CLASSY REUNION : Newell’s Cal Bears Weren’t the Best, Just Best-Coached College Team in ’59

Times Staff Writer

The big guy clanked a shot off the rim, then bulled his way to the rebound and shoveled the ball through the hoop.

Sitting on the sidelines, a small group of mostly middle-aged women cheered noisily, spurred on by one who was kicking, jumping and dancing about like a college cheerleader.

A pudgy, gray-haired fellow took the inbounds pass, dribbled a few steps and started directing traffic for a couple of other gray-haired guys with more than ample midriffs. One skinny guy, so thin he looked as if he might break if someone bumped him, took an overhead pass and drove for the basket with unexpected verve for a layup.

But the big guy was on top of him, slapping the ball away.


“Who are these guys?” asked a puzzled onlooker, attracted by the rhythmic clapping of the women and a few other kibitzers inside the Carmel High School gym. It was apparent these weren’t weekend gym rats running up and down the court in a playground game of shirts and skins on a Sunday morning.

They were too old, all in their early 50s, too slow--and too disciplined.

“The big guy’s Imhoff, the skinny guy’s Dalton and the guy running things is Fitzpatrick,” said a knowledgeable sideliner with his arm in a sling. “That’s Buch taking the ball now and McClintock’s the bald guy in the middle looking for a pass.”

It was the University of California’s 1959 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship basketball team running the plays just the way Coach Pete Newell taught them 30 years ago.

“Who are the guys without the shirts?” the onlooker asked.

“They’re the same ones the varsity ran their plays against in practice in ’59.”

The 30th reunion of the Cal team, a traditional gathering every five years, is not only for the varsity. It’s for the entire squad, from Al Buch, the captain, down to George Hill, the student manager.

There are Tandy Gillis, Bernie Simpson and Jerry Mann, the first-line reserves. Ned Averbuck, the guy with the flowing white hair who looks like someone out of a Dickens novel, played in only two games. Dave Stafford, Bobby Wendell and Stan Morrison played only a few more.

Three of the men on the court, Bill Alexander, Ed Donahue and Jim (Butenschoen) Barrons, didn’t play a single minute during the Bears’ 29-game schedule, but they are here for the reunion. Donahue came all the way from Missoula, Mont., to rejoin his old teammates for one more fling at the game that brought them together.

The man wearing the sling is one of them, too. He is Jim Langley, a reserve forward who later became head golf professional at the Cypress Point Club, perhaps the most prestigious links in the country. His right arm was severely injured in an automobile accident 18 months ago, or he would be in the scrimmage, too.

The cheerleader is Louetta Joy Langley, Jim’s wife. She was one of the pompon girls when the Bears won the NCAA championship at Louisville by beating Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati, then Jerry West and West Virginia on successive nights. She has the women--wives and friends of the aging performers--cheering as if it were the NCAA final again.

The coaches, Newell, Rene Herrerias and Rupe Ricksen, are here, too.

So is Joe Kapp, an honorary member of the ’59 team. He played with Buch and Dalton and Langley for two years but didn’t play his senior year because he was quarterback on the Bears’ Rose Bowl team and decided against reporting late.

Only the Straw Hat band is missing. And three lettermen, reserves Jack Grout, Dick Doughty and Earl Schultz, whose businesses prevented them from the weekend hospitality at Carmel’s Quail Lodge.

There has already been a moment of silence for two others. Florence Newell, Pete’s wife and the team’s den mother, and Jack Williamson, the team trainer, have died since the last reunion.

The scrimmage continues.

“You watch ‘em, they’ll keep running to position like they did 30 years ago,” Newell says proudly. “Players like we had on that team never forget. That’s why they were so good.”

Al Buch, darkly handsome with flecks of gray in his curly black hair, makes an eye-popping wraparound pass to Bobby Dalton, who bounces the ball to Denny Fitzpatrick for an easy layup. Three self-made millionaires reliving their youth in a high school gym with old cronies.

Darrall Imhoff tries a hook shot. Clank. Bill McClintock takes the rebound and shoots from close-in. Clank. Now it’s Buch’s turn from the free-throw line. Clank.

