John Wallingford — Jan 28th, 1997
By John Wallingford
Les Eathorne coached the first game of his storied East Bremerton years on December 4, 1956.
The top-ranked team in college basketball then, as now, represented the University of Kansas.
Little else was the same.
The Jayhawks were led by a 7-foot sophomore named Wilt Chamberlain. The press dubbed him “the Stilt,”but he preferred to be called “the Dipper.”
Chamberlain proved he was a prodigy by any name when he scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds in his varsity debut against Northwestern Dec. 3.
Abroad, the Suez Canal crisis was easing in Egypt, and Soviet tanks and troops maintained an uneasy grip on the streets of Budapest, Hungary.
The scene at home wasn’t nearly so contentious.
In Bremerton, you could buy a two-bedroom waterfront bungalow with full basement and garage on Marine Drive for $9,500 and a 10-pound bag of potatoes for 37 cents.
“Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie and Harriet” dominated prime time television; “Amos and Andy” and “The $64,000 Question” were heard by legions of radio listeners.
Marilyn Monroe starred in “Bus Stop” at Port Orchard’s D & R Theater, where matinees showed for 50 cents.
It was, as Eathorne, the 73-year-old Olympic High boys basketball coach, says, “a different time.”
After seven years at Camas High, the former Bremerton star and Washington Husky grad came home to become head coach at brand new East Bremerton High School. He was 32 years old.
Reserve guard Sam Goudreau hit a long shot and added a pair of free throws to lift the Knights to a 56-53 win at Montesano Dec. 4. It was the first of more than 300 wins Eathorne would earn as the only coach in the 22-year life of East High.
That team was led by junior Lyle Bakken, a 6-foot-1 tornado with arms and legs.
“He was one of the fastest kids you’ve ever seen, a physical monster, “Eathorne said of Bakken, who played three years at Washington.
The 1956-57 Knights went 12-8, giving Eathorne his first winning season as a head coach after compiling a 52-90 record at Camas (“By the time you could spell ‘Papermakers,’ we were down by 10 points,” Eathorne says). The next year they were 25-3, and Eathorne believes that team was blessed with the most talent of all his squads.
Bakken’s mercurial play gave inadvertent birth to the wild, run-and-gun style of play that became the characteristic feature of Eathorne teams.
“We’d get a basket and Bakken would start down the floor and he would whirl around and quite often he’d intercept the inbounds pass and put it in the basket,” Eathorne said. “Well, the other kids wanted to score, so they would hang around the basket, and all the sudden we’re putting on full court pressure without the coach saying anything about it.”
The Knights’ frenetic style of basketball was the antithesis of the methodical passing game coach Ken Wills had been teaching at Bremerton since the mid-1930s.
Ruddy eyebrows arch over animated blue eyes and wire-rim glasses. His smile turns up a little at the right corner.
“”He (Wills)said ‘I spend more time on defense in one practice than you do in two weeks,’ ” Eathorne said. “The game was wild, and you never knew what was going to happen. The fans loved it. You’re the AD, and you’ve gotta make money, you need to buy shoulder pads and basketballs. You tell the basketball coach to forget what he was taught. They had 200 people at West games, and we were filling our place.”
In a three-year period from 1972-74, East was synonymous with basketball excellence.
“Just playing East creates a lot of pressure,” said Brother Pete Patitucci, whose O’Dea team fell to the Knights 84-70 in the 1974 district tournament. “There’s magic in that name.”
The Knights fell to Ellensburg in the ’72 AA championships game, then went 51-2 in the following two seasons and won a pair of state titles.
Led by forward Richard Arena, center Rick Walker and guard Clif McKenzie, East won 24 straight games, the last a 54-52 win over Timberline in the 1973 AA title game at the University of Puget Sound Field House.
When Arena, the Knights’ 6-3 senior captain, outjumped a taller opponent, ripped a rebound from his grasp and banked a follow shot through the hoop with two seconds to play, the Knights celebrated the city’s first hoop title since 1941. Eathorne was a junior when Bremerton High’s Wildcats edged John 30-29 to win Ken Wills’ only state crown.
Arena’s basket provided a dramatic conclusion to a 26-1 season. He had 23 points and eight boards in East’s semifinal defeat of Juanita and was named tourney Most Valuable Player. Walker and McKenzie joined him on the all-tournament team.
After the game Eathorne admitted that his hands had been trembling and his nerves failing.
“I have always believed in your coaching career you might have one good shot at a state championship and if you blow that, you might not get another one,”he said. “Ken Wills one won at Bremerton. He had other chances, but he never won another one. We won two, and we should have won three.”
Arena said the lessons learned at East transcended the basketball court.
“The biggest thing he taught us how to work toward the goal and then to be committed to that goal,” said Arena, now an assistant principal at Olympic High. “In doing that he taught us how to be successful.”
Arena learned even the best players on the team weren’t above the rules when he got into a scuffle at practice with starting forward Mike Walthall.
“He sat the whole team down except us, and had us run lines up and down the court until we practically dropped,” Arena said. “I think there was a sense of fear. You didn’t want to to something that would jeopardize your chances of playing.
“He had definitely built a tradition. As young kids growing up we had definitely set our eyes on being in that program.”
The next year, with starters Arena, McKenzie, Walthall and Dan Hegland graduated, Walker had one of the most dominant seasons in Kitsap history. He entered the state tourney averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds a game.
Walker scored 29 and pulled down 21 rebounds in East’s 79-73 semifinal win over Cleveland. The final was anticlimactic this time, as the Knights rolled past Foster 77-52 at UPS. Walker, who averaged 23 points and 17 rebounds in the four-game state tourney, won the MVP award. It was presented to him by Arena, then a freshman at UPS.
“He took it humbly, he did not take the credit,” Walker said of his former coach. “Sometimes he’d take credit for coaching, especially if we lost some games. He gave the credit to the players. but we all know better than that.”
Walker remembers broken clipboards, officials hit with torrents of abuse and Eathorne’s superstitious side.
When Eathorne was a kid he walked from home to games on one side of the street. If a car was within half a block when he crossed, he believed he was in for a poor game. He still pulls his team off the floor prior to contests with exactly 3:37 left on the pregame clock.
Walker was in the same class as Eathorne’s son Mark and grew up in the same neighborhood. Basketball was the primary activity from elementary school forward.
“It centered around the gym, that was the place to be,” said Walker, who got his start in coaching assisting Eathorne at Bremerton. “We couldn’t wait to get together and we had a lot of fun. Les was the one that made it possible.”
The open door policy at school gyms, which Walker perpetuates on Sunday afternoons at King’s West, where he’s been head boys coach for five years, was initiated by Wills.
“He opened the gym at all hours of the day. It was always open, you could go up there and play any time,” Eathorne said. “He would say ‘you know I open the gym for you, and take care of you when you’re sick, so all you gotta do is ref for a couple of years or coach.”
A fervent believer in community service, Eathorne prods his players to continue the tradition. His success created the occasional uncomfortable moment at East.
“It got to the point that half of the refs were former East kids, so everybody would say ‘no wonder Eathorne wins,'” he said. “The kids spent so much time trying to be fair that I thought I got screwed.”
EATHORNE BY THE YEARS
Unofficial year-by-year coaching record of Les Eathorne, who took over the Olympic High boys’ program last year after retiring from Bremerton High following the 1987-88 season.
Overall record 497-379.