We are well into work on the upcoming Kalama property, targeted to open in Spring 2018. We’re researching old documents, interviewing locals, scanning historic photos, writing up the anecdotes and stories, and then passing all of it along to the artists so they can begin work on murals and headboards, in anticipation of the hotel’s grand opening on the Columbia next year.
The stuff we’re learning about is just fantastic – from Elvis’s Kalama overnight stay in 1962 to a long-gone hot springs resort deep in the woods to remembrances of WWII troop trains rolling through this tiny town on the way to Joint Base Lewis–McChord, south of Tacoma.
And here’s a really good story. Have you seen the film Hoosiers (1986), about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship? Well, Kalama had its own real-life version – except their boys won the championship twice.
The Kalama, WA, boys’ basketball team (the Chinooks) was phenomenal through the late ‘40s into the early ‘50s. They were the team to beat, with amazing win-loss records from 1948 through 1952.
The school had less than 80 kids total in grades 9–12, yet somehow these boys (who – incredibly – had all played basketball together since they were in 3rd grade) made it to the Washington State Championship (Class B) four years in a row. And they won it twice, in 1950 and 1952!
The guys from the team, now in their 80s, still get a sparkle in their eye when they remember every detail of the big games – from game-changing plays to buzzer-beating shots, they remember it all in vivid detail. They were hometown heroes, lauded across the state and down into Oregon.
Locals and newspapers alike report that entire towns would turn out for the games, packing the tiny high school gyms. You can imagine the colorful energy and loud excitement. One article said “kids were hanging from the rafters,” unable to contain their delirium. The front-page headlines generated by teams from across the region were just great, too:
CHINOOKS WIN STATE CROWN IN TIGHT TILT
CHELAN DELIRIOUS WITH JOY
THRILLER-DILLER TOURNEY ROCKETS ‘CATS TO CROWN
Virgil Simmons was not only their basketball coach, but he was also the football coach, school principal and biology teacher. He worked the kids hard, used a paddle on them when they got out of line or weren’t paying attention and always wore a suit and tie (even during practice).
While not a particularly warm person, Simmons became a mentor for a lot of the boys whose dads were gone or had been drafted into WWII. One player, Jack Wicker, now 83 (#4 in the photo), remembers that when his father died suddenly from illness, he told his teammates that was quitting the basketball team and find a job to help his mom with household expenses. But when Coach Simmons caught wind of Jack’s plan, he helped Mrs. Wicker, who’d never worked outside the home, get a job in local government. He also helped find the family a place to live that they could afford.
Several of the Kalama players from that extraordinary team went on to attend college on basketball scholarships, while others volunteered for military service. Coach Simmons was inducted into the state interscholastic basketball Hall of Fame in 1982 for his tremendous success with the Kalama kids, who many decades later still feel the high of those spectacular seasons.