we're celebrating," Eddie O'Brien joked. "I'd hoped that game had been long forgotten."

But the game needs to be remembered and celebrated. As the sports landscape continues to grow and the noise gets louder, it's important to stop and take a moment to remember the players and the teams that ignited Seattle sports passions.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Thursday

Washington @ Seattle U, KeyArena, 7 p.m., ROOT Sports


SEATTLE TIMES FILE, 1953
Basketball coach Tippy Dye, hat in hand, addresses UW students before his team boards a bus for a trip to the NCAA regionals in Corvallis, Ore.




DAVID ESKENAZI COLLECTION




ED JOHNSON / AP, 1953
Washington coach Tippy Dye talks strategy in the Seattle U game with star center Bob Houbregs, who scored 45 points.




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