“These guys don’t shoot very well, do they?” someone asks.

They never did. Except when it counted.

Buch was only a 35% shooter, but he scored 18--his season high--against Cincinnati in the NCAA semifinals. He got 10 of them in the final five minutes to beat the Big O and the Bearcats, 64-58. And in a 60-58 victory over UCLA, it was Buch’s jump shot with four seconds remaining that beat Coach John Wooden’s Bruins.

Only Fitzpatrick was among the top 10 scorers in the Pacific Coast Conference as the team ranked fourth in scoring among nine teams.

Author Craig Kubey, who was working on a book called “Cinderella ’59,” called them “the least talented team ever to win a major national championship.”

No one on the team will dispute the statement.

“We won not because we had the best players, but because we had the best team, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word,” said Fitzpatrick, the team’s most valuable player. “Pete (Coach Newell) had a role for each of us and we ran the assignments over and over until we could run them blindfolded. Everyone, the junior varsity players included, had his role. We executed, but we worked as a unit. We had no stars.”

The stars of college basketball in 1959 were Robertson, the leading scorer in the country with a 32.6 point average, and West, who helped make West Virginia the highest-scoring team in the country with 85.3 points a game.

Dalton & Co., whose strong suit was guile and Newell’s pressing defense, shut them both down.

When the teams stepped onto the floor at Freedom Hall for the semifinal game, Dalton, a 6-foot-3, 150-pound forward from San Leandro, walked up to the powerfully built 6-5 Robertson and said, “My name’s Dalton, what’s yours?”

Then, with help from Grout, he proceeded to hold the Big O to 19 points, but most significantly, only one field goal in the second half, when Cal rallied from a 36-29 deficit to win.

The next year, when Robertson was on the Olympic team in Rome, his coach was Newell. One day after practice, Robertson asked, “Did that skinny forward of yours really not know who I was?”

Newell, recalling the incident, said he just smiled.

West got his 28 points in the final game, but the Bears held the Mountaineers 15 points below their average and held on for a 71-70 victory.

Imhoff made what turned out to be the winning basket with 17 seconds to play when he missed an awkward hook shot but rebounded his own shot and banked a second effort into the hoop.

“If Darrall didn’t get his rebound and West Virginia got the ball, it would have been the end for us,” Newell said. “We all knew West would score if he got his hands on the ball. It was a great play by Darrall.”

West still can’t believe it.

“I didn’t think you should have beaten us then, and I still don’t,” West said recently at a testimonial dinner for Newell. “I never will.”

Indiana Coach Bobby Knight, the keynote speaker, pointed to Newell and said to West: “That guy sitting right over there is why you didn’t win that night. Pete Newell knows more about this game, at both ends of the court, than anyone I’ve ever known.”

One of Newell’s most significant moves was to get Herrerias, a 5-9 former University of San Francisco player who helped him win the National Invitation Tournament in 1949, as an assistant coach.

“Rene did such a great job of scouting that sometimes we knew how to run opponents’ plays better than they did,” Buch said. “There were times when a team had the ball and we’d get to the place they were supposed to be ahead of them. Once in a while, if they didn’t run to the right spot, we’d yell, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be over here.’

“I don’t think we can credit Rene enough for his scouting reports. And he taught the junior varsity guys exactly how to run them so we would be prepared.”

Who were these guys, and where did they come from?

Imhoff, who runs a pay-phone franchise in Oregon after spending 12 years in the National Basketball Assn., including four with the Lakers, was a baby-faced, 6-10, 205-pound center from Alhambra. He was so little thought of that his high school coach, Bob Boyd, didn’t even recommend him to USC, his alma mater. Imhoff got his only recruiting call from Orange Coast, a junior college.

“I didn’t play much my senior year at Alhambra because I broke my elbow chasing (baseball star) Steve Kemp through the locker room,” Imhoff recalled. “But Boyd’s never lived down the fact he wouldn’t recommend me to Twogie (Coach Forrest Twogood).”

Imhoff got to Cal only because he wanted to study forestry and he had an aunt living in Berkeley who called the basketball office, trying to find a room with a bed big enough for her nephew. When Newell heard her say, “He’s 6-8 and still growing,” he found him a place to live.

