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A 50-year reunion of Oregon State's home-grown Final Four team

CORVALLIS -- It was a different era, a different time in society 50 years ago when Oregon State reached the Final Four in Louisville.

I was a 9-year-old boy and, like thousands of kids growing up in Oregon, lived and died with the exploits of that OSU team that surprised a lot of folks by making it to college basketball's Holy Grail.

On Saturday, coaches and players convened for a reunion of that team that put together one of the best units in the school's long athletic history.

Mel Counts, Steve Pauly, Frank Peters and Jim Jarvis, along with coaches Paul Valenti and Jimmy Anderson, were among those who enjoyed a brunch at the new basketball training facility and swapped new and old stories. They were introduced to the Reser Stadium crowd prior to Oregon State's 44-17 victory over Colorado.

Counts was the star, a sweet-shooting 7-foot junior who averaged 21.3 points and 15.6 rebounds, and Terry Baker (who was vacationing in China and missed the reunion) the floor leader for the Oregon State squad that got hot late in the season to write its ticket to Louisville.

It wasn't even known as the "Final Four" then. "The National Championship semifinals" were played on Friday night, with the "National Championship Game" and a third-place game staged the following day. There was much less hoopla surrounding the event compared with today's Saturday/Monday extravaganza that rivals the Super Bowl as our nation's biggest sporting spectacle.

"I never talked to a reporter the whole time," recalls Frank Peters, a 6-3 sophomore small forward on that Oregon State team.

OSU got trounced 80-46 by Cincinnati in the semis, and Loyola of Chicago upset the Bearcats 60-58 in a final that was significant in that the teams started seven African-Americans, the first time a majority of starters in a Final Four game were black. Duke beat the Beavers 85-63 for third place.

Oregon State, which trailed Cincinnati 30-27 at halftime, fluttered down the stretch, in no small part due to the fact that Baker had the flu and went scoreless in the game.

"Terry was very sick, but nobody made anything of it in those days," says Peters, who lives in Portland. "We just played. We had relied so much on Terry. He was the glue and the quarterback who put the team together."

The 1962-63 season was the penultimate one in coach Slats Gill's sensational 36-year run as Oregon State's head coach. Gill, an All-America forward at Oregon State (then Oregon Agricultural College) as a senior in 1923-24, had begun his head-coaching career there in 1928 and won 599 games before he retired after the 1963-64 campaign. Gill, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, died at age 65 of a stroke in 1966 while serving as OSU's athletic director.

Gill's final three teams were among his best. The 1961-62 team, with Counts and 6-9 Jay Carty leading the way, went 24-5 before losing to UCLA in the West Regional finals. The '62-'63 team had a decidedly state-of-Oregon flavor. Counts was from Marshfield High in Coos Bay, Pauly from Beaverton High, Baker from Jefferson High and sophomore Jim Jarvis from Roseburg. Peters was born in Corvallis and lived there until moving to Anaheim, Calif., as a high school freshman. Ten of the 12 squad members had Oregon roots.

The Beavers, who finished the 1962-63 season with a 22-9 record, lost three of their first five games without Baker, the Heisman Trophy winner who didn't join the team until after OSU's 6-0 Liberty Bowl victory over Villanova.

"Terry not being there early allowed other guys to develop and gave us some leadership abilities we might not have had with Terry in there," says Jarvis, who lives in Asotin, Wash. "He was a really good basketball player. A lot of people don't realize how good he was. A lot of it was, he was so dang smart."

After Baker joined the team in late December, "we started to put it all together," Peters says. "But everybody overlooked us. Teams never bothered to scout the fact that we had a 7-foot center who could shoot the ball, and that we were defensively committed."

The Beavers were athletes. Baker played football and basketball and could have been a baseball star had he so chosen. Peters also played baseball -- he enjoyed a long career in the minor leagues -- as did Jarvis and reserve Dave Hayward. Pauly was a national decathlon champion in track and field.

"We liked to joke, 'If you don't play two sports, how can you get a scholarship?' " Peters says.

Gill was a taskmaster, an old-school disciplinarian who minced no words when working with his players.

"Slats was hard to play for," says Pauly, who lives in Portland. "He'd chew you out pretty well. I had to learn to not take it personally. Paul and Jimmy buffered that. But I really enjoyed the years I played basketball here."

