Jan. 4, 2017
BELLINGHAM, Wash, -
Averaging under 6-foot-2 in height, expectations for the Western Washington University men's basketball team were not high heading into the 1983-84 season.
But the year proved to be one of the most exciting and entertaining in school history, thanks to excellent team chemistry, incredible shooting, pushing the ball offensively and applying constant pressure defensively.
The Vikings finished 14-11 with three of the losses being by just one point and missed out on the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) District 1 post-season playoffs by just one game.
The campaign came in the midst of a six-year stretch in which the Vikings had four different head coaches and four losing seasons.
NAIA Hall of Fame mentor Chuck Randall had retired in 1981 following 18 years at the helm. Denny Huston, an assistant at Washington and a former WWU player, took the reins for one season before departing to be the top aide at Wyoming. Huston was followed by National Basketball Association assistant Bill Westphal, who stayed three seasons. Then Brad Jackson took over in 1986 and posted 518 wins and won a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II national title in 2012 to cap a 27-year career.
The `83-84 season was the second at WWU for Westphal following two years as an assistant for the NBA San Diego Clippers. Because of a change of ownership, his contract was not renewed and he accepted the position at WWU in August of 1982 while in Hong Kong on a tour of China with an NBA All-Star team.
With Westphal arriving on campus just three weeks before school began, there was no time to recruit and WWU won just eight of 25 games in 1982-83.
DeFranco changes dynamic
In mid-May of 1983, Westphal signed one of the region's most sought after junior college players - 5-9 junior point guard John DeFranco. He had averaged 15 points and 6 assists while earning region all-star honors at Bellevue CC after playing a year at NCAA Division I Idaho State.
Prior to that, DeFranco was a two-time Class AA all-state selection at O'Dea High School in Seattle, being the state's leading scorer with a 31.7 average as a senior in 1980-81. That season he scored a Metro League record 53 points in one game and earned league MVP honors.
"I was really impressed with Coach Westphal," said DeFranco of his decision. "I liked him as a person and felt he could build a strong program at Western. And I've always liked the area and the school was very good and that's most important."
"But they had been 8-17 the year before and I wasn't sure who was being recruited besides me. I explained that to my dad. And he asked, `Are you going to school to go to school or to play basketball?' I said, `Well I'd like to have a good experience in both.' And my dad said, and I'll never forget it, `One guy can make the difference. Why don't you go and make a difference.'"
DeFranco sparked the '83-84 Vikings with his hustle and leadership abilities. He forced the action at both ends of the court, dishing out 111 assists (4.4 avg.) and making 85 steals (3.4 avg.).
One of 15 finalists for the Frances Pomeroy Naismith-Basketball Hall of Fame Award which honors the nation's most outstanding male collegian under 6-feet, DeFranco averaged 15.8 points.
"There are three types of players," said Westphal. "Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who say, `What happened?' John was a player who made things happen."
"John was an exciting player and his hustling, aggressive style of play was contagious to teammates and fans alike. We had guys on the wings who could score, and they found their games improved with DeFranco directing the offense. And he spearheaded our hustle on defense."
Solid role players
WWU returned just one full-time starter, 6-2 senior Bob Peters. He had played either the point or shooting guard positions the previous season, but because of the team's lack of height, was moved to power forward.
Peters became the Vikings' most consistent performer, averaging a team-high 7.8 rebounds and 12.0 points. He set school records for field goal accuracy in a season (62.2 percent) and career (59.8 percent).
"He (Peters) made everybody else better and that's probably the true sign of greatness," said Westphal.
"I loved it (moving inside)," Peters said. "That was probably one of my strengths as my high school coach had played me a lot there ... In my junior year (at WWU), I guarded guys that I could look at eye-to-eye. In my senior year, I was always looking up at them. We never were bigger than anybody, I can guarantee you that."
A part-time starter back was 6-6, 175-pound senior Todd Bailey, whose slender build did not make him a force inside. But he did possess an incredible shooting touch.
Bailey was the team's top point maker with an 18.2 average, hitting 56 percent from the field with most of his shots coming from the perimeter and 88 percent at the line.
At center for the Vikings was 6-4 senior Bob Franks, a quarter-miler in track who had seen just 44 minutes of action a year earlier. In fact, Franks had played so little that a fan club was formed in his honor and would chant for the coach to put him in near the end of the game.
Shorter than a lot of guards on opposing teams, Franks still averaged 7.8 points on 56 percent floor shooting in '83-84. He had the speed and endurance to wear out the opposing team's center and was a blue-collar worker on the boards.
"You could always count on Bob (Franks) to make you laugh and take the edge off," recalled Bailey, "but you could also count on Bob to be competitive. Everyone took it serious and was very competitive."
Also among WWU's top six were 6-4 senior forward David Strathy, who had originally gone to Eastern Washington, and 5-11 senior point guard Greg Lambrecht, a transfer from Central Washington. Both Strathy and Lambrecht had been teammates of Bailey's at Shorecrest High School.
Lambrecht, who either backed up DeFranco or played alongside him in the backcourt, handed out 138 assists (5.5 avg.); and Strathy scored at a 5.8 clip.
"When I first arrived, the guys weren't really happy because Greg was their guy," said DeFranco, the Vikings' team captain that season. "He had been there for a while already and they were friends with him. So here I come and they thought I was going to take Greg's place. That kind of went away when they realized that I was there to be a part of the team. They understood and after a week they felt that I was okay. And Greg was great too. We became very good friends."
Contributing off the bench for WWU were 6-0 junior guard David Cooper. 6-1 sophomore forward Joe Gandy, 6-3 sophomore forward Todd Miles, 6-5 junior center Mark Tibbetts and 5-11 senior guard Rick Wills, who averaged 8.3 points while missing nearly half of the season because of a stress fracture in his foot.
Westphal devises system unique for team
Head Coach Bill Westphal
While acknowledging his team's shortcomings, Westphal developed a system designed to take full advantage of its strengths.
"We had a certain style of play, and we really couldn't afford to go away from that," he said. "We did a good job of featuring our strengths and hiding our weaknesses. As long as we were able to do that, we could compete and be successful."
"Defensively, we wanted to harass, disrupt and protect. We were harassing our opponents down court, disrupting them with people gambling on steals, making them do things they didn't want to do."
On offense, the Vikings at times seemed almost helter-skelter, but there was a method to their madness. They were just trying, as Westphal said, "to spar long enough to keep from getting knocked out in the first half."
"If they did that, their explosiveness might get them a second-half lead and they could use their excellent team quickness to spread the game out and let their own lack of size work for them."
"There was no shot clock in those days," explained DeFranco. "