A story in the Daily Californian student newspaper in the fall of 1958 served as an incentive for Imhoff, he said.

“It said Cal would have a fairly good team, but there was a real question at center with Morrison, Doughty and Imhoff. I think we all had something to prove after that and with Newell’s guidance, we did it.”

Morrison, who missed most of the season with mononucleosis, remembers an incident he believes made the team a potential champion.

“It was a preseason practice and Darrall blocked a driving layup by Bob Dalton,” Morrison recalled. “That was the day Imhoff became a player and the team took off from there.”

Morrison, who coached seven years at USC, recently resigned as athletic director at UC Santa Barbara to become basketball coach at San Jose State.

“When you’ve played for a man like Pete Newell, you’ve learned so much about coaching and teaching and living that you feel you have to pass it on,” Morrison said. “At least that’s the way I feel. That’s why I’m going back into coaching.”

Imhoff, named the Bears’ most improved player in 1959, became an All-American center the next season when Cal again went to the NCAA final before losing to an Ohio State team led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. Later, Imhoff played on the Olympic gold-medal team in 1960 with Robertson, West and Lucas before becoming a pro.

The big, good-natured Imhoff is the target of much needling among his old teammates.

“Imhoff calls himself an NBA player, but really, he wasn’t,” Fitzpatrick said. “The team had no NBA players. Not even any All-Coast players.”

Imhoff was one of the opposing centers the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks.

Fitzpatrick and Gillis, coach at Orange Coast College, were scouting at a high school game in Fillmore when they heard of Wilt’s 100.

“We stopped at the nearest Western Union and sent Imhoff a wire, ‘Congratulations on your fine defensive effort,’ ” Gillis said. “When he got it, we heard he was really steaming. I’m glad Fitz and I were clear across the country.”

Imhoff still plays about 40 games a year with the Portland Trail Blazers’ alumni team in charity exhibition games with teams in the area.

Buch, the captain, was a 6-2, 190-pound guard from Brooklyn whose family moved to North Hollywood the year before he finished high school.

“I had some offers from East Coast colleges, but when my family moved West, I wrote to Cal, Stanford, USC and USF,” Buch said. “I was recommended to Newell by Bob McKeen, who I met in New York when he was back there for the College All-Star game. McKeen had played for Newell the year before.”

Buch, who played on three conference championship teams, was one of five players named in 1984 to the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches’ silver anniversary All-American team for their basketball, career and public-service accomplishments.

“I really think, and you’ll have to pardon my saying so, but I believe the key to the team, outside of the coaching, was that it was an inordinately intelligent group of guys,” Buch said. “They all graduated and most became extremely successful in their life after basketball.”

Two months ago, Buch sold his business, Empco Industries, a tire and wheel firm with 80 retail outlets that did more than $100 million in business.

“I’m going to spend more time with my family and do some traveling and promotional work for the university,” Buch said of his retirement. He is a member of the UC board of trustees and president of Southern Seas, a Cal booster group in Southern California.

He and Fitzpatrick were co-chairman of a fund-raising dinner and golf tournament two weeks ago at the Lakeside Golf Club in North Hollywood, which helped raise more than $100,000 for a scholarship in perpetuity in Newell’s name.

Fitzpatrick was a hot-handed 6-foot, 160-pound guard when he went to Cal from Newport Harbor High by way of Orange Coast College.

“Denny was the finest perimeter shooter I ever coached,” Newell said.

He scored 20 points in the championship game against West Virginia.

“I played my greatest game that night,” he said at the reunion.

After graduation, Fitzpatrick coached a few years before getting into the finance business and eventually became president of the Mission Viejo-based Beverly Hills Federal Savings and Loan Assn., a position he resigned in 1984. Today, Fitzpatrick lives in Westwood and runs CBI Financial Services, which obtains financing for shopping centers and large construction jobs.

“What successes I’ve had (in business) go directly back to Coach Newell,” Fitzpatrick said. “He is the best coach ever--it’s not even close. And what he taught us carries over into our lives every day. Take this reunion, for instance. If Pete didn’t keep coming back, we probably wouldn’t keep on meeting.”

