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When we were invincible: MEI's '63 basketball team celebrates 50th anniversary of B.C. title
It happened 50 years ago, but Jim Falk remembers it like it was yesterday.
At halftime of the 1963 B.C. high school boys basketball championship game, it was absolute bedlam at UBC's War Memorial Gym. Cheerleaders were cheering, marching bands were blaring. More than 5,700 tickets had been dispensed; the gym's official seating capacity was 3,088.
Fire hazards aside, the game itself was shaping up to be a barn-burner. Falk's Mennonite Educational Institute trailed the Alberni Chieftains by a single point, 28-27, their undefeated record hanging in the balance.
In those days, the locker rooms at War Memorial were crammed close together, with a washroom essentially adjoining the two teams' accommodations.
One of the MEI players – Falk can't remember exactly who – made a trip to the toilet and came back with some news. He'd overheard one of the Alberni players saying something to the effect of, "Even if we lose, at least we've still got second place."
Years later, Falk would acknowledge that the opposing player's statement was probably intended as an exhortation, along the lines of, "We've got nothing to lose."
But in that moment, to this particular group of callous-handed farm boys, it sounded mighty soft. They began to smile.
* * * * *
This MEI team's improbable journey to the B.C. title game had begun in a barn.
Or rather, barns.
The bulk of the boys grew up on farms within walking distance of each other on Huntingdon Road, and there was no better place to nail a makeshift basket to the wall and hoist jump shot after jump shot.
"My uncle's barn was only half a floor, so we had one hoop with free throw lines painted on the floor," recalled Falk, MEI's point guard. "It was a social place for us to go.
"You know what kids were like back then – we all wanted to be white Globetrotters. We all listened to Sweet Georgia Brown."
The core of the '63 squad forged their hoops chemistry in those barns during their elementary and middle school years, and also excelled together in soccer, volleyball, baseball, and track and field as the seasons changed.
"We were cousins or second cousins, a good number of us," said guard Dan Ratzlaff, MEI's defensive whiz.
"I was related, really, to all of the starting five. George Heidebrecht, I wasn't related to, but then later on I married his sister, so we were brothers-in-law."
* * * * *
On Friday nights in Abbotsford, the big gym at Abby Junior was the place to be.
This newspaper – then known as the Abbotsford, Sumas & Matsqui News – reported that 1,200 fans would shoehorn themselves into the gymnasium for big high school games, with another 1,000 folks locked outside.
Abby Senior, which won three Fraser Valley titles in four years (1957, 1959 and 1960), was the established powerhouse squad.
MEI's upstart basketball program, meanwhile, had humble beginnings. Early editions of the team lacked proper uniforms – players sported blue denim shorts and old soccer shirts for jerseys. Their gym, described as a "cement-floored crawlspace" by one media outlet, was so small that opposing teams generally refused to play there. So they also played their home games out of Abby Junior.
"You were always playing in front of a full house, standing room only," said Ratzlaff, reflecting on the classic Abby Senior vs. MEI rivalry games. "They'd have two rows of chairs at the ends (of the gym) . . . and the bleachers, the stage, everywhere was full. It was very electrifying to play in that kind of a setting."
"It was an era of entertainment that the community had never experienced before," Falk said. "There was nothing else, really – there was a theatre in Sumas and a bowling alley in Abbotsford, and basketball games at Abby Junior."
* * * * *
Many of the MEI players were first-generation Canadians – their parents grew up in Mennonite settlements in Eastern Europe, but were forced to flee in the face of communist persecution.
Basketball's exalted status in their new land was a somewhat thorny issue for some in the older generation.
"Many of our parents had moved here to escape the difficult conditions brought on by communism," said Ed Suderman, a star forward on the '63 squad whose parents came from Gnadenheim, a Mennonite village in Siberia. "It was kind of like, 'What's this thing, basketball?'
"It seemed like a bit of a luxury or maybe a bit frivolous to some."
But gradually, the sport became an avenue for the Mennonites – by way of attending games, cheering their teams on, even yelling at the refs on occasion – to connect with the larger community.
"It was a coming-out party for the Mennonites, from a very reserved, quiet people in the land to someone who said, 'Look, life is here to take a hold of, let's become part of the Abbotsford community,'" Falk said.
"We all wanted to be accepted."
* * * * *
In the fall of '62, a young coach named Jake Braun arrived at MEI. A Chilliwack native, he'd taught and coached in Kansas, Oregon and California before returning home to the Fraser Valley.
Befitting the pacifist Mennonite tradition, the cool-as-a-cucumber Braun never raised his voice, though he wasn't above shooting a glare at a player who'd made a careless error.
"He was his own man – if six words sufficed, he wouldn't use seven," Suderman recalled with a chuckle. "He spoke in a very straightforward way, a little bit on the quiet side, very much to the point. That's the way it went."
MEI's rise to basketball prominence had begun prior to Braun's arrival – they finished third in B.C. in 1961 with Suderman's older brother John at the helm, and were fourth in '62 under Ed Janzen.
But Braun refined MEI's offensive system into what became known as the "shuffle" offence, wherein players had to be well-versed in playing all five positions. Point guard Falk might end up posting up under the basket, or Suderman – the tallest player on the team at 6'2" – might catch the ball on the perimeter and beat bigger, slower opponents off the dribble.
The result was a remarkable brand of basketball – free-flowing, unselfish, high-scoring.
