How the first NCAA tournament was played in the shadow of impending world war

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The first ever NCAA men's basketball tournament was played in 1939.

Eight teams (yes, only eight) were invited to participate in two regionals, East and West.

The final took place on March 27th in Chicago, and featured the Ohio State Buckeyes taking on the University of Oregon Webfoots.

The Webfoots, and especially their tall front line, had already caught the media's attention earlier in the season

"You can't grow up in Oregon and not know about the "Tall Firs," which is their lingering nickname to this day," says author Terry Frei, who knows a thing or two about University of Oregon sports lore.

His father coached the football team back in the day.

A few years ago, Frei decided to write a book about the Tall Firs and their tournament run. It's titled "March 1939: Before the Madness."

On one hand, that refers to an era before college basketball became a multi-billon dollar industry.

But there's another meaning in there: In March, 1939, the world was marching toward war.

Frei says the Oregon players were, in a sense, already preparing to fight.

"They took mandatory ROTC, or military classes, on the University of Oregon campus, and they were using old WWI vintage weapons, so they were at least having that thought planted in their head," Frei says.

Frei notes that many of the players on the Oregon team were Finnish-Americans from the fishing town of Astoria. He says there was probably some worry about relatives back in Finland as Europe prepared for war.

Of course, the big news in March of 1939 came when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in the middle of the month.
Frei says the German's march into Czechoslovakia, and the headlines heralding it around the world, wouldn't have been lost on the young men involved in the tournament, or indeed for young men in the country in general.

After all, it was about 20 years after the Great War, and they were wondering if they were going to be called upon to fight again. 

But, did all war talk weigh down athletic pursuits?

"No, not really," says Frei. "But they are conventional college students, who are seeing this as something of a potential last fling, whether athletically, or socially on a college campus, before going into military service."

The Oregon Webfoots made the most of their athletic fling in March of 1939. They beat the Buckeyes 46 to 33 - a real barn-burner for basketball in those days - to win the first NCAA men's title.

The leading scorer in that game was Oregon's John Dick. He enlisted right after Pearl Harbor.

"He ended up a decorated naval flyer, and went on to a distinguished military career," Frei says. "Eventually, he ended up a Rear Admiral, and Captain of the supercarrier SS Saratoga in the Vietnam War era. So, as you're watching the NCAA basketball tournament, it's just kind of hard to imagine that kind of career progression of the noted basketball players of today."

A number of other players from the Oregon team also served in the war, and came home decorated veterans.

Terry Frei says he's gotten some backlash over his decision to highlight the historical context surrounding the 1939 tournament.

Sports is sports, the critics tell him, leave the politics and the world history out of it.

"For me, the attempt to completely divorce this tale of this 1939 first NCAA basketball tournament from the events going on around it in the world to me would have been ignorant, and it's just not something that I don't do," Frei says. "And it really bothers me when sports fans lean into the punch of we are morons who don't care about sports as anything other than escapist entertainment."

After all, Frei says - the men on the Oregon Webfoots team couldn't have avoided the impending war.

And quite frankly, he says, they didn't want to avoid it.

Instead they simply asked - what do you need us to do?

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Terry Frei