When George Smilanich celebrates his 90th birthday in June, the day will be filled with memories. There will be childhood stories of growing up on the Iron Range during the Depression, thoughts of friendships forged and friends lost during World War II and memories of a lengthy career as a teacher and coach.
And if anybody happens to mention the Minnesota state high school basketball tournaments of 70 years ago, George will be happy to chat about that, too.
“I remember playing in the Minneapolis Auditorium in ’41 and we opened up the fieldhouse here in 1942,” George told me Thursday. “This is what they call Williams Arena now.”
I sat with George and one of his closest friends, Chisholm basketball coach Bob McDonald, in the tournament headquarters at Williams Arena (Bob's on the left in this photo). In 1941 and 1942, George was a starting guard for Buhl teams that won state titles.
“I played guard, one of those standing guards,” he said with a smile. “The other guys scored more points in one game than I did all year. “
The 1942 tournament was the 30th state tournament, and this year’s version is the 100th. Between 1941 and 2012, George (whose nickname is “Pecky”) has missed only three state tournaments. Those were the years he spent in Europe during World War II.
Less than a year after graduating from high school in Buhl in 1942, Smilanich was driving tanks in North Africa. He served under General George Patton in the Army’s 2nd Armored Division, he was on Omaha Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Bronze Star. After the war, he served in an honor guard at the Potsdam Conference.
Returning home, he went to St. Cloud State and played basketball for one year, helping the team finish second in the NAIA national tournament. Then came his marriage to Mary Jane in 1946, three children and a career as an educator. George coached first in Erie, Illinois, for four years, was hired in Buhl in 1954 and moved to Hibbing High School in 1967. He retired in 1984.
“We go a long ways back,” said McDonald, a 1951 Chisholm graduate. “He was at Buhl when I first started at Chisholm (in 1961 after coaching in McGregor and Barnum). Ever since I came back we’ve been close. We’ve been friends forever. It’s been a long haul, but he’s always been around. He’s my guru and advisor.”
Smilanich never coached a team in the state tournament. “I wasn’t as good as Bob,” he said. “Chisholm gave us the most problems in basketball.”
“We had great rivalries,” said McDonald, whose has been coaching since 1956 and is the winningest coach in Minnesota basketball history. “Hibbing, Chisholm, Buhl; typical Range stuff.”
And wonderful memories.
THE BEST DEFENSE …
When the pairings for the Class 1A state basketball tournament were announced, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa coach Dave Montbriand knew what to expect from the unbeaten Jaguars’ quarterfinal opponent, Lakeview Christian Academy from Duluth.
Montbriand had seen Lakeview Christian play one game in person this season. It was on Feb. 25, when Lakeview’s Anders Broman scored 71 points in a 114-110 loss at Melrose.
Broman, a 6-2 junior, averaged 44 points per game this season for the Lions, who led the state with a scoring average of 93 points.
“I saw Anders score 71 and I was impressed,” Montbriand said. “I know if he’s got a little daylight he can do some fantastic things.”
The Jaguars defense kept Broman in the dark during most of Thursday’s game at Williams Arena and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa won 85-76. Broman made five of 19 field-goal attempts and scored 18 points.
“We switched defenses on him,” Montbriand said. “Whatever defense we were in, we had an extra guy or two keeping an eye on him.”
Southwest Minnesota Christian was in control of its 1A game against Fosston on Thursday, holding the lead and the ball with about 15 seconds to play. Fosston coach Ben Hemberger was trying to get his players to commit a foul, so the game would be stopped and he could get some of his seniors into a state tournament game.
The Fosston players, however, couldn’t hear their coach over the din of the crowd. But Southwest Minnesota Christian coach Jamie Pap saw what was happening and called a time out so the Fosston reserves could get in the game. Well done.
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BAND
A unique postgame celebration took place Wednesday evening at Target Center.
While the Perham Yellowjackets – who had just defeated Worthington in Class 2A – were getting their things together in the locker room, Perham activities director Fred Sailer stuck his head in the room and hollered, “Hey! Everybody out in the hallway! Let’s hear it for the band!”
The band was streaming single-file through the corridor, carrying and rolling their instruments and equipment to the bus. And the sight was spectacular: Players and coaches high-fiving the band members and band directors as they filed past.
SING IT LOUD, SING IT PROUD
Before the Perham team left town for the state tournament, they made several stops. Their itinerary included elementary schools and a local nursing home. One of the highlights of the nursing home visit was a duet by senior Mark Schumacher and Dan Cavanagh; they sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“We’re in choir, and our athletic director asked us to sing, because we did it last year,” Schumacher said. “Me and Dan were flipping through this church songbook and we were like, ‘Hey! We both know this song!” The old-timers love it and we love making the community happy.
“Community is one of the biggest things we’ve stressed over the years. Last year we had twenty-five-hundred people coming down here, and that’s almost the whole population. We love to entertain them and keep them on our side.”
--Best National Anthem: The “Belgrade Acoustics.” Flawless.
--Best Pep Band Teamwork: The Osseo band playing “Hey Baby” and the Hopkins band members singing along.
--Best Pep Band Performance of a Lady Gaga Song: The Browerville kids performing “Edge of Glory.”
--Mascot of the Day: The Browerville Tiger.
--Delivery of the Day: I was sitting courtside at Williams Arena when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a security guard. He said, “Are you John?” He handed me a Diet Coke, pointed and said, “It’s from that guy down there.” Security kept a member of the Mountain Lake/Butterfield-Odin faithful away from media row, but his sugar-free gift made it to me.
--Diet Coke Count: 6 for the day, 11 for the tournament, 77 for the winter tournaments.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 439
*Miles John has driven: 6,927
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