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Winning Three : Ventura Can Trace Its Basketball Glory to Late ‘40s and Era of Cowan, Dunn and Millan

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Phil Mathews era had nothing on these guys.

Three retirees have stood on the sidelines watching the marriage between team and town unfold for the past decade as the Ventura College basketball team under Mathews became Ventura’s hottest ticket. Mathews resigned last week to become the University of San Francisco coach but leaves a legacy at the seaside community of packed gyms, championship banners and hoops hysteria.

Jim Cowan, Charlie Dunn and Al Millan, sixtysomething Ventura alums, have enjoyed the hoops and hollers along with everyone else in town. They squeezed into the Ventura gym as the Pirates won two state championships in 10 years under Mathews. And amid the thunderous cheers for the coach, Cowan, Dunn and Millan could be excused for thinking to themselves: been there, done that.

They had the same effect on Ventura nearly a half-century ago and own a unique distinction in Ventura College annals: They played on the first--and last--basketball team in school history to play in the national junior college tournament.

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Cowan, Dunn and Millan, who still live in Ventura County and have remained close since their playing days, were genuine hometown heroes. As seniors at Ventura High in 1949, they led the Pirate Preps--as they were called then--to the Southern Section championship when the section stretched to the Mexican border and crowned only one team. In Coach Bob Tuttle’s second season, the Preps were 30-0, beating all comers by at least nine points, and defeated Alhambra at Redondo Beach High for the championship.

The Ventura trio kept right on winning the next season, playing at Ventura College--which then shared the campus and gym with Ventura High--for Coach Elmer McCall, a dignified, bespectacled Indiana transplant. The Pirates won their first 16 games en route to a 35-3 season that for all its glory ended in disappointment.

After twice defeating L.A. City, the defending national champion, Ventura lost to the Cubs in the regionals and stayed home as L.A. City traveled to Hutchinson, Kan., to defend its national title.

Disappointments were few for McCall, who in four seasons posted a 119-29 record and galvanized the community. Much like fans during the Mathews era, rooters arrived hours before game time to ensure seating. McCall, who returned to Indiana and coached at DePauw University for 20 years until his retirement in 1978, speaks excitedly when recalling his California days.

“Hearing those names gives me a wonderful feeling,” the 78-year-old McCall said from his home in Greencastle, Ind. “We couldn’t find room in the gym. They were putting ‘em around the floor. There were two or three rows right on the sidelines.”

Millan cites his high school and college teams as the start of what remains the city’s strong basketball tradition.

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“We were pioneers,” he said. “There hadn’t been that much success before that. We got the fans really excited about basketball.”

So excited were they that folks gathered downtown to give the team a big sendoff in 1951. In the sophomore season for Cowan, Dunn and Millan, the Pirates won the Western State Conference for the second straight year. Victory in the Modesto tournament gave them the unofficial state title and a berth in the national tournament.

As players readied for the two-day train trip to Kansas--many team members had never been farther east than the Los Angeles River--boosters outfitted them with sport coats paid for by donations. Filled with apprehension and excitement, the Pirates were unaware that what awaited them in Kansas was an up-close look at bigotry and athletic fraud.

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Four years before the trip to Kansas, Charlie Dunn was bouncing along late at night as a Greyhound bus trundled down the Conejo grade onto the Oxnard plain. Everywhere Dunn looked, he saw blackness.

“I didn’t see a light shining anywhere,” he said. “There was nothing but sagebrush. I thought, ‘Where am I going?’ ”

To Ventura, as it turns out. Dunn’s family had moved from New Jersey for the start of his junior year of high school. After getting cut from two high school teams back East, he didn’t even try out for the Ventura team.

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With Millan starring at center and Cowan coming off the bench in the ‘47-48 season, Tuttle’s first as coach, Ventura reached the Southern Section championship game before falling to Alhambra. A few months later, Millan met Dunn in a municipal league. Millan knew instantly the high school team had just picked up another starter.

“Charlie was shy but he could really play,” Millan said. “He was a terrific rebounder.”

Dunn, ever modest about his abilities, agrees with the shy part.

“Success breeds confidence and I started out unconfident because I couldn’t even make the teams in New Jersey,” he said. “Basketball did a lot for me. I’m kind of an introvert. It brought me out of my shell.”

With Dunn joining the lineup in ‘48-49, Ventura shelled the opposition. Millan remembers beating one opponent, 52-14, and not allowing a field goal the entire game. The Preps played fast-break basketball--at least the 1940s version--that entertained overflow crowds.

Those crowds followed the boys, who stayed together and attended Ventura College despite offers from four-year schools. UCLA was interested in Millan, Ventura’s leading scorer, and Kansas State and San Jose State pursued Dunn.

“I wanted to stay in my comfort zone, so I went to Ventura,” Dunn said. “Plus, it looked like we were going to have a good team.”

He was right. After the 35-3 record in their freshman year, the Pirates put together a second 30-victory season when freshman Jim Crockum, another Ventura High graduate, who now lives in Texas, joined the squad.

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The lineup featured the four Ventura High alums--Millan and Crockum at forward, Dunn and Cowan at guard--and center Ernie Hall, an Indiana recruit and the team’s leading scorer at 20.3 points. Millan added 12.7 points, but his all-around game made him the team’s best player, according to Dunn and Cowan.

“Inch for inch, I don’t think there’s ever been a better player to come out of Ventura,” Dunn said. “And I never played against anyone better.”

Cowan was the late bloomer of the bunch. Standing less than 6 feet in high school, he rarely broke the Ventura High starting lineup. Two years later, he was a 6-2 guard with a starting job.

