23 to 2: What a thriller!

You take the lead, then you go into a stall, and you pray that you win the jump three more times.

We’re not referring to heavy molten metal, entering a corral, being in a church service or what grasshoppers do. No, we mean sports, old style.

Let me explain:

In 1933, in what was dubbed “The Game to Remember,” the East Las Vegas’ Cardinals beat the Santa Fe Demons 23-2. But that reads more like a football score (yes, it’s possible to score two points, but not just one, in a football game) or even a baseball score. But this was basketball.

So how does a team hold another team to a mere two points? The source doesn’t specify whether the losing team scored a real basket or a couple of free throws. The above-mentioned stall was a big part of the game, which must have had lots of people yawning after the Cardinals’ best ball-handlers kept the ball away from the Santa Fe team for close to 30 minutes.

Back in 1933, there was no three-point score. Today, when a player shoots and scores from outside a half circle, that counts for three. The lack of the three-pointer in those days may account for the relatively low score — even for the winners. Today, a team that scores only 23 points usually loses. There was no shot clock for high school teams, which may also be true today.

A check of random prep box scores of that era shows that scores were low to begin with. We assume most of the Cardinals’ points came from the charity stripe.

The team that won the “game to remember” consisted of the following boys: Sam Medina, Alfonso Hidalgo, Alex Griego, Bill Wertz, Johnny Griego, Bob Dettrick, Jim Sampson, Billy Tropstad, Howard Crall, Woodrow Clevenger, Oberly Bond, H. Gibbs, Art Gast and Bob Lister. G.C. McBride was their coach. Some of the surnames seem familiar, but it’s likely that most of the players have passed away, as they would be in their late 90s.

Johnny Griego operated Model Cleaners for a number of years; Jimmy Sampson owned a gas station; Alex Griego taught school; Bill Wertz owned a sporting goods store where part of the Optic building stands; Woodrow Clevenger became an employee of Public Service Company; Howard Crall became a doctor in California; Bob Dettrick co-owned Standard Dairy; Bob Lister was a professor at the University of Colorado; and Alfonso Hidalgo was a clerk in Albuquerque.

The source of this article is not a clipping from the time the game was played. Rather, on Feb. 13, 1959, the Daily Optic, ran an article on that team whose opponent by no means blistered the nets. The more recent article, located by sports triviologist Bruce Wertz, the son of Bill Wertz, the player, refers to the game played 26 years before the 1959 article. Myriad rules have changed the complexion of the game. In recent years, a defensive player who puts sufficient pressure on the ball handler can somehow gain possession for his team, or even create a jump ball.

Oh, how things have changed! For example, in the early ‘50s, when Immaculate Conception School met with the then-Las Vegas Cardinals, one of the Colts starters, Tony Hidalgo, must have handled the ball more than the other players — combined. Flustered defenses must have clustered around Tony, sometimes fouling him and giving him a trip to the free-throw line.

Many games went like that. Today, at least with colleges and professional teams, the team with the ball has only so many seconds to take a shot; let the shot clock expire and the refs turn the ball over to the other team.

I was surprised when my friend Bruce showed me a copy of the article I had written for the Optic, suggested by Johnny Griego, who had been a member of the Cardinal team. I was a young sports writer for the Daily Optic at the time when the newspaper experimented with a short-lived 12-page Sunday supplement tabloid called Omnibus.

Facing the Santa Fe team for the third time in the season, after two defeats, the Cards must have determined that “if the Demons never get their hands on the ball, they can’t score.” According to the Optic article, written 57 years ago, “The Vegas boys . . . posted the tournament’s biggest surprise as they completely dominated play against the Demons and emerged victorious.” The Cardinals then took all the honors by beating another scrappy Santa Fe team, the United States Indian School Braves.

The 1933 article mentions that Vegas trailed the Braves 18-14 with two minutes to go before Jim Sampson caught fire and scored five points to give Las Vegas a one-point victory.
And how did fans feel about the keep-away that the Cardinals (and probably other teams) played? In a game during the regular season, the Cards’ stalling enraged a bunch of St. Michael’s Horsemen fans who became rowdy. The 1933 article notes that one of the game’s referees halted action long enough to explain that stalling — as unpalatable as it was for the trailing team — was still part of the game.

Las Vegas has only so many last names, and it’s possible some of the children and even grand and great-grand children of the ‘33 players have also played the game.

There have been many changes in the game invented by James Naismith back in 1891. One account — possibly mythical — tells that in the early days of the game, each successful throw fell through the hoop and remained in the closed basket until someone climbed a ladder to fetch it.

In a high-scoring game, that act would certainly provide sufficient exercise for the one assigned to retrieve the ball.

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