Ed Hiemstra didn’t want his team to get rusty.
Hiemstra’s 1959 Kellogg High boys basketball team had just finished the regular season with an 18-1 record. But the Wildcats wouldn’t begin postseason play for two weeks.
So Hiemstra called the Idaho High School Activities Association to ask if his team could play a scrimmage game. The IHSAA approved the game as long as the gym was closed to the public.
The opponent? The Washington State University freshman team, which went 13-2 that year and won the Pacific Coast Conference Northern Division freshman championship.
All the Wildcats knew about the scrimmage is they needed to be at the gym at the appointed time. Imagine the players’ faces when they saw a team take the court that featured a starting lineup of 6-foot-8, 6-7, 6-6, 6-4 and 6-3 players.
It took the Cougar freshmen some time to take the much shorter Wildcats seriously, but they soon discovered a worthy opponent. The teams agreed to play four 10-minute quarters. The game ended in an 88-88 tie. They played a 10-minute overtime, and Kellogg, led by the 48 points of 6-3 guard Rich Porter, prevailed 112-108.
It was Kellogg’s best game of the season, but nobody other than the players and coaches got to see it. Most of WSU’s freshmen would start the next three years and two of the frosh, Charlie Sells and Terry Ball, would make names for themselves at WSU.
Porter, who went on to have a distinguished career at the University of Idaho, became good friends with Sells and Ball while going to school in Moscow.
“Charlie Sells told me that we were the best high school team he had ever seen,” Porter said.
It was the postseason tune-up Kellogg needed.
Fifty years ago this week, Kellogg captured the AAA state championship, the third in a five-year period.
The players and the coaches from the 1959 team (22-1) were honored by the IHSAA with the “Legends of the Game” Award during halftime of the 5A state championship game at the Idaho Center in Nampa earlier this month. The IHSAA established the award in 2001 to help preserve the heritage of boys basketball and to showcase great teams of the past.
Thirteen of the 15 team members along with Hiemstra, faculty representative and scorekeeper Ray Faraca and team manager, Sam Cummings, were able to attend the ceremony. The players who attended were (including where they live today): Porter (Fair Oaks, Calif.), Jeff Wombolt (Post Falls), Chris Milionis (Spokane Valley), Louie Jennings (Kellogg), Gary James (Pinehurst), Dennis Seagraves (Kingston), Ron Jarvey (Spokane), Rodney Kamppi (Salem, Ore.), Ron Shreve (Albany, Ore.), Frank Winiarski (Reno, Nev.), Keith Kilimann (Kirkland, Wash.), Bernard Blondeau (Post Falls) and Don Zimmerman (Seattle). Hiemstra lives in Manhattan, Mont., which is 18 miles northwest of Bozeman, Faraca lives in Kellogg and Cummings in St. Maries.
One of the players, Bill Rember, died in a plane crash in Alaska in the early 1970s, and Eddie Exum, who lives in Denver, couldn’t attend because he was caring for an ill sister. The other team manager, Rich Margarson, who lives in Kellogg, also couldn’t attend.
Porter, Wombolt, James, Jennings and Milionis, the lone junior, were starters. Kamppi, who started the year before, was generally the first reserve off the bench. Playing time was limited after those six.
Wombolt, the second-leading scorer behind Porter, was overwhelmed by what the IHSAA did to make it a special weekend. A dinner was held for the team, motel rooms were provided and seven minutes of the 10-minute intermission were dedicated to honoring them. The players were paraded around the Idaho Center court. A gold medallion was placed around the neck of each team member. A banner commemorating the state title was given to the team to be displayed in the school’s gym. Each player also was given a plaque.
The two-page centerfold of the state program was dedicated to the Wildcats. The special section included three team photos and seven small action photos.
“I told my wife that most of the people who were there to watch the championship game would probably go to the bathroom during the ceremony,” Wombolt said. “I couldn’t believe it. They all stayed around and watched. They gave us a standing ovation. It was a packed crowd, probably about 8,000.”
