State boys basketball championships for Kitsap County high schools have become rare since the early 1970s. There’s only been one — Olympic in 1983 — in the last four decades.
East Bremerton in the early 1970s was one of the best teams to ever come out of Kitsap. The Knights were second in 1972 and won back-to-back state titles in 1973-74.
That ’73 East team had everything — quickness, smarts (two players, Clif McKenzie and Dan Hegland, were 4.0 students and the team GPA was over 3.5), one of the all-time greats in local high school history in Rick Walker, and a style of run ‘n gun that rattled opponents and, of course, one of the best coaches in local history, Les Eathorne.
I wanted to get an inside perspective of that 1973 East team from other than Walker, who I am close to, and I choose Kevin Olson, who was the sixth-man and called the “Fireman” for his ability to come off the bench and add some extra zest. Olson played a key role in the state championship game.
For the last 36 years, Olson has worked as physical therapist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, and recently cut his hours back so he could spend more time with his mother who lives in Silverdale and his father-in-law who lives in north Seattle. Olson turned 60 last month and decided it was time to take a step back.
“We had a lot of fun, both on and off the court,” Olson said. “We hung out together all the time. We were all good friends off the court.”
That chemistry was developed by the open gyms Eathorne ran on Sundays. On Wednesdays, during the season, Eathorne ran in practice what he called the “College Game.” Eathorne would pick two captains and they would select their teams and they would play two 20-minute games with a running clock.
“Les would sit and watch and the two managers (Kurt Spitzer and Lynn Matz) would be the referees,” Olson said. “Les was always interested to see who picked who on the teams. Walker was always picked first.
“Those college games were more intense than a lot of the games we played.”
East’s starters were McKenzie and Hegland at guard, Mike Walthall and Rich Arena at forward and the 6-foot-5 Walker in the post. Eathorne liked to rotate his guards in pairs so Mark Eathorne and Ray Hackett would replace McKenzie and Hegland and Dave Fisher, the best jumper on the team, would fill in for Walker.
Walthall was left-handed and could shoot well. Arena, who would go on to play football at UPS, was tough as nails and could shut down people. McKenzie was quick and could score when needed. Walker was the focal point, the cement that held it all together. He could rebound, could score at will with a bank shot off the glass that was almost unstoppable and he was good team player who would pass up a shot to feed an open teammate.
Most games they played that season were over by halftime and Eathorne emptied his bench early in third quarters to avoid running up the score. Despite that, Walker averaged 18.2 points a game for his three-year high school career, scoring 1,332 points.
The closest regular season game the Knights had that year was the last one. They beat South Kitsap, which had a rugged bunch of players led by Ron Ward and the Gehring brothers, Rob and Rick, 60-52.
It was close in the state title game against Timberline of Lacey.
East led by as much as 10 points in the fourth quarter in the title contest when Eathorne made a mistake and went into a four-corner stall (this was before the shot clock) and Timberline woke up and tied the game at 52.
The Knights dribbled and passed the ball around in the last two minutes to set up a final shot. As the clock ticked down to 10 seconds, Eathorne tried to get a time out, but Olson, open long the left side from 19 feet out had other ideas — he put up a shot.
“It was a wide-open shot,” said Olson, 43 years later. “I could make that shot 60 to 70 percent of the time with nobody in my face.”
Not this time.
“Thank God for Arena,” Olson said, laughing.
Timberline’s 6-6 Dan Pratt, who had inside position, went up to collar the rebound as it came off the glass. Arena, soared over Pratt from behind. He grabbed the ball and, despite’s Pratt’s hands in his face, put the ball back up off the glass for the winning basket.
Pandemonium broke out from the East bench and fans as the Knights secured the title they squandered the previous year against Ellensburg.
A long possession of cars followed the team bus from the head of the bay in Gorst all the way back to East after the thrilling victory. It was midnight as hundreds of fans celebrated with coaches and players in the East High gym.
Olson suffered a knee injury in the summer before the 1973-74 season. He missed the first part of the season, came back against Central Kitsap and hurt his knee again. He sat out until the last few games and the postseason. Even then he was playing on a knee that was not 100 percent.
East would be shuttered after the 1977-78 school year and would be melted with West High back to one school. The East legend lives on through an East Knights website and a charity golf tournament every summer that is named after Eathorne, who died in July of 2010.
“Les was a great motivator,” Olson said. “He treated you like young men and not like you were a kid. If you followed the rules you got respect from him. He didn’t have many rules, but you followed them. Kids wanted to play for him and they wanted to run under the light (the spotlight with gym lights turned off) at the start of games.
“He built a tradition from the 1950s until the school closed and as a young guy playing basketball you wanted to be part of the whole thing.”
The pinnacle of that tradition was reached with those early 1970 East teams — especially in 1973 — and that created lasting memories.
Terry Mosher is a former sports writer at the Kitsap Sun who publishes The Sports Paper at sportspaper.org. Reach him at email@example.com.