Colaborador: bze84 Created: 1 year ago Updated: 1 year ago
Bob Mercer was always a fan of sports – basketball, baseball, boxing. He participated in all of these sports. If he wasn’t playing, he loved to watch. When he moved with his family to the Denver area, he was thrilled to have a professional football team, the Broncos, in the city.
His father, James, had also been a sports fan. Bob remembers watching his father play many a baseball game.
Barnwell, Alberta, Bob’s hometown, is a small farming community. In the 1943-44 school year there were a total of twenty boys at Barnwell High School, grades 9-12. It took half of those twenty boys to make up the school’s basketball team. This close-knit team had gone through scouting together and attended church together on Sundays. Weekdays and Saturdays the boys worked on the family farms.
Busy though they were, sports were popular in the town. The boys completed their chores early so they could play ball after school.
The Barnwell basketball team faced teams from all over southern Alberta: Cardston, Magrath, Raymond, Taber. All the surrounding towns seemed larger than Barnwell, but that didn’t faze the Barnwell boys. Muscles hardened while working their farms turned these teenage boys into fine athletes. The fact that many came from tall Scandinavian stock was another bonus.
The Barnwell team faced team after team. And team after team fell to the brawny Barnwell boys. After defeating all opposing teams, the Barnwell boys were crowned high school basketball champions of Southern Alberta.
The next step was the entire of province of Alberta. Though they had originally played only the smaller teams in the B League, there would be no size restriction as they played for the championship of Alberta. They would play teams of all sizes. For the final championship tournament the Barnwell basketball team, coming from a high school with twenty boys, would play Westglen High School in Edmonton, with a student body of nearly 1500.
It was a tournament of David and Goliath proportions. You would have guessed the small town boys would have been quaking in their shoes. But they weren’t; they were a powerful team and felt confident and ready for the final tournament.
The annual championship tournament was alternately hosted by the North and the South. In the spring of 1944 it was the South’s turn to host. Barnwell, home to the champions of the South, was the designated location of the provincial tournament.
The northern champs from Alberta’s largest city travelled south 400 miles by train. They were met at the station by the local basketball team, the team’s parents, the Barnwell School Board and the local LDS church authorities, the town’s bishopric.
There were no hotels in tiny Barnwell, so the players stayed with various families in town.
Much to their credit, they helped their host families with farm chores. And they did well: they drove tractors, fed cattle, and rode horses. After chores they sat down to full farm meals and were driven any place they wanted to go.
There was a dance to honor the team from the north held in the Barnwell Hall shortly after the team’s first practice. There were plenty of pretty girls to assure that the visitors indulged fully in the dancing. The girls from Barnwell wanted to do their part to help win the provincial basketball title. These girls saw to it that the Edmonton athletes were diverted, entertained and got as little sleep as possible.
Myrtle Johnson, mother of team member Dean, was pleased that she had a home large enough and nice enough to host the Edmonton coach, their trainer and two players. The Johnson Oldsmobile was turned over to the visitors to allow them to travel as much as they wanted.
This April 1944 showdown packed the Hall. Fans certainly got their dollars’ worth.
Using something Barnwell hadn’t seen before, a full court press, the Edmonton team cut Barnwell’s early lead, then with seconds left in the game, Edmonton drove and tied the score. Aaron Card, the Barnwell coach, called timeout. He had been studying the opposing team’s tactics. He had devised a strategy to work against the full court press. He instructed the Barnwell team and they were eager to work this new strategy. Bob Stevens, Ken Nielsen, and Earl Johnson passed the ball rapidly among themselves as they worked toward the basket. Then they blasted it to Dean Johnson as he crossed the key in front of the hoop. Dean did his turnaround jump using two hands. The ball arched over outstretched hands and dropped into the basket. The score gave Barnwell a two point lead with 15 seconds remaining.
The Edmonton Westglens brought the ball down, drove to the other end of the court and tossed the ball to the basket. It missed. Delbert Johnson ripped off the rebound and fired it to Bob Stevens who raced the middle lane. Bob whipped it to Dean, running the sideline. Dean slammed it to Bob as he rose to the basket. The ball ripped through the nets. Barnwell had won the first game of the tournament.
The next game of the two-of-three series was scheduled of the following night. The Edmonton coach asked that his players be delivered to Leith Johnson’s farm by noon. He wanted no practice, only a run along the road to loosen up muscles. He took them down the highway, then back again and into the barnyard. As they rounded the granary, first the coach, then his players stopped short. There, shoveling wheat as they had been all morning, were Bob Stevens and Delbert Johnson. Alberta playoffs or not, the two star players had to get grain to the cattle in the feedlot.
If the Edmonton team thought the exhaustion of farm work would give them an advantage over the Barnwell boys, they had another think coming.
From the opening whistle, Edmonton used their successful press. Sure about how to handle it now, the Barnwell players passed in short bursts down the floor. Two Edmonton men doubled Dean Johnson. But Bob Stevens, Earl Johnson, Boyd Anderson, Ken Nielsen, Bob Mercer, Ken Anderson, Cyril and Grant Johnson, and Homer LeBaron, ripped them basket after basket. The Barnwell guards denied the Edmonton team rebounds off the defensive boards. The determination seemed tangible in the Hall: Barnwell was not going to be denied. Edmonton gave it all they had. But when the final whistle blew, Barnwell had won the game by 15 points.
The new Alberta Champions of Barnwell were mobbed by fans of the hometown team.
The following week a letter arrived from Edmonton. The Edmonton coach and the principal thanked the Barnwell people for the superb hospitality. Enclosed were clippings from Edmonton newspapers. Two were lavish, praising Barnwell’s playing ability. The Barnwell champions chuckled to read the descriptions of the good times the Edmonton boys had on the farms. Tractors, horses, cattle, good food, pretty girls, dances? No wonder the Edmonton team hadn’t come out on top, the newspapers opined.
The Barnwell boys grinned. This would be a story worth recounting through the decades.
Johnson, M. Dean, Progeny of the Prairie, 1996, pp 512-514
Mercer, Robert, personal interview
Edited by Cherie Mercer Davis 2016