Fitzpatrick named his oldest son, Pete, after his coach.

“Even the wives are close on our team,” Fitz said. “My wife, Buffy, and Buch’s wife, Jill, are from the same small town in England. Al and Jill were married a few years before I married Buffy. I think she married me so she could be close to Jill.”

Dalton, who owns his own insurance business in Pleasanton, is known as “the Thunderbird,” so called because he was the only one in college with enough money to drive one.

He was named the team’s most inspirational player and still plays the role. He is the catalyst, the organizer and the planner, for the five-year reunions.

“The most precious thing about the team, and these get-togethers, is that there were 17 guys involved, not five or six or seven, and every one of the 17 graduated,” Dalton said. “That is a tribute to Pete’s way of doing things.”

After Cal beat St. Mary’s, 66-46, and Utah, 71-53, in the West Regional to gain the Final Four, the school was informed that only 12 players could suit up in Louisville. Newell insisted that the five others go with the team, and when championship awards were handed out, all 17 were included.

Dalton is also something of a pixie. When asked to name his most vivid memory of the 1958-59 season, he wrote: “The St. Louis University game and the team shooting percentage, 19 for 78, caused by an all-day poker party preceding the game.”

Cal lost, 55-43.

McClintock was the only sophomore starter, but was the oldest player on the squad. He spent several years after high school drinking beer, working as a draftsman and playing industrial league ball in Milwaukee. A coach at Marquette told him he could never make it in college ball.

A friend of Newell, though, saw McClintock playing in Milwaukee and suggested he come West to play at Cal. McClintock was so enthusiastic that he paid his own way out, enrolled at Monterey Peninsula College to make up his grades, and joined the Bears as a 22-year-old sophomore.

His teammates called him “Magnet” because the ball always seemed to come to him off the boards. Today, he is principal of a continuation high school in Mountain View, Calif.

“I get a great deal of satisfaction from working with kids who couldn’t cut it in regular high school programs,” he said. “In our school, we get to work with them one on one, and get a personal look at their development. A lot of the lessons I learned from Pete I use every day. He has been very influential in my life.”

The license plate on his Chevy Beretta: NCAA 59.

Then there is Averbuck, the team philosopher and still its cheerleader. He came out of Roosevelt High in Los Angeles with the reputation as a high scorer, but in Newell’s disciplined system, he played in only two games and never took a shot.

“Ned was one of our most important players, nevertheless,” Newell praised. “He was the best bench jockey I ever had, and he also kept things livened up on our team. No one could ever get down on himself with Ned around. He was the ultimate holler guy.”

Averbuck has been chairman of the speech department at Laney College, a community college in Oakland, for 23 years and never tires of expressing his love for the university, his coach and his teammates.

“I love that man like my father,” Averbuck said of Newell. “He taught us total dedication, devotion and desire for excellence through every practice. He gave us a unique feeling of team, and that is why nearly everyone associated with the team is here this weekend. To be with Pete again is like being with a loved one. We’re family, Pete and all the rest of us.”

He paused a moment for effect, then continued: “It’s still hard to believe, though, that we won with the best players on the bench.”

The bench warmers cheered lustily. The first-stringers laughed.

Pete Newell coached only five seasons at California, but he is as revered on the campus at Berkeley as if he spent a lifetime there. He was only 44 when he retired after the 1960 NCAA final, although he remained eight more years as athletic director.

In 1987, the floor of venerable, old Harmon Gym at Cal was named Newell Court. At the time, Newell was asked why he gave up coaching when he was so successful.

“I had done coaching,” he said. “Plus, my doctor said I needed to give up cigarettes and coffee because they were messing up my lungs. And I couldn’t coach without cigarettes and coffee.”

He had to miss the shirts-and-skins game among his old players Sunday to fly to Cleveland for a pre-NBA draft meeting with the Cavaliers’ staff. Newell, 73, is a consultant and West Coast scout for the team.

“Seeing my players gather every five years makes me very proud that they felt it was such a good experience that they wanted to continue reliving it,” Newell said. “It is as high a tribute as a coach can get.”