Somewhere in his relatively short life 22-year-old Wade Halbrook of Oregon State College picked up the nickname "Swede." The sobriquet befits him ill—his ancestry is German and Dutch—but still it figures that Wade would be tagged with a misnomer. For Halbrook, a resident of Portland, is an individual doomed always to stick out of the crowd like a Douglas fir in a forest of lesser evergreens.
Part of Swede's trouble is that he is 7 feet 3 inches tall. Naturally he tends to protrude among people. Outside of placing electric light bulbs in ceiling fixtures without benefit of a ladder about the only thing 7 feet 3 inches of body is good for is playing basketball. Dr. Naismith did not have Swede in mind when he invented the game, but basketball as much as anything has saved Swede from becoming a misfit.
CATASTROPHE IN INCHES
As a youngster, the gaunt boy, whose shirt sleeves ended somewhere on his forearms and whose trousers never quite got to his ankles, figured to be the butt for the natural cruelty of children. When he entered Lincoln High School he was so uncomfortable that he considered transferring to an all-boys' school. Then he got his first opportunity to turn jeers into cheers. "He had nothing to tie him to the school at the time," says Coach Jimmy Partlow of Lincoln. "Ultimately basketball gave him the tie."
Partlow recognized both the star material and the behavior problem in the moody young giant. Besides teaching Wade how to play basketball he spent a good deal of his time trying to insulate Halbrook's emotions from the riding he took from the wildly partisan high school crowds. Swede did learn to play basketball, and he was pretty good at it. He led Lincoln to the state championship and established a new set of Oregon schoolboy records. During the finals of the 1952 state championship tournament the spectators, who had been riding Swede throughout the tournament, stood up when he left the game and gave him an ear-shattering ovation that lasted for several minutes. Genuinely touched, Swede remarked, "It gave me a sort of feeling that maybe it was worth it all."
Halbrook had found the academic going at Lincoln fairly rugged. Still he became the most sought-after high school graduate in the Pacific Northwest—75 colleges bid for his services. But Amory T. (Slats) Gill, Oregon State College basketball coach, generally gets his pick of athletes within the state, and he got Swede, although some of the more vigorous basketball factories made better offers to Swede than OSC.
When Swede arrived at the large OSC campus he was slightly appalled at the size of his new venture and even made vague plans to decamp and enlist at another school. He never quite decided, however, and hung on at OSC. He broke in with the OSC varsity in 1953 playing against Indiana and its great center, 6-foot 10-inch Don Schlundt. Swede scored a highly creditable 44 points to Schlundt's 53 in the two-game series, and snared 17 rebounds to his opponent's 19. By the end of the season he had scored 614 points, breaking the old OSC mark by 121. Under Gill he became a genuine star, hooking well with both hands, using an effective jump shot and learning to pace himself. Oregon sportswriters were stimulated to dub Swede with dubious titles like the "Splendid Spire" and "Tower of Lincoln."
But Swede could not shake his personal problems. Recently a faculty member remarked, "None of us could ever recall having seen Wade smile...whether it was on the floor, on the campus, in the coffee shop or downtown. Life seems to be a pretty grim business with him."
A student friend of Halbrook's described walking around the campus with Swede: "Almost everyone he meets says hello, and he doesn't know one in a hundred. This upsets him and makes him feel conspicuous."
Halbrook make a desperate attempt to become just one of the boys. He tasted the heady wine of nighttime roistering and began cutting classes. As a result he flunked a number of credits during the 1954 spring term and to make up for the deficiencies he buckled down in the fall.
IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN
The OSC team, strong with players like Tony Vlastelica, Bill Toole and another 7-footer, Phil Shadoin, played mediocre ball this season. When Halbrook returned from his scholastic labors after the first of the year, the OSC squad reeled off four straight victories and began looking like a strong contender for national honors.
Then Halbrook took to his evening wanderings and classroom absences again. Slats Gill, who has a reputation as a sort of Father Flanagan when it comes to straightening out athletic and academic risks, sat down for a two-and-one-half hour chat with Wade. The Splendid Spire offered no remorse, showed no sign of a desire to reform. Gill suspended him from the team. "It's not fair for the school and it's not fair for the fellows on the squad who are doing the right thinking," he said. Then in an uncoachly burst of bitterness, Gill fired a few rounds at the ethics of college athletic programs. "It isn't fair for a school to hang onto a boy—any boy—and give him nothing in return but a chance to play basketball. If he doesn't get any more out of college than that, he's going to wind up passing out towels in a locker room, and probably not doing too good a job of it. But Lord," Gill ended, reverting to his character as coach, "could we use him!"
Immediately after news of Hal-brook's suspension broke, Buchan's Bakers, a Seattle firm, contacted Swede and offered him an opportunity to play basketball as an employe of theirs. Swede was supposed to receive about $100 a week as a truck driver. Buchan's made plane reservations to Seattle for Swede but he never showed up. Instead he met with Coach Gill, confessed he had a "big shot attitude" and was reinstated.
A TERRIFIC DEMONSTRATION
Gill, however, did not allow Hal-brook to suit up for the next game against the University of Oregon. The following night, in a return game at Corvallis, Gill had Halbrook ready on the bench. When he rose on the sidelines to limber up, the largest crowd in the history of Gill Coliseum (11,500) put on a terrific demonstration. Swede played poorly but OSC won in overtime 56-54.
Gill admirers regard his take-it-slow attitude with the reinstated Halbrook as proof that Slats intends to make Halbrook face his responsibilities, even if it hurts the team's record. Cynics note that Halbrook was rusty after his layoff and furthermore believe Gill never really intended to let his star go. Said one rival coach, "All I can say is, he [Halbrook] went to a helluva lot of classes between Friday night and Saturday night."
Currently Swede is back as the starting center—OSC has just about clinched its division title now—and is attending classes regularly. Whether he will find the job of squeezing himself down to "normality" too much and goof again is anybody's guess and Slats Gill's nightmare. But as one OSC faculty member put it, "Halbrook's bread and butter is making use of the fact he's that tall. That's his problem too. The question simply is whether there is something there in Halbrook. Apparently Slats thinks so—and he's a pretty good judge."
"SPLENDID SPIRE" leaps for a high one. Despite his size, he is quick and limber on court.