Herb Didrickson played for Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka in the mid-1940s. He later dominated the Gold Medal tournament as a member of Sitka’s legendary Alaska Native Brotherhood team.
But people who watched Didrickson play – and those who played against him – say he was far more than a regional standout. Nominating documents to the Hall of Fame refer to Didrickson as one of the finest basketball players ever.
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Gil Truitt grew up with Herb Didrickson in Sitka, and attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs elementary school with him in downtown. But they rarely played sports together. Truitt says that when he was in the equivalent of Little League Baseball, Didrickson was playing American Legion.
In short, Didrickson was a natural.
“He had the ability in all sports – things that coaches tried to teach came naturally to Herb. He didn’t have to work hard, but I never knew anyone who worked harder in any sport than Herb. He was continually and constantly trying to improve himself as an athlete.”
Truitt is working with a number of others in Southeast Alaska to have Didrickson named to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for his abilities in basketball. This is their third try. Part of the problem is that Didrickson played – by contemporary standards – in relative obscurity. To help put Didrickson in the context of his times, his advocates are drawing on support from Didrickson’s peers.
John Abell played for Oregon State in their national championship bid against the University of San Francisco Dons in 1955. He saw Didrickson play at Mt. Edgecumbe in an exhibition game against a semi-pro team. Didrickson scored 44-points, matched against a center who was almost a foot taller.
“When I was at Oregon State, when I was a freshman, we played USF, where they had Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, and that crew. We lost to them by one point, and the winner of that game was going to win the national championship. The next week our coach, Slats Gill, says, You know, John, have you ever seen anybody who can control a game like K.C. Jones? And I responded, Coach, to be honest with you I’ve seen one better. He looked at me and said, You’re kidding. I said, From my perspective I’ve seen one better. That’s Herb Didrickson, from Sitka, Alaska.”
Abell went on to become a high school and college coach, running up a record of 115-1 at Butte College at one point, in a program that produced 15 All Americans.
He is blunt in his assessment of Didrickson’s ability.
“I never saw a basketball team – at any level – that Herb Didrickson couldn’t have played for. As a point guard, he was forty years ahead of his time.”
“He was getting lob passes from Roger Lang. Today they call it the alley-oop pass. Herb was getting those passes and reaching up with one hand and tipping it into the basket. His elbow was at the rim, he could jump so high.”
And in the 1940s, dunking wasn’t allowed.
Gil Truitt doesn’t feel the need to define Didrickson as a great player of his era. He says Didrickson was one of those rare athletes who are among the best in any era.
“People ask that question, How can you compare athletes today with fifty or sixty years ago? I’ve always answered that question, including with the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, that Herb would have been a star today because of the attributes that he had: Great quickness, long arms – and talk about speed – jumping ability.”
Truitt says Didrickson was as menacing on defense as on offense. On one occasion when Truitt was on the same court playing against Didrickson, his coach advised the entire team, “If he comes at you, turn around 180-degrees and pass the ball.”
The question that remains, though, for all of us who’ve heard of K.C. Jones and Bill Russell, but are just learning about Herb Didrickson, is why didn’t he go on to stardom? Truitt says just about every major basketball school tried to recruit him, “But why he did not accept any of the scholarships, he never did say. I did not pursue it. One of the (nominating) articles by Steve Agbaba said it perfectly: Herbie loved Alaska. He was happy here, and this is where he stayed.”
There are 43 nominees for induction to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame this year, including 4-time Iditarod champion Jeff King, who’ll likely get close consideration, and Sen. Ted Stevens, who is not really known for his athletic ability, but was nominated for his support of gender equity in sports. The selection committee will choose five.
Public voting is online, and closes on Friday November 30. The address to vote is alaskasportshall.org.
You can hear more of our conversation about the life and times of basketball legend Herb Didrickson during the debut broadcast of KCAW’s new public affairs program SoundCheck, tomorrow morning (11-30-12) beginning at 8:30 AM.