vs: Kearns 14
Rose Park Stake Center
vs: Phoenix 16
Riverside Stake Center
vs: South Weber 2
vs: Bountiful 8
vs: Westminster (CA) Ward
University of Utah
Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse
If you have memories of the 1969 tournament to share on the website, please send them to us. Go to the RSVP page, and call or text Marshall. We'll share your memories here. (Note that these experiences were from almost half a century ago. If your recollection doesn't match what someone else says, tell us about it. Maybe we can hash out the differences at our reunion.)
When we went to the tournament in March 1969, we were scared. We felt like we had a good team, but to be quite honest with you, we hadn’t planned on winning. As a matter of fact, we were kind of hoping we would lose the first ball game so that we could get into the loser’s bracket, work our way up, and get a chance to take third or fourth place.
The first day that we played was on a Monday, We played a ward from Kearns... At halftime we came in and sat down and looked at each other, and we said, “We can beat these guys.” Our nervousness kind of went away. We went out and pretty well destroyed them.
We played a game each day. There were 32 regions, so there were 32 teams. They all played on Monday, so there were sixteen ball games. Then there were sixteen teams left on Tuesday in the winner’s bracket. We played the Phoenix 16th ward. They had come planning on winning the tournament. Their center was 6'8". We went back to our butterflies, nervousness, shakiness and whatever, because they had a really good team.
That night we played very well, but this team was very good and we were pretty much outmatched in some ways. We got fouled a lot. The final score of the ball game, if I remember, was 44 to 38. We had actually won from the foul line. Out of our 44 points, about half were from the foul line. The Arizona team was so mad that they had lost that it’s my understanding that they went home the next day. They didn’t go on in the tournament.
This is 34 years ago; I can just remember it like it was yesterday. On Wednesday, after we had won the first two, we had confidence built up. We played a team from Weber. I’ve forgotten the ward. They were the reigning champs. This was honestly our best game. We left the gym, and Weber just didn’t know what happened to them. I think we beat them by about about 16 points. We were afraid because they’d won the year before. We didn’t have any idea who had come back. We weren’t familiar with any of the teams in Utah...we were 2,000 miles from there.
Probably the biggest play of the all-church tournament happened on the fourth night. We were playing to go to the finals. We played the Holladay 5th Ward, I believe it was. They were a very good team. Unfortunately for us, they were a lot like we were: Small and fast and matched up well with us.
With about 12 seconds to go, we were down two points, and they had the ball. They went to throw the ball in. One of our guards, Randy Wardwell, stole the ball and drove all the way down the court, laid it in, and tied it. They fouled him when he laid it in. He made a foul shot after the buzzer, and we won the game. That’s what took us to the final game.
Then we went to the championship game. That was at the old University of Utah field house. This was my first trip to Utah, I was 18 years old and really didn’t know what was going on. We played the Westminster Ward out of Long Beach, California, for the championship. They too were an excellent team; we could see why they had made it all the way.
I remember, in that game, I was so nervous because I had never played in a field house that big before. Of course, as field houses go now, it was probably very small. I remember the first shot I took I missed the entire basket. I had been playing pretty well throughout the other games.
After we shook things off, we were actually down a couple of points at halftime. We fought our way back, and we ended up winning 55 to 52. We had a group of people, particularly kids from our ward who were attending BYU, so we just had a whole crowd flock out on the floor. That was a marvelous experience.---------------
I had never been to the West and the mountains were beautiful as we drove all night...on ice part of the time!
Our first game was against a team from Kearns 14th and we were really nervous about the altitude, so in the first half we walked the ball down the court conserving our energy. At halftime we looked at each other and asked if we were tired, everyone said no, so we decided to run. The score at halftime was 27-24 I believe and I thought we scored over 70 points in the game but its been a long time! From then on we didn’t worry about the altitude and at time outs we drank a brand new energy drink....Gatorade....while every other team was taking oxygen!
Our second game was against Phoenix 16th ward and they were huge; a 6’8” center, two linebacker built forwards 6’4” and 6’3”. I believe a famous poem was written by Kent Hamilton about Stan in this game. It was a very physical game we shot a lot of free throws and lucky for us, their point guard couldn’t buy a basket as our defense sagged in the middle with all their height and strength. We won 51-38.
Wednesday night we played the defending reining champions from South Weber. I remember warming up and their fans filled 3/4 of the gym and were saying too bad but you’re going home Cindy. We played a near perfect game by far our best game of the tournament. They had only seen zone defenses and their high scorer was averaging 33 points a game and Mel shut him down and held him to 6 points. The final score was 59-43.
Thursday we played a really talented team from Bountiful 8th ward. Early in the game I hit 4 straight shots and we were leading by 9 points. They then went to a box and chaser which took us out of our offense and in the third quarter we trailed by 12 points and we went back to Cincinnati basketball. Slowly we closed the gap and in the last few seconds we tied the game and were holding the ball for the last shot when Randy Wardwell turned the ball over. He redeemed himself on the inbound play when he intercepted the pass, drove hard to the basket and made the shot to put us ahead 57-55. The Bountiful team threw a long pass which I intercepted and was knocked to the floor by one of their players as time expired, and I hit both free throws to make the final score 59-55.
Friday was a whirl, as we were interviewed by Paul James a very famous sports caster for KSL. The game was televised on KSL TV and played in the U of U field house. Paul James even ate with us, at Harman’s of course! We ate a lot of fried chicken that week.
