Les Eathorne grew up in Bremerton, played basketball for legendary coach Ken Wills and was a junior on the 1941 team that won the state championship. He played basketball at the University of Washington and began a 41-year-career as a head basketball coach at Camas High School in 1950. In 1956, Eathorne returned home to coach at East Bremerton High School, which opened for the first time that year. He coached East to back-to-back state championships in 1973-74 and when East and West Bremerton merged back to Bremerton High School in 1978 he coached there until 1988 when he retired. He later served as junior varsity coach for head coach Jim Harney at North Kitsap and then for two years was the head coach at Olympic High School. Eathorne also was athletic director at East High and was named the National AD of the year, an honor he was most proud of. The Bremerton School District named the Bremerton High School Gymnasium after him. He’s in the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame for Basketball and also is in the Kitsap Sports Hall of Fame. Eathorne died on this day (July 5) three years ago at the age of 86 from the affects of COPD and congested heart failure. This three-part series with Eathorne was first published in the Sports Paper in August, September and October of 2006, and most of it has not been edited so it stands as if he was still alive. This is Part I as we look back at the life of one of the great coaches in state history. Part’s II and III will follow.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF EATHORNE : A Conversation with Les, Part I
By Terry Mosher
Editor, Sports Paper
Les Eathorne is pragmatic. You did what you did, you tried your best and the rest is up to somebody else to judge. And maybe that is the way it should be for all of us. Do you best and when it’s time to move on, move on. Don’t look back. Just saunter down the road until you fade from sight.
Eathorne, now 82, gets around. Maybe not as well as he did just a few years ago. But he’s not ready to fade from sight. He’s still up at his and Pat’s house in east Bremerton, opening the door frequently for former players and other friends who stop by to pay their respect to the man who is in several Hall of Fames and is woven deep into the sports fabric of Kitsap County history as only a few others are.
Only two other high school basketball coaches in this state coached longer than Eathorne ‑ Mercer Island’s Ed Pepple did it for 49 years and 952 victories, Centralia’s Ron Brown for 52 years and 698 wins. Eathorne did t for 41 seasons.
Eathorne accumulated 502 victories in those years, coaching at Camas, East Bremerton, Bremerton and Olympic (he came out of retirement for one last splash at this school), and that total stands ninth all-time in the state.
Not too long ago, Eathorne had a serious health challenge, going through heart by-pass surgery, which threw him for a big-time loop when infection set in. H also has congestive heart failure ant that maybe slows him down a bit physically, but Eathorne’s mind is still as sharp as when he was matching wits with long-time rival Jim Harney at North Kitsap or questioning a call by referees Jim Rye or Lloyd Pugh, or anybody else in a striped shirt for that matter.
And when stepson Casey Lindberg, boy’s basketball coach at Bremerton, wants to tap into the vast reservoir of basketball knowledge Eathorne has stored away, the knob is quickly turned and knowledge flows like the Amazon, situation by situation, story by story.
It’s a shame that much history often gets lost because care isn’t given to the men or women who have it. So it is with Eathorne, whose history goes back to pre-1941 when as a junior he played on the Ken Wills-coached Bremerton team that won the only state basketball team that was then held.
The next year, Eathorne’s senior season, the Bremerton Wildcats would lose the title game to Hoquiam on a bizarre play that would have been lost in the dust bins of history if not for one of the finest basketball minds this area has known.
What follows is a conversation with Les Eathorne:
TSP: When you were a kid, did you play other sports beside basketball?
