An ending that still stings
August 25, 2023
They still haven't accepted their Olympic silver medals. The 1972 U.S. men's basketball team lost to the Russians by a point in the championship game in what was a highly controversial and contested last minute of play. Up to that point, the United States, in the days of all-college rosters, had never lost an Olympic basketball game. Team captain Kenny Davis included language in his will preventing his children from ever accepting the silver medal. The team members have met several times since that fateful day, only to confirm their stubbornness and conclusion: they were cheated by the referees who eventually declared a Russian victory by 1 point.
Some Cromwell Cardinal boys basketball alumni also wonder what might have been, had they been dealt a fairer referee decision in a district semifinal game in 1967.
"We had a great team with a record of 17 wins and four losses," John Manninen told me in a recent interview. "We had an excellent team the year before, but our senior year was one of the strongest Cromwell squads to date. People still ask me and other players in that ʼ67 group, what happened in that Silver Bay district game?"
Manninen has saved most of the old newspaper clippings including those from the former Pine Knot.
In a tribute to the team's living coach Bill Hoppe, and for their own peace of mind, the players recently met at a class reunion and tried to recollect the final minute of a head-scratching contest.
All players agreed Bill Hoppe was a tremendous basketball coach.
"He never yelled at us," Manninen said. "But you knew he was frustrated with our individual or team play if he was pulling steadily, during a game, on his famous cardinal red socks. Hoppe would sometimes ask us if we wanted to get out of practice a half-hour early. ... We only had to beat him in a free throw contest. It was a trick, he could make 100 in a row."
Hoppe was a star guard on the 1958 Cloquet High School basketball team. He and center Dick Millen and teammates Butch Newby, Joe Mackei and Bob Pollard led Cloquet to their first state basketball tournament berth. Cloquet lost the opening game to eventual state champion Austin by 2 points.
"We wanted to give Coach Hoppe another state tournament appearance," said Cromwell starters Jim Huhta and Dave Hedin. "That was our team's goal."
Cromwell was the No. 1 seed from the Polar League and defeated Duluth Morgan Park in the first game of the District 26 basketball playoffs. Al Houck, who was a solid 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, was the Cromwell center. He was a terrific player, averaging 25 points a game.
Hoppe stressed fundamentals, including following your shot and moving toward the ball to receive a pass. He hated turnovers. In the semifinals, Cromwell was slated to play Silver Bay.
Duluth Central defeated Carlton in the other game at the then very new Duluth Arena. Coach Jim Hastings had his Duluth Central Trojans players sit behind the Cromwell bench to watch the upcoming semifinal game.
"We may have looked past Silver Bay, but they did have a good squad, too, including the Horton twins," Manninen said. "But, Central squeaked by Carlton and we had defeated the Bulldogs pretty handily. We figured we'd have to play Central for the district title."
Cromwell started out sluggishly and fell behind early and had to deal with some foul trouble. Silver Bay led after three quarters. Rolf Hanson, also 6-foot-3, averaged nearly 25 points a game as the other "twin tower" for Cromwell, which as a team averaged 75 points. The Cardinals were down 5 points with 1 minute, 13 seconds left in the game. Utilizing a 2-2-1 half court press, the Cards stole the ball twice and scored. Forcing another Mariner turnover, they had the ball, behind by 1 point with a few ticks left on the clock. Hoppe called a time out.
"Coach called a great play and we got a good shot off, but missed. But, Rolf got the rebound and shot it and the closest referee to him blew his whistle and raised two fingers," Manninen said.
The Cardinals figured Rolf had two free throws coming.
"We thought Rolf would make both of them. We'd win by one. At worst, he'd sink one and we'd be going to overtime," Manninen said.
Controversy then arose. The referees conferred for a few minutes and then declared the game over. No free throws. Cromwell's players were mortified and heartbroken. No explanation was forthcoming. More than 56 years later, it still hurts.
Al Houck reflected: "I felt fortunate to have had Bill Hoppe as a coach. He was the best I was ever around. He is a great friend."
Cromwell's four season losses in 1967 were to Moose Lake twice, Esko, and Silver Bay. Duluth Central won the district and region titles and competed in the Minnesota state tournament. Edina won the state tourney. Cromwell, in some year-end polls, was ranked as high as 10th in the state.
"It was a bad call, in all of our opinions, but we still can't help remembering and dreaming of what could have been," Manninen said.