With Gill at the helm, "It was 100 percent basketball, with no frills," Peters says. "But Slats got the most of his players' ability. He couldn't have gotten more out of the ability I had. He made you understand the reality of your own skills."

"I didn't really learn how to play basketball until I came to Oregon State," Counts says. "Then I learned how to play the game because of Slats."

Even in the early '60s, Gill still preached shooting the two-hand set shot that was being replaced by a one-hand jump shot.

"It took me a long time before I got into a comfort zone with Slats," says Jarvis, a 6-1 guard who went on to play two seasons in the American Basketball Association. "My sophomore year, I struggled with my shooting. My dad had been a good two-hand set shooter. I could do it, but once I did it, my one-hand shot went to heck. I went 0 for 11 with the two-hand shot against Seattle. That was the end of the experiment."

Jim Kraus, a 6-7 forward, started games early before Baker came on, with Peters playing guard. Jarvis became the starter later in the season as the Beavers gained traction, winning their final four regular-season games before beating Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona State to make it to Louisville.

What made that Oregon State team good?

"Mel Counts, No. 1," Jarvis says with a grin.

"We'd come down, make two passes and throw it in to Mel," Peters says. "And it worked."

But there was more to OSU's success than that.

"Slats built the program over 36 years, and we were the culmination," says Counts, who lives north of Salem on a five-acre farm, raising chickens, pigs, horses and cows. "It was the chemistry and expectations and learning the game. It was the cohesiveness of the team, working together, and getting the job done. We didn't win it all, but we made the Final Four. How many teams can say that?"

Anderson had played under Gill, then coached the freshman team for several years before joining the varsity as a second assistant with Valenti.

"I was freshman coach for most of those guys on (the 1962-63) team," says Anderson, who lives in Corvallis. "It was outstanding group. We had good people running the program and good players on the floor. They were all unselfish, team players. They worked hard every day. They knew they had to. We had a good second team, so the guys pushed each other a lot.

"It was a very tight unit. They don't want to screw up for their teammates. Everybody trusted Slats as the coach, and everybody trusted each other."

Valenti, now at 93 the patriarch of Oregon State athletics, was Gill's successor as head coach, taking the 1965-66 Beavers to the Elite Eight after beating out UCLA for the Pac-8 championship.

The 1962-63 team, Valenti says, featured "a bunch of great people playing, that's all. They put it out there and just did a great job. They were guys who were ready to play most of the time. Mel is one of the best in Oregon State history -- maybe the best center ever. And Terry was just a great athlete. His leadership can't be overstated."

In 1963-64, Baker and Pauly were gone, but Counts was a senior, Peters a junior and Jarvis was coming into his own as a player. Oregon State went 25-3 through the regular season, losing only to California and Oregon and splitting a pair with fourth-ranked Cincinnati. The Beavers, who had beaten Seattle twice, then were matched up with the Chieftains (since changed to Redhawks) in an NCAA Tournament first-round game at Eugene. It would have been the 600th career victory for Gill, who had announced his retirement earlier that season.

It was not to be. Seattle scored a come-from-behind 61-57 win to end Oregon State's season and Gill's coaching career.

"We were way ahead, but Jarvis and I fouled out and we got some bad calls at the end," Peters says. "It's too bad. We were a better team than we were the previous year."

Even today, 50 years after the fact, the camaraderie of the group is evident. There were a lot of laughs and stories shared at Saturday's brunch. Memories of some great times.

"The best four years of my life were here in Corvallis," says Counts, who went on to a 13-year NBA career, winning a pair of titles with the Boston Celtics. "I won't hiccup on that. It's true. It was a really neat time for me."

Two Oregon State teams reached the Final Four -- the 1948-49 team led by Cliff Crandall and the 1962-63 team. The 1954-55 team, which featured 7-3 Swede Halbrook, lost 57-56 to No. 1-ranked San Francisco and Bill Russell in the West Regional finals. Those Dons went on to win the NCAA championship.

The 1980-81 Beavers, with Steve Johnson, Mark Radford, Ray Blume and Lester Conner, were ranked No. 1 and started the season 26-0, but were upset 50-48 by Rolando Blackman and Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Anderson, an assistant coach with the 1962-63 and 1980-81 Beavers, would loved to have seen a matchup between the teams.

"Two different styles, for sure," he says. "They had enough ballhandlers in this group (1962-63) to be able to handle pressure, which was the strength of (the 1980-81 team). It would have been a real close game. It would have been interesting."

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