We came out very tight against a very talented Westminster ward team from California. I particularly had a miserable first half and couldn’t hit anything. I believe I had 3 points at halftime and my man had 20 and couldn’t miss. Luckily the other guys were doing a great job to keep it close. I remember their guards were really fast and Mel and Randy had their hands full but did a great job. At halftime all Gary Fish said was “we need you Jerry” and fortunately we turned things around. We were down 32-29 at halftime and they scored the first basket to lead 34-29, we then hit three straight baskets to lead 35-34. They called a timeout and it was a battle to the finish which we were fortunate to win 55-52!!
My takeaways of this dream season: we came so very close to losing the Stake Championship game to Cincinnati second ward. Down 6 points with a minute to go and down to just seconds Mel drilled a shot from the corner to tie the game and then we won in overtime. Then went on to win the All Church Tournament, what a dream! The only team east of the Wasatch Mountains to ever win the tournament, with the MVP, and the Sportsmanship Award. What a great experience for a new member of the church, and what an honor to play basketball with such a great group of young men. It is an experience as some have said, although nearly 50 years ago it seems in many ways like it was yesterday. Thank you for the privilege and opportunity to put in words my thoughts of a very special time in my life...I look forward to seeing everyone in March!
Our coach after Gary Fish went to BYU was Don Minson, who was a great individual. He told me after we had returned home from the tournament that he had been at church the night of the game, and I believe he and was on his way home. He had his radio on AM and was searching, hoping and praying to find KSL which was broadcasting the game. As he went up over a large hill, which Cincinnati has many, he heard, “Sink is on a fast break” and then lost the signal as he began going down the hill. He immediately stopped, backed up the hill and sat there and listened to the rest of the game. It was a beautiful blessing for this good man who spent many hours coaching the team. Does anyone know if Don is still living?
I also want to thank Merlin Fish for flying Mel, Randy H, and myself back home to Cincinnati on Saturday following the tournament. The three of us were freshmen at the University of Cincinnati and had received special permission to miss mid terms or finals I don’t remember which at the moment. We had to be back in Cincinnati on Monday to take the tests, and Merlin paid for the three of us to fly home. It was the first time Randy and I had flown, and possibly Mel. It was a truly nice gift to the three of us and I thought it was worth mentioning and giving gratitude to Brother Fish.
A side note: as the three of us walked through O’Hare airport as we were walking to our connection, a man walked up to the three of us and said were you young men playing basketball in Salt Lake City last night? We thought we were real celebrities!---------------
We were 16, 17, and 18 years old. Physically fit, all with full heads of hair! We won the preliminaries...our toughest game before we got to Salt Lake City was against our brother ward, Cincinnati Second, in the gym where both of us played all our home games.
We won our other games, beating teams from places like Columbus and Cleveland, Louisville and Detroit, even Kansas City and Chicago. Then we were set, invited to the All-Church Tournament in Salt Lake City!
Other Cincinnati teams had been entered in the All-Church before; in fact, the senior team from Cincinnati Second was also in the 1969 tourney. But none of those of us on the First Ward team had ever gone that far. And we knew heading into Salt Lake that no team from the eastern US had ever won the tournament.
We had heard that some of the teams in the junior All-Church Tournament were better than some high school teams. Word had it that the best players sometimes chose church ball over school ball.
But we planned to give it our best shot. We drove to Salt Lake. We stayed at the luxurious Travelodge Motel, all expenses paid! We ate all our meals at the Harman Cafe across the street from the motel, where the specialty was the Colonel's Kentucky Fried Chicken!
We got to SLC on a Saturday, and went to practice in some ward's gym, seeing how much endurance we'd have in the thin mountain air. On Sunday there was a special devotional service for all the teams--80 in all, in three divisions, junior, senior and college--in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple.
We played five games, one each night from Monday through Friday. Every night after our game, we'd call someone in our home ward on the pay phone at the Harman's. Folks at home got the news about the time that The Tonight Show started, the word being passed on a carefully planned phone tree: "They won!"
Friday night, the Finals were in the Field House on the U of U campus! We were playing where the college team played NCAA ball. The guy who did play-by-play for BYU basketball games called the game for the local broadcast.
At least a couple of ward members flew out at the last minute to be there for the Finals. Our opponent, Westminster Ward, from California, had won their four previous games by a total of just 6 points; we'd seen them play in the Semis and we knew they could play.
We did it! 55 to 52. We won the tournament, and we won the sportsmanship award, too. Our guard Mel Fish won the MVP trophy. We took home every piece of hardware they had to offer!---------------
From Stake President John A. Taylor (from his memoir on his time as stake president):The year 1969 was noteworthy for the Cincinnati Stake in many ways, not least because the Cincinnati 1st Ward Junior Basketball Team won the All-Church Basketball Championship, Junior (Ensign) Division, held in Salt Lake City, March 10-15. Cincinnati 1st fought past Westminster California in the last minutes of the final game to win 55 to 52.
Cincinnati enjoyed the double distinction of winning the junior competition and being the first eastern team in any division to win a championship, Cincinnati 1st also received the sportsmanship award. Moreover, Melvin G. Fish, son of Bishop Merlin K. Fish, was selected as most valuable player in the Tournament. Considering the hundreds of teams in competition from hotbeds of talent across the Wasatch Front, California, etc., this was a stunning victory!
I had at the time, an old Zenith radio that was fairly sensitive, but even so I could just barely receive station KSL in Salt Lake City, which was broadcasting the championship game. It was an exciting game, an exciting event, and I was so frustrated that the broadcast, which I could barely hear anyway—emanating from 1,700 miles away—was fading out at the most critical moments!
Call/text Marshall for 50th Reunion information. Let team members, and anyone connected to the Cincinnati Ward in 1969, know about our get-together.
Riverside Stake Recreation Center
947 West 200 North
Salt Lake City, UT 84116