LE: I played touch football in the parking lot at Lincoln Junior High. I had a good coach in junior high. Jess Walgren, father of Gordon Walgren. He just let me play. I played baseball. Second base. Then I got hit in the head with a fastball. I just lay there for a while. They just pat you on the butt and send you down to first base. Next time I got up to bat I wanted my mother. I didn’t want the ball to come at me again. Then I tried football. But I was too small. I was probably 100 pounds in the ninth grade. Funny thing happened. Ken Wills watched me play basketball in junior high and in open gyms at the high school. Back then you could graduate from eighth-grade to ninth-grade in mid-January. He talked my mother into holding me back. I had passed the courses. I didn’t flunk. I was a player, but I needed to grow and mature. So they held me back. And they were right. I was class president of 8A (the 8As moved up to ninth-grade in mid-January) and then class president of 8B. Because this was before Christ, you could graduate in January and become a freshman in high school. During summers, I worked in Walla Walla on my uncle’s ranch. My cousins are in the Walla Walla Hall of Fame. First there was Bob Klicker, and Dave Klicker. Dave Klicker was a hurdler for Whitman (College). He almost went to the Olympic Games. Del Klicker played basketball for Whitman. Bob Klicker played football and baseball. They were my mother’s brothers. They were farmers up on Mill Creek in Walla Walla. That is where I worked every summer, for about 25 cents an hour. It was good money. I could come home and buy my basketball shoes, cords and shirts and look just like everybody else. One time I worked all summer just so I could make 25 dollars and by a Red Roll Fast (bike) with balloon tires. Man, that was a Cadillac.
TSP: What was Bremerton like back then (1930 and 40s)?
LE: Bremerton was a great place to live, because everybody knew you. If you got in trouble downtown, which I never did, Art Morken (then a Bremerton police officer, later Kitsap County Sheriff) knew everybody and he’d report you back to your parents and they would take care of you. Morken started the “Schoolboy Patrol.” That was the thing to do, to be in the Schoolboy Patrol. You could get out of school early. It was an honorary thing. He caught me being a smart alex, sitting on the cross arms at 11th and Park (Avenue) directing traffic with my flag. He looked up at me as he drove by on his motorcycle, waved to me and said, “Hi, Les.” On Wednesdays maybe 100 of us kids would get free passes to go to the movies at the Rialto. So the next Wednesday, just before we left for the Rialto, he (Morken) says I’m not going. He kept me out of the movies because he didn’t like me sitting up on the cross arms. The School Boy Patrol is why Art Morken could never be defeated (in an election). All the (former) School Boy Patrol boys voted for him. Morken and Whitey Domstad (a former boxer, fight referee and mayor of Bremerton in the 1960s) lifted weights together and were lifeguards at Lion’s Club Beach on the far side of Kitsap Lake. Those guys were in great shape.
TSP: Who were the local sports stars when you were a kid?
LE: The first one that I ever saw who could play was Hal Lee. I saw him all the time at the University of Washington. Hal Lee could play basketball. Bill (Battleship) Morris was probably as good a defensive player there was. He made All-American. He could play the game. He wasn’t big, maybe 6-foot or 6-1. Phil Mahan played basketball at Washington State. But Morris was tough. I was watching one game (Washington-Washington State) and Morris and Chuck Gilmore, who later coached at Lincoln of Tacoma, got into it with the two Aiken brothers, who were former Cougars. One Aiken played for the Washington Redskins. As the players were going out, the older Aiken stood up behind the bench, waving his arms. As Gilmore walked past the bench he shot out his arm and hit this guy right in the jaw and knocked him colder than a clam. Everybody thought Morris had done it. So every time Washington went to play at Washington State, Morris had to have police protection. I can remember only two players ever needing police protection, and both came from Bremerton. Morris at Washington State and Louie Soriano at Oregon. Louie was such a competitor. If you played with him, he was the greatest. He got the ball to you where you could shoot it, he could shoot, he played defense. If you played with him, you knew how good he was. But if you played against him …. well. Everybody was after Soriano. He was built like a round guy, but he was quicker than skates, and could play. I don’t know whom he got into a row with, but he needed police protection when he played at Oregon. He was a target when he went away. And, boy, he could play basketball like you couldn’t believe. He was a winner. He went out to play the game to win. He didn’t go out there to mess around and impress the girls in the first row. He went out to play ball, and he was tough.
