You aren't going to believe this, America, it is being said around Promontory Point, but one of the best little backcourts on campus is hiding out there in the white-on-white mountains of Utah, just waiting to shoot, hustle and quick you to death.
Go on. Go ahead and laugh. But the backcourt belongs to Weber State. Right. Weber—long "e"—State. And Weber State has a center, too, who is a sophomore and already a hot pro prospect. Except he is actually a swimmer, a 6'8" swimmer. His name is Willie Sojourner, and the names of those guards are Sessions Harlan and Justus Thigpen. The combination of names strikes some people as almost too funny to bear. It is really—for those people. While they have been preoccupied with falling down laughing, Weber State has been hard at the task of beating the tails off its opposition. With twin victories over Montana last weekend, Weber finished out the regular season with a 12-game winning streak. The Wildcats are undefeated in all 14 of their league contests in the Big Sky Conference and going into the NCAA regionals are 24-2.
To all but professional football scouts and a few Abominable Snowmen, the Big Sky is a figment of A. B. Guthrie's imagination. In fact, it is a shiny-new, thriving little league of six schools tucked up in the northwest corner of the map. The schools, for various reasons, had been forced out of other mergers and were left begging for an identity. Idaho, for instance, was an abandoned child of the old Pacific Coast Conference, which divided and formed the Pacific Eight partly to eliminate the Moscow school. The Skyline Conference members plotted to break away from Montana because of its "dogsled run" to Missoula. Idaho State and Montana State outgrew the Rocky Mountain Conference, and Gonzaga—well Gonzaga gets a lot of money from Bing Crosby, who went there, and that is enough to know.
Weber State, founded by the Mormon Church in 1889 as Weber Stake Academy, expanded to a junior college in 1922 and to a four-year college just seven years ago. Now under state control, it sits, 10,000 students strong, on a scenic table of Great Salt Lake Valley just outside downtown Ogden. The days are gone when Weber's basketball team traveled in a funeral limousine. Yet recognition remains hard to come by.
Weber State alumni have control over some souls (David O. McKay, class of 1892, is president of the Mormon Church) and a lot of money (David Kennedy, '28, is Secretary of the Treasury), while the former basketball coach, Dick Motta, who won three Big Sky titles, is now coaching the Chicago Bulls of the NBA. Still, nobody knows Weber's name or, worse, is able to pronounce it.
Legend has it that a pioneer scout, name of Weaver, dedicated a nearby river to himself. Later, Jim Bridger, who found the Great Salt Lake but apparently could not find a "v," listed the river as "Weaber." In time, the name stuck and the "a" was dropped. Now, each mortal new to the experience pronounces the name "Webber."
"Everyplace we go, my first job is to tell the P.A. man it's a long 'e'," says Don Spainhower, the radio voice of the Wildcats. Sometimes, the mistake recreates the past. On a marquee in Spokane a few years ago, the message read, TONIGHT WEAVER COLLEGE.
"My assistant, Gene Visscher, called up a high school boy recently and really had trouble," says new Coach Phil Johnson. "The kid thought Visscher was Fisher. He thought Weber was Webber. He couldn't even pronounce Ogden." "That's all right," says Visscher. "Before I came here, I thought the place was in Wisconsin."
Properly, Weber State's best team has emerged in a year that is being celebrated by the local citizenry as the centennial of the joining of the nation by rail. On May 10, 1869 the Central Pacific and Union Pacific came together at Promontory Summit, just 35 miles from Ogden, when Leland Stanford sledgehammered the golden spike. The Weber State team, 100 years later, uses a sledgehammer attack, too, but the Wildcats hit; it is said that Mr. Stanford missed three times before handing over the assignment to an underling.
The big hitter with Weber is Sojourner, a 20-year-old from Philadelphia who started basketball very late in high school and only after his coach succeeded in-whisking him away from poolside and his first sport, competitive swimming. Sojourner won several medals in backstroke and butterfly competition during his high school years and still frequents the water for lifesaving courses and workouts in the off season. He also dabbles in track and field with minimal practice and last spring won the Big Sky high jump at 6'10½". "It was something to do," he says.
On the court Sojourner moves with a gentle lope, slumping and bent over, until aroused. Then he will suddenly move to the basket and either shoot or rebound with a single hand surrounding the ball—just as if it were a coconut being picked off, or put back on, the tree. He averaged 20 points a game during the season and 13 rebounds.
Owing to inexperience, he makes noticeable mistakes, but observers are impressed with his ability to learn and correct deficiencies. In his first game Sojourner was badly undressed by Simmie Hill of West Texas State as Weber looked bad and lost. During the return match at Ogden, Sojourner outplayed Hill and the Wildcats won 92-76. Despite a mid-season bombing at Seattle, in which Sojourner played only 18 minutes because of fouls and 6'7" Larry Bergh not at all because of injury, Weber State has earned respect.
Gus Chatmon, a reckless customer on the boards, gives Sojourner and Bergh ample help underneath. But Thigpen, as shooter, and Harlan, as passer and defender, are mainly responsible for Weber's fine record. Both Michigan natives were recruited out of junior college and, while it took Thigpen all of last year to adjust to team play, Harlan's arrival this season has occasioned a genuine unselfishness throughout the team. Smoothly and with little effort, the mustachioed guards work together with a speed and quickness that is matched by few combinations anywhere.
Lack of notoriety even in its homeland took much of the glimmer from Weber State's season, despite the fact it probably was better than any of its three neighbors from up and down the Wasatch Mountain Range—Utah, Brigham Young or Utah State, the latter boasting a nationally acclaimed hero in Marv Roberts.
As usual, the young upstart cannot buy a game with the other schools. Moreover, the Salt Lake Tribune's recent proposal for an eight-team tournament in the new 15,000-seat Salt Palace, involving the four Utah schools and four visitors, was discouraged by the other three—because of Weber. Weber officials claim area coaches purposely neglect them on votes for All-America teams and discriminate against them when considering candidates for the weekly ratings. "They will never give us a ballot on those polls," says Johnson. "They know what it would mean for us to be ranked."
So Weber State can only go on winning, appearing in the "other receiving votes" column of the wire service polls and enduring as the one school in the history of the Big Sky to reach the NCAA playoffs.
"It's tough when the big boys won't play you," New Mexico State Coach Lou Henson says often, alluding to his own difficulty in obtaining a representative schedule. But bigness is a matter of degree, and the crafty Henson has put himself in a compromising position. Not even his team wants to schedule the dangerous Wildcats of Weaver, uh Weber, State.
SOJOURNER WORKS OUT IN THE POOL