"We didn't have quarrels about who was passing the ball or who wasn't, because it actually just happened," Suderman said. "It was really pure teamwork."
* * * * *
MEI won its first 22 games of the '63 season, piquing the curiosity of the Vancouver media.
"The term Mennonite, to most people then, meant black bumpers and long beards and ladies with long dresses," Falk explained.
"Little did they realize that was a certain group of Mennonites in Pennsylvania, in the middle of the United States, and over here that never was the case."
That wasn't about to get in the way of a good story, though. Gallons of ink were devoted to this team of hayseeds from Clearbrook who learned to play basketball in barns, sang in the concert choir and spent their evenings collecting eggs from the chicken coop.
"To me, never in the history of B.C. high school basketball, or since, has there been that kind of media frenzy," Falk said. "They'd go down to the grocery store in the centre of Abbotsford and interview the meat cutter – 'How about this team? What are they all about?'"
* * * * *
MEI was favoured heading into the '63 B.C. championship, and they lived up to that billing in the early going, crushing Creston (99-28) and Nanaimo (78-29) in their first two games.
By the end of their third game – a 62-50 semifinal triumph over Queen Elizabeth of Surrey – MEI had already broken the tourney scoring record with 239 total points, one better than Burnaby South's old mark, set back in 1953. (Teams only played eight-minute quarters in those days, and there was no three-point line or shot clock.)
The win over Queen Elizabeth had come at a cost, though. In the first half, QE star Jack "Big Foot" Hik's size 13 shoe came down on Suderman, and MEI's top scorer wrenched his ankle. He managed to hobble his way through the rest of the contest, but his ankle swelled up post-game. He was at Vancouver General Hospital receiving treatment into the wee hours of the morning.
"At 2 a.m., it appeared that I wouldn't be playing (in the final)," he recalled.
Instead of returning to the YMCA where his teammates were staying, Suderman went to his sister's house – she worked as a nurse in Vancouver – and spent the night and the next day with his ankle elevated and wrapped in ice packs.
He showed up at War Memorial the following evening determined to play. A UBC trainer taped up his ankle so comprehensively, it bordered on mummification.
* * * * *
MEI came out like gangbusters, opening an early 15-7 lead, but the Chieftains rallied to lead by one at the end of the second quarter.
After overhearing Alberni's "second place is OK" musings at halftime, MEI came out with renewed conviction, but they were only able to grind out a 36-35 advantage heading into the fourth.
But suddenly, the floodgates opened. MEI's beautiful offence began to hum, jump shots began to fall, and they torched Alberni 22-5 in the final frame. The title was theirs – final score, 58-40.
Heidebrecht led MEI with 21 points, Suderman managed 18 on his gimpy ankle, and Howard Loewen chipped in with 12.
The Vancouver Sun's headline stuck with the established narrative: "Mennonites Reap Rich Hoop Crop."
* * * * *
Four members of the '63 title team – Falk, Heidebrecht, Ratzlaff, Peter Hooge – still live in Abbotsford, and most every Saturday, they get together at the White Spot on North Parallel Road for breakfast.
They talk about their hardwood exploits five decades ago, sure. But that's not all they talk about.
"You have to move on," Falk asserted. "I think it's sometimes dangerous to get stuck in one year and not move forward.
"But I don't think we are . . . I think it's been a springboard."
Indeed, five decades later, it's clear that this group approached life with the same goal-oriented zest with which they competed on the court.
Suderman has run a successful law practice in downtown Vancouver for the past 42 years. Loewen is dean of the school of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Falk served as a teacher, counsellor and basketball coach in the Chilliwack school district. Vern Giesbrecht, a teacher, is a gifted writer who did some work for newspapers. Heidebrecht was with B.C. Hydro for many years. Ratzlaff was a local architect and property developer.
But even as professional responsibilities mounted, and wives, kids and grandkids came on the scene, the bond between these teammates has endured.
The 50th anniversary has provided an excuse for a pair of more formal reunions. In March, the squad came together for a Basketball BC dinner during the provincial AAA high school tourney.
Earlier this month, they were the guests of honour at an MEI luncheon and were part of the school's athletic awards banquet in the evening. In attendance were Suderman, Falk, Ratzlaff, Hooge, Giesbrecht, Loewen, Dennis Neumann and Harold Derksen. Heidebrecht, Wes Giesbrecht and Don Wallace were unable to attend, while Ernie Brown, Albert Pauls and coach Braun are deceased.
That only four other local teams have followed in their footsteps as B.C. AAA boys champs – Braun's 1970 MEI squad, the 1983 Abbotsford Senior Panthers, and the 2008 and 2010 Yale Lions – underlines how difficult their accomplishment was.
But more than that, this was a group of men who knew each other as elementary schoolers, and whose collective invincibility in '63 captured the imagination of a community.
"A lot of us were friends long before we won the championship, and friendships like that never cease," Falk summarized. "You might not see someone for five or 10 years, and then you see them, and it seems like you just saw them the day before.
"You're friends for a lifetime."
Editor's note: To view newspaper clippings of MEI's 1963 basketball exploits, visit edsuderman.com
Eight members of MEI’s 1963 basketball title team – Ed Suderman, Peter Hooge, Howard Loewen, Dennis Neumann, Vern Giesbrecht, Dan Ratzlaff, Harold Derksen and Jim Falk (from left) – attended a reunion event at the school several weeks ago. (submitted photo)