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home : local sports : local sports

3/8/2010 11:22:00 AM Email this articlePrint this article 
Fiftieth anniversary of state finals
In 1960, Bulldogs were the talk of Illinois
BRIDGEPORT - When the final buzzer rang in Champaign's Huff Gymnasium on March 19, 1960, the scoreboard at the Illinois state championship basketball game revealed the harsh reality: Chicago Marshall 79, Bridgeport 55.

That's not the whole story, though. Not if you're partial to teams that come from nowhere to reach the biggest stage. Not if you're one who gets swept away by the magical allure that is March Madness. Not if you yearn for those halcyon times, when a real-life hero lived right down the street.

"Those were special, special days," says Ray Estes, the coach of those 1960 Bulldogs, who at the age of 78 is still in good enough health that he runs and plays golf. "I've never seen anything like it, the way the community came together to support that team. We really packed that gym for home games, and we had a tremendous following on the road."

The Bulldogs of 1960 weren't perfect, just almost so. After winning their first 15 games, and with two starters missing due to illness, they lost to Flora, 64-56, in the championship game of a mid-winter tournament hosted by Flora. They finished the regular season with a 25-1 record - including a 14-0 mark in the prestigious North Egypt Conference - and took the state's No. 11 ranking into the one-class post-season tournament. To that point, they'd outscored the opposition, 74.3 points a game to 51.6.

"It was truly a team, in every way imaginable," says Estes, who now lives in Angola, Ind. "We didn't have a single problem, not one. They all knew what was expected of them, and did it. They were a great bunch of kids."

The regular season was merely a prelude. The fun was just starting for the Bulldogs and their fans. Playing at home, they swept to their first regional championship since 1936 with wins over Palestine, Hutsonville and Oblong. Things got considerably tougher the next week at Olney, but Bridgeport survived against Centralia (56-54) and Mount Vernon (67-66 in overtime), to claim the school's first-ever sectional title. An 85-73 win over Greenville in supersectional play at Olney a few days later sent the Bulldogs to the state finals for the first time.

"The town of Bridgeport was living in a make-believe world, almost," says Bernie Gray, the team's captain and leading scorer, who now lives in Hutsonville. "The talk of the area was of the small-town Bulldogs going to Champaign. I guess we were caught up in it, too, but came up one game short."

Starting guards were usually junior Jim Brown, who now lives in Texas, and Sonny Joiner, now deceased. Senior Richard Martin, a retired teacher living in Vincennes, and sophomore Steve Cunningham, a Bridgeport funeral home director, rounded out the starting five. Joiner sustained a leg injury while ice skating after the team won the sectional, and played only sparingly the rest of the way. Junior Dennis Magee then moved into the starting lineup.

Other team members were senior Dennis Oney, junior Mike Shuppert, junior Bill Moffett, freshman Jerry Doss, sophomore Mike Smith, sophomore Charlie Laughlin and sophomore Joe Petty. With the exception of Joiner and Petty, all are still living.

Gene Garrett, a native of Owensville, Ind., who later became an agent for the FBI, was the main assistant coach. Ray "Whitey" Wakenight, now deceased, was also an assistant.

The magical post-season ride continued with all of Illinois looking on, as Bridgeport, the smallest of the eight participating schools with an enrollment of 385, eliminated Ottawa Township, 61-55 on the night of Friday, March, 18, and West Frankfort, 74-60, on the afternoon of Saturday, March 19.

Finally, playing for the third time in a 24-hour period, the dream died. The vaunted Commandos of coach Isadore "Spin" Salario, claimed their second state championship in a three-year span by dispatching the Bulldogs, 79-55. Chicago Marshall's enrollment was listed at 2,333, more than six times that of Bridgeport.

Fifty years later, the Bulldogs don't complain about having to play one of the state's biggest schools for all the marbles. The fact that it was their third game in a 24-hour span, however, still sticks in their craw.

"At the time, I don't think there was any other place in America, either at the high school or collegiate levels, where a team had to play three times in 24 hours," Estes said.

"We were definitely over-matched," said Martin, who scored 27 points in the semifinal win over West Frankfort. "They were by far the better team. But because we had to play three games in such a short time-span, our chances were hampered."

"Playing three games in 24 hours is bad enough," said Brown, who played freshman basketball at the University of Alabama. "But you go back to the week before, when we'd played on Thursday and Friday night (in the sectional). Then we played on Tuesday (in the supersectional). That's six games in a little over a week. The point is, we were a small school. It just caught up with us."

As Oney puts it: "They were a better team. But I don't think they were twenty-some points better."

That aside, however, it was the time of their lives.

"Recently, someone pointed out that what we did can never be equaled, and that's quite true," said Cunningham, who later played at Purdue. "It can never be repeated again. That's kind of special."

"The whole thing was kind of surreal," says Oney, now living in Highland. "It was an unbelievable experience. But time has gone by fast. It's like you wake up one morning, and you're an old person."

Says assistant coach Garrett, 77, retired and living in Georgia: "Playing in the state championship game was a great accomplishment. It was quite a feeling - our little school against the big Chicago school. It's just amazing that it could happen."

It did happen, 50 years ago next week. The Bulldogs barked, and the state of Illinois was listening.

Editor's note: A planned reunion for the 1960 Bridgeport Bulldogs, scheduled to take place in January, fell through. Red Hill High School officials say the event will be rescheduled for early next basketball season.

1960 Bridgeport

Bulldogs (33-2)

Bridgeport 69, Olney 57

Bridgeport 72, Newton 53

Bridgeport 74, Salem 57

Bridgeport 83, Noble 34

Bridgeport 73, Mount. Carmel 55

Bridgeport 79, Paris 57

Bridgeport 72, Flora 56

Bridgeport Holiday Tourney

Bridgeport 89, Oblong 60

Bridgeport 74, Grayville 69

-----

Bridgeport 96, Olney 62

Bridgeport 75, Charleston 45

Bridgeport 94, Fairfield 56

Bridgeport 97, Lawrenceville 54

Flora Invitational Tourney

Bridgeport 87, Mt. Carmel 51

Bridgeport 63, Vandalia 44

Flora 64, Bridgeport 56

-----

Bridgeport 85, Olney 70

Bridgeport 82, Salem 62

Bridgeport 85, Mount Carmel 43

Bridgeport 89, Fairfield 70

Bridgeport 71, Lawrenceville 56

Bridgeport 75, Flora 51

Bridgeport 75, Albion 53

Bridgeport 65, Carmi 60

Bridgeport 52, Robinson 50

Regional Tourney

Bridgeport 75, Palestine 55

Bridgeport 89, Hutsonville 76

Bridgeport 46, Oblong 35

Sectional Tourney

Bridgeport 56, Centralia 54

Bridgeport 67, Mt. Vernon 66 (OT)

Supersectional

Bridgeport 85, Greenville 73

IHSA state finals

Bridgeport 61, Ottawa 55

Bridgeport 74, West Frankfort 60

Chicago Marshall 79, Bridgeport 55





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