TSP: Was Bremerton much of a state power back then in sports?
LE: When I was a sophomore (1939-40) we went to state (in basketball) for the first time in 25 years or maybe even longer than. My junior year we won it and my senior year we came in second. From my sophomore year on we developed a cadre of about 30 players who could have played on any other team in the league. But they weren’t all good enough to play for Bremerton. One time we played three varsity games, one at Bainbridge, and another in Tacoma and another somewhere else, and won all three. When I got to the high school, Ken Wills was in his second year as coach. He was a beautiful runner. My God, he never even had a basketball scholarship at Washington State. He went there on a track scholarship (a miler) and just walked on to the basketball team and made it. He was quite a person. Ask (Darwin) Gilchrist or anybody else, he changed your life. First of all, he didn’t take anything from anybody. If you wanted to play basketball, you had to follow his rules. If you didn’t play the way he wanted you to play, you played at the YMCA or the city league. He had complete control over the basketball program at Bremerton High School. He was the one you went to if you wanted to play. It was very difficult to argue with somebody who could beat you in all phases of the game. He could shoot the long shot. He could beat you one-basket or he could beat you to 10 baskets. You run sprints down the floor, he could beat you. Who would argue with that? We just knew he was better than we were so you listened to him.
TSP: Was there a lot of sandlot ball going on when you were a kid?
LE: I don’t know the exact date they built it. The WPA did it. But pretty soon they got Roosevelt Field done (it was demolished on August 8, 1983 to make way for an Olympic College parking lot) and I could watch guys like Babe Kelly and (Vaughn) Stoffel play some college ball. The Bremerton Destroyers (a football team) played on the field. They’d turn on the lights and we kids would play tackle football on the sidelines. I used to climb the fence to get into games. They built Roosevelt Field in the early 1930s and I could not believe how big it was. It must have been 450 or 460 feet to centerfield, and right field was worse than. It almost went to the Sons of Norway before there was a fence. But basketball was my game. I just had a natural ability for the game. My mother said she was a natural, and I believe it. She could beat me at one-basket until I was about 14. My father didn’t play, but she roughed me up. She didn’t think I was tough. My mother’s maiden name was Kittie Klicker. My grandparents opened a fish market down on the wharf, which was quite successful. Klicker’s Fish Market and Bottling Company. My grandma Klicker had come from Kentucky, or some place. She would take bottles of pop by rowboat to Silverdale and Port Orchard. My father was Williams Leslie Eathorne. Everybody called him Red. He was a machinist in the Navy Yard. He got hurt badly when I was about five. A wooden wedge fell on him. Hit him in the head. They didn’t do things like they do now. He just lay there for a while. Finally, he got up. They asked him to go home. But he said no, he was going to work. Four or five days later he came home. Said he wasn’t feeling good. Well, I was the only one home. He started bleeding from the nose, eyes and ears. So I just went to the phone. I didn’t know much. I called this number, like 116. I didn’t see him again for almost a year. He had brain damage. It dealt with his ability to think and do his job as a machinist. He lived until he was about 55 or 56. Just didn’t have much luck in his life. My mother went up the street to see my sister. Dad was sitting on the porch. He died in my arms. Thing was, I was supposed to give him a shot. I was working so hard to give him the shot. First one, I didn’t get it right. I had to give him another. Shots were for his heart problem. I must have been around 20. My father tried to go back to work once or twice during the Eisenhower War (World War II). They needed people to do his job, but he just couldn’t stay with it. My mother had a half-brother, Marion Garland. He was a lawyer down in the Dietz Building for years. Very good lawyer. He fought the government and got a pension for my dad. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten anything. I think we got $57.20 every two weeks.
PART TWO: NEXT MONTH WE’LL PICK UP WITH EATHORNE TALKING ABOUT HIS START IN BASKETBALL AND WHAT IT HAS MEANT TO HIM.