In 1939, Oregon’s Tall Firs won the first NCAA basketball championship. The Tall Firs weren’t very tall and it wasn’t much of a championship. But it was a beginning.
The Oregon team won the Northern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference, beat California in a playoff in Eugene, won games against Texas and Oklahoma on San Francisco’s Treasure Island for the West title and went to Evanston, Ill., to beat Ohio State 46-33 for the championship.
The final game drew 5,500 spectators at the Northwestern University field house.
Thousands of people waited at train stations across Oregon as the new champs returned home, gawking at their heroes, 6-foot-8 Slim Wintermute, the center, 6-4 forwards Laddie Gale and John Dick, and the guards, both under 6 feet, Wally Johansen and Bobby Anet.
Despite being tall for the time, the Ducks ran the fast break and circles around the competition.
Until 1951, when the field was expanded to 16 teams, the tournament included only eight teams. The early champions were western in flavor: Oregon, Indiana, Wisconsin (which defeated Washington State in the 1941 final), Stanford, Wyoming and Utah.
The NCAA agreed to cover any losses for the first tournament, and even though they were calculated at $2,531, it became one of the great bargains in sports history.