That would have been about 5,000 more people than was estimated to have crammed into the gym at North Idaho College when Kellogg handled Pocatello 61-46 in the state final on March 28, 1959.
“We showed up at the gym about two hours before the game and they were already turning people away,” Milionis said.
The reunion was special for many reasons. For Wombolt and Milionis, it was the first time they had seen three of the team members since they graduated.
Kamppi and Shreve hadn’t seen each other for 30 years – only to find out they had lived within 10 miles of each other the whole time.
Wombolt can’t get too many words out of his mouth about the special season or his friends without choking up.
“I get emotional talking about the reunion (at Nampa),” Wombolt said. “We never got that sort of attention (in 1959).”
Hiemstra also coached Kellogg to back-to-back state titles in 1954-’55 and 1955-’56. He says the ’59 team was without question the best of the era.
“The first (state title) team was awesome, but the ’59 team was the best I coached,” said Hiemstra, who turned 89 the day after the Legends’ reunion.
Wombolt believes the 1953-’54 team, the first to earn a trophy at state (third), got things rolling for the school.
“I always tell people, that was the stimulus for everything that happened. Their legacy is what stimulated the next few years,” said Wombolt, whose older brothers, Jerry and Jack, played on those early teams.
The town YMCA also deserves some credit, too, Wombolt said.
“Every kid that I knew in Kellogg lived in that gym,” Wombolt said. “It eventually closed down, but the building is still there. It’s next to the Elks (building). It was built by Bunker Hill in 1910.”
Wombolt came across the radio broadcast of the ’59 state title game. So he burned copies of the broadcast on CDs and gave them to his teammates at the reunion.
Kellogg’s one loss was 64-59 to Silver Valley rival Wallace. The Wildcats redeemed themselves in the return game when they handled Wallace 74-49.
Among the Wildcats’ victories were four wins over Coeur d’Alene, a win over Jud Heathcote-coached West Valley, a victory over eventual Montana state champ Missoula and two wins over Rogers of Spokane, which would take fourth at state.
The movie Hoosiers reminds Wombolt of the ’59 team. In fact, Gene Hackman, the actor who played coach Norman Dale, reminds Wombolt of Hiemstra. If a movie were made of the Wildcats’ season, Hackman would be the perfect choice to play Hiemstra, Wombolt said.
Hiemstra, who spent the final 19 years of his teaching career in Heppner, Ore., left Kellogg after the 1963 season. His assistant that year, Don Haynes, replaced him and coached the Wildcats to a state title the following season.
Hiemstra remains in good health these days.
He has stayed in touched with most of his former players over the years, and was overjoyed to be reunited with them earlier this month.
“It was fantastic. There was nothing better,” Hiemstra said. “We were walking off the court (at the Idaho Center) and Louie (Jennings) sort of summed it up best when he said he didn’t want to leave the floor.”
It was the first gathering of the team in 50 years. Wombolt is helping coordinate a class reunion that will take place Sept. 11 through 13 in Kellogg.
Hiemstra didn’t substitute much in ’59. Case in point was the state title game when four of the five starters played the entire game. Kamppi was the lone substitute and he played the final 1:21 after Milionis fouled out.
The coach ran intense practices to make sure his players were in the best condition possible.
“We practiced game conditions every night for 90 minutes,” Hiemstra said.
Porter will always cherish the Legends’ reunion.
“That was a touching ceremony – as touching as I’ve ever been involved in,” said Porter, 67, who continued to play basketball until he turned 60. “As a rule, not many of the guys played in the games, but the guys we had on the bench were very good. It wasn’t like they couldn’t play. It was just Ed’s philosophy.”
To Porter, the reunion was a back-to-the-future experience.
“It was like we had never left,” Porter said. “It was like we were still there, 50 years ago. Everybody noticed it. We had such a great camaraderie back then. It was a special feeling for everybody. It was just like we picked up where we had left off. That season, you only experience a few things like that in your life. It’s an experience to relish for all time.”