A men’s team from an era in Port Alberni when basketball was king is being inducted into the Basketball BC Hall of Fame.
The Alberni Athletics team that won the 1955 Senior A National Championship is being inducted in May at a special Basketball BC ceremony in Langley.
“It’s an exciting feeling knowing we were chosen and will be inducted,” said Denny Grisdale, who played on the championship team.
“But it’s also humbling because we’re going to be joining players and teams who were considered great in their time.”
Grisdale said he learned of the news about six weeks ago but stayed mum until all of the surviving members of team were informed.
“Four of the players have passed on now. But the remaining ones and their families I understand will be at the ceremony in Langley,” he said.
Alberni beat the Sault Ste. Marie Gunners in three straight games out of best of five series for the Senior A crown in April of that year in Port Alberni.
The games against the Sault weren’t challenging, Grisdale said. But the lead up to the final was. Alberni beat the Vancouver Cloverleafs first for the B.C. title, then the Edmonton Town Hallers for the Western Canadian title.
Grisdale said the final game against Vancouver stands out the most. Alberni’s Ron Bisset scored with seconds to go to give the Athletics a 58-57 victory in overtime.
The series against Edmonton stands out for another reason. “They used some football players to rough us up but we got through that and won,” Grisdale said.
There was some celebrating to do after the win against the Gunners, Grisdale said. “There was a parade, open convertibles and we had a big dance at the Athletic Hall. It was really something.”
The town had been two cities then, but both Alberni and Port Alberni revelled in the win. “I often think that was one of the first things that contributed to the towns ultimately amalgamating,” he said.
“It’s an experience – a fellowship – that I’ll never forget.”
Alberni wasn’t some hayseed team from a small town that took people by surprise. The Athletics played against some American teams, even playing host to former NBA great Elgin Baylor. Some Alberni players played on the Lower Mainland.
“We were well known. People knew who we were,” Grisdale said.
Alberni had the total package: Joe Samarin’s nimble footwork, Ron Bissett’s deft shooting, Doug Brinham’s jump shots and Al Brown’s magician-like play-making. But key to the team’s win was coach Elmer Speidel.
“He introduced us to the jump shot, fast break and conditioning,” Grisdale said. “And he had simple plays and a system that was easy to understand.”
Speidel was brought to Port Alberni in 1953 from Seattle, where he played both collegiate and semi-pro basketball. Those assets combined with a competitive spirit made Speidel just the coach the Athletics were looking for.
“I was brought here to win, that was my job. We put a winning team on the floor and achieved what we set out to do,” Speidel said.
Speidel brought the Athletics to the Western Canadian final in 1954 but lost to Winnipeg three games straight. “The refs hosed us in that series,” he said. “The boys deserved better than that. They deserved to win.”
Speidel coached from 1953 to 1965 and retired from coaching after that. Grisdale retired from Senior A ball as well in 1964. “I got into teaching and high school basketball. But you get old and you move on in life,” Grisdale said.