In the 100-plus year history of Missouri State athletics, the story that has transcended the decades and drawn more acclaim than anything else has been the accomplishments of two basketball teams more than half a century ago.
The 1951-52 Bears of Coach Bob Vanatta captured the imagination of Springfield and southwest Missouri when they journeyed to storied Municipal Auditorium in nearby Kansas City and won five games in six days to claim the school’s first-ever NAIA national basketball championship.
A year later, they did it again, in the process becoming the first school to win back-to-back titles in the history of the tournament in its grueling 32-team format. President Harry S. Truman was in attendance. President Roy Ellis called off classes at MSU. The excitement surrounding the team and its players captured the fancy of the entire basketball-crazy region. It’s been suggested often that the Bears’ back-to-back titles have been a key factor in the huge interest in basketball in southwest Missouri to this day.
The 1952-53 championship included perhaps the single most storied moment in MSU athletics history with the exploits of the Fabulous Four. In that year’s tourney semifinal game against a taller Indiana State team, five Bears had fouled out and the team was down to just nine players at the start of the tourney as squad members Jerry Lumpe and Norm Siebern had departed for Florida and baseball spring training with the New York Yankees. With three minutes to go in a game that was tied, the Bears found themselves with just four available players – but the quartet of Bill Thomas, Bill Price, Don Duckworth and Ray Birdsong held off five ISU Sycamores to fashion a six-point win and send the Bears into the championship game the next night.
Birdsong hit a long hook shot to break the tie and put the Bears ahead. Then, in rules in place at the time, a team awarded two free throws, if it made the first free throw, could elect possession of the basketball instead of the second shot. Thomas was the primary beneficiary as he dribbled around until the ISU defenders caught and fouled him, made the first free throw, and kept repeating the process.
The players on those two MSU squads were a close-knit bunch at the time and have remained so ever since, coming back to campus for reunion events at the 20-year, 30-year, 40-year and 50-year anniversaries of the two titles.
And now, the 60th anniversary of those teams is at hand, and it has been marked by even more honors for the fabled group. At its national tourney in Kansas City in March, the NAIA selected and announced a 75th anniversary all-star team from the history of the tournament, and that honor team included Coach Vanatta and Jerry Anderson of the Bears. Anderson, who still lives in Springfield, journeyed to Kansas City for the recognition. Coach Vanatta lives in Florida.
“It was quite an event,” recalls Anderson, who was also on the NAIA 20th anniversary all-tourney team and all-time, all-tourney team. “We were taken out to the court and introduced to the crowd at the halftime of the championship game. There were a lot of festivities, including a very large cake around which the team gathered for photos.”
The two Bears’ championship teams were remarkable in that the squad members gathered virtually in the entirety of the squad from all over the country for the reunions through the 50-year level. Don Anielak died several years ago, and more recently Birdsong, John Grimm, Bull Starnes, Jim Julian and Fred Stephens.
Other team members from one or both of the two squads included Forrest Hamilton, Art Helms, Bill Lea, Jack Trogdon, Bob Tubert and Larry Giboney.
Several team members remain in the Springfield area and Thomas, Anderson, Lumpe and Jim Moulder share lunch and old basketball stories a couple times each month.
The two teams rolled up a total of 51 victories over two seasons and Thomas, Anderson, Julian, Hamilton, Lea, Anielak and Helms were accorded NAIA All-America honors.
Mark Stillwell is a former sports information director for Missouri State. Now retired, Stillwell continues to write about Bears athletics in various publications.