Well folks, the snow began to arrive and the winds of November were gone as the 1958-59 Aitkin Gobbler boys’ basketball team started drills in anticipation of a fresh season. They had a new coach following the untimely death of coach Herman Woock over the past summer. Most of the players wondered how the rookie would handle the job.
This team had also lost one of its most popular players, John ‘Bambi’ Lidfors, who died along with his baby sister in a tragic car accident just west of town. They seemed to have the deck stacked against them before the first practice got underway. Few could foresee what would take place in the next four months.
They had a good core of players who always got along well, according to the four players I had a chance to chat with prior to their 60th class reunion. Jim Call, J.J. Sullivan, Alvin Buss and Art Doten reminisced. “We all got along, no squabbles, we just knew each other and did things together, all friends,” according to Sullivan, the leading scorer on this team. “There were no stars on our team. Everybody had their nights. When one guy had a bad night we picked him up. We didn’t have a great regular season, 6-12, but we put it together when we had to. Things happened and we found ourselves in the District final. We ended up winning it.”
When asked if they had given any thought of going to the State, Sullivan provided the most somber quote of the discussion. “We would have gone to State if we had Bambi.”
We took a moment of silence and moved on. I asked who the best player was and Jim remarked, “I think J.J. said it right, there were no superstars. I might come in and hit some shots, then cool off. There was always somebody who would have a great game for us. You have to remember we had a great bench. Those guys kept us going in practice, pushing us all the time. They were as big a part of our late season success as anybody. We’ve lost a couple of teammates over the past two years: Wally Peterson and Jerry Carlson. They were big parts of the team. I was sometimes a not-so-good free throw shooter, but a lot of times, Alvin and Art could get the rebound for us and turn it into a basket. It was a great experience for all of us to go through and Coach Conner did a good job letting us play.”
Alvin and Art were two of the best. Not only scoring, but especially rebounding. Alvin loved talking about this team. “Wally was a great floor leader. He would swerve up the floor and sometimes hit me going underneath. It was an easy basket. Nobody took the ball out of his hands. He wasn’t a big kid, but boy could he handle the basketball. He was the key to breaking up any press that teams put on us. He, of course, had the big shot to win the Staples game. That made him a legend as the years went by. It was so much fun, even when we weren’t playing that well. We knew by the end of the season we might be able to cause some trouble for other teams and that’s what happened.”
I assume Art was the most soft-spoken of the crew, but he appreciated the role of every member of the team. He knew he needed to rebound for them to win. His 20 rebounds in the Region Six title game, although in defeat, was his proudest moment. “I think the fact that we never quit is one thing I will always remember. We played Hawley right to the final buzzer, a 53-51 heartbreaker. On the other side, I missed a shot in the last few seconds.” Alvin chimed in, “and I missed two.”
That tells me what kind of players these guys were. Even 60-plus years later they remember all the great things, but they also recall the disappointment at the end.
Art went on to say, “Alvin and I combined for 21 rebounds in the District final against Wadena, too. They were a team with a 14-4 regular season record and odds on favorite to beat us, but we knew we could beat them. They scored a lot of points, but we knew we could as well. That was a great win for us. The fans were so great. These guys here, they are still friends today and we’re all proud of that, too.”
I started our time together with a notebook and pen in hand, but within the first minute I just laid them down and listened. It was a trip down memory lane. I think they really appreciated the opportunity to talk about it again. I am friends with three of them. Now that I have seen Art again after a long time, I hope to keep in touch, too. I loved every minute of our time. The cool thing is we didn’t talk about many individual games, just the team, its players and how they did the job against adversity.
They needed to have this story told. In my mind, they will live forever. They also mentioned one other player. You see him in the team picture. He was a good one as well: LeRoy Boyd, who has been missing since 2008. He was a District Champ like these guys. It would have been even better to have him, Wally and the others sitting with us. I thank Jim, J.J., Alvin and Art for taking the time for me at a special time for them. Guys, I hope I did your team justice.