Tales From the Grubby End: Oregon's version of 'Hoosiers'
Longtime Newberg resident member of the Bellfountain Bells
Every time I hear the bounce of a basketball I think of Lynn Hinton.
Until he passed away in March 2002, Hinton lived here in Newberg on Morton Street, in the same neighborhood where I live.
In 1996, I visited this quiet, unassuming man to hear him tell me the story Im now going to tell you, of a night long ago when eight young men from a high school with 29 students became immortal.
Hinton, you see, was a Bellfountain Bell. In the team photo they took at the end of the season, he is kneeling on the front row at far left, wearing jersey No. 9.
Bellfountain is located at the southern end of Benton County 20 miles south of Corvallis. Its still pretty much the same as when Hinton left it, an unincorporated community where two country roads intersect.
Folks there make a living growing Christmas trees and grass seed and a bit of timber every now and again. A nearby park has a picnic table 26 meters in length, cut from a single log.
The population at the last census was 75.
And, yes, the school Hinton attended is still there (at least I havent heard it has been torn down), along with the gymnasium next door where he played, the same gym where he and his buddies lived the most dreamy of dream seasons, one not unlike that enjoyed by the fictional Hickory High School team of Indiana depicted in the movie Hoosiers.
To tell the rest of this story, its important to remember that in the 1920s and 30s, the Oregon state basketball tournament was divided into two brackets: the big schools grouped as Class A, the smaller schools in Class B.
The smaller schools would play a single elimination tournament, with the winner advancing to face the big schools in a final round of games to determine the overall state champion.
Nineteen-thirty-seven would be the last year this arrangement would be used and no small school had ever won the overall championship. It was also the last year the community of Bellfountain would enjoy having its own high school.
The 1936 Bells had won the Class B tournament but were eliminated in the Class A tournament by eventual state champion Corvallis High.
That summer, Bellfountain head coach Kenneth Litchfield had resigned and the job had been passed to Burton Bill Lemmon, who admitted later he inherited an easy group to work with since Litchfield had been with this same bunch of players for many years and had molded them into a truly outstanding team.
Finishing the 1937 regular season at 17-1 (another loss to Corvallis High), including two scrimmage victories over the Willamette University freshman, the Bells defeated all the smaller schools in the state tournament and then moved on to face the big schools.
Hinton remembered the excellent job Coach Lemmon had done in preparing the Bells to play against schools which were 25 to 30, or even 50 times, larger.
He told us the general student body doesnt play in basketball games, he said. Its the five players on each team who play. To our way of looking at it, things were pretty even.
Maybe so. However, truth was Bellfountain had the best basketball team in the state. They breezed through regular-season competition that included a 72-15 defeat of Harrisburg, a 56-9 win over Shedd and a 48-4 crushing of Alsea.
In an era when 30 or more points in a game was considered a high score, these margins of victory were jaw-dropping.
Taking a closer look at the Bells, this was not your average country high school basketball team.
Even though no one was over 6 feet tall, there was something unusual at work in the chemistry shared by the players.
Hinton explained: We had all grown up together, attended school together, had played sports as a group since elementary school. By the time we got to high school, we knew each other so well (the) coach had it easy.
Opposing players remembered how disciplined the Bells were. They beat you with conditioning, pinpoint blind passes, accurate shooting, great defense.
Most of us walked two or three miles each way to school, Hinton shared. Not once during the season was any team in better shape than we were.
In addition, both Litchfield and Lemmon instilled in the young men another difference maker, something that drew from the decency of the people of Bellfountain. They were taught it was rude to foul. Teams scoring on the Bells would have to do so from the court. Foul shots would be few and far between.
After defeating Chiloquin 39-21 to win the 1937 Class B bracket (Hinton remembered this as their toughest game), Bellfountain next had to face Portlands Franklin High in the Class A tournament. The score ended in a 39-13 crushing of the larger school.
Next up, Lincoln High, for the championship.
To realize the size differential between the two contenders, consider that Lincoln High in 1937 had almost twice as many teachers as Bellfountain had students. Lincolns student body numbered 1,580, who attended classes in a building that had 45 rooms and occupied an entire city block.
Final score: Bellfountain 35, Lincoln 21.
Newspapers across the nation trumpeted the win.
Over the years, numerous reunions of the team were held, but the best one may have been the gathering in 1987 to celebrate the 50th anniversary.
Hinton and six other Bells attended. Teammate John Key, killed in World War II, was the only one not there. They assembled with friends and families in the little gym that had been such a big part of their lives so many years before.
At last there came that moment everyone was there to see. Seven aging men, suited in uniforms borrowed from nearby Oregon State University, shooting two-handed set shots and laughing at one another at how gray and fat they had become.
They shared stories and they remembered a time in 1937 when they dreamed an impossible dream, then made it happen.