“He was a substitute at first and was good at perking guys up,” McCall said. “But he was a fine shooter and intelligent player and wound up playing quite a bit.”

The team was short by today’s standards--Crockum at 6-4 was the only starter taller than 6-2. McCall coached an up-tempo style and the team scored consistently in the 80s.

They were looking to settle another score.

“We were ready to make up for the previous season when we thought we should have gone to the national tournament,” Millan said.

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With revenge on their minds, the Pirates headed for the Midwest.

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With two African Americans (Hall and Crockum) and a Mexican American (Millan) in the lineup, Ventura arrived in Kansas as an integrated team in a sporting world more comfortable with segregation. Jackie Robinson had cracked the color line in baseball only four years earlier.

After advancing to the semifinals of the 16-team tournament, Ventura drew Northeast Mississippi, an all-white team from Booneville.

Booneville players did little to disguise their disdain for Ventura, refusing to shake hands with the Pirates before the game. Earlier, when the teams arrived at the same restaurant in Hutchinson, the Booneville players walked out.

Ventura had almost no fans at the tournament, but carloads of rooters arrived from Mississippi and made up most of the 7,500 in the arena for the semifinal. The fans were unmerciful.

“I knew the history of bigotry but it shocked me,” Dunn said. “There was outright screaming and yelling at our black players.”

The experience also sticks with Millan, who stressed that Ventura experienced no racial tensions on the team.

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“The Mississippi fans were nasty,” he said. “I had never experienced anything like it. I was upset. It’s something you don’t forget.”

Millan and the others also can’t forget what happened on the court. Ventura raced to a big halftime lead, but Booneville rallied behind J.R. Stroud and won, 63-61. Ventura hadn’t seen Stroud in earlier games and was unprepared to guard him, Cowan said.

Stroud scored 44 points in the championship game but Booneville lost to Tyler, Tex. Ventura beat Moberly, Mo., in the third-place game and boarded the Pullmans for the trip home. They were in for one more surprise--this time a good one.

After disembarking in Los Angeles and boarding a bus for Ventura, the team was greeted on the outskirts of town and given a police escort into Ventura. Officials had prepared a hero’s welcome, parading the players through downtown in open convertibles and feting them in front of grandstands at the corner of California and Main streets. Ventura’s population was only 16,534 then and it seemed like every citizen was there.

“That was quite a welcome considering we didn’t even win,” Millan said.

A day after the parade, news arrived from Kansas. Tournament officials had discovered that Stroud had played professionally. Booneville forfeited its victories and Ventura was awarded second place.

“Some people in town wanted to fly us back and play Tyler, Texas,” Cowan said. “In the current climate, somebody probably would have sued.”

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Cowan, Dunn and Millan scattered after that season but left a lasting legacy at the college. The team’s 37 victories in ‘50-51 (the Pirates were 37-4) is a school record, tied by Mathews’ ‘92-93 and ‘94-95 teams. Its claim as the school’s only representative in the national tournament seems safe: 1951 was the last year California sent a team to the event.

After that season, Cowan, 63, played basketball and baseball at Whittier College. Forever the late bloomer, he scored a career-high 24 points in his final collegiate game. In the Army, he played on an all-star team based in Japan that barnstormed around the world.

Back in California after his discharge in 1955, he was an assistant basketball coach at Whittier when George Allen, the late NFL coach, was the school’s football and baseball coach. After two years at Whittier, Cowan returned to Ventura High as a math teacher and lower level basketball and baseball coach.

In 1965, the Ventura resident joined the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools staff and became superintendent in 1969. He was elected to six four-year terms at the position until his retirement two years ago.

Dunn, 63, also played collegiately after graduating Ventura College, starring for two years at Marquette. After a two-year stint in the Army during which he played basketball for the Fort Ord team in Monterey, he returned to the area. He started a coaching career that began at Oxnard High in 1958 and included a five-year stint as the Camarillo High basketball coach before he returned as Oxnard’s head coach.

In 1975, he joined Jim Whalen’s staff at Ventura College and five years later became the school’s women’s coach. In eight years his teams won three Western State Conference titles, but Dunn insists he learned more from his players than the other way around.

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“I would be moody after a loss and at first I got angry at the women because they’d be singing on the bus after a loss,” said Dunn, who lives in Saticoy. “I learned a better perspective from them.”

Millan, 64, has learned to put his career in perspective. The best player of the three, he attended UCLA for one semester but never played for the Bruins. Instead, he was drafted into the service and played sparingly overseas during his two-year hitch.

He also returned to the county, settling in Camarillo after his discharge, and started a 31-year career at the Port of Hueneme. He was the port’s executive director for 16 years and also served two four-year terms on the Oxnard Harbor District.

“I wish I would have played more,” he said about his basketball career. “But I’ve got a nice retirement and great memories. What more can you ask for?”

Well, there is one thing. Under Mathews, the Ventura gym has been filled with championship banners, but one is missing. By winning the Modesto tournament and qualifying for the national tournament in ‘51, Ventura was the unofficial state champion.

With Cowan serving as the go-between, Mathews agreed to hoist the 1951 state championship banner Nov. 11. The date is tentative because of Mathews’ departure, but Cowan is confident the school will oblige.

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The event will serve as one more reunion for the three Ventura players who see each other regularly, including an annual summer barbecue hosted by Cowan.

“The thing you get out of athletics is the relationships you form,” Cowan said. “That’s the best outcome. When we get together we talk about what’s current, not just basketball. But that comes up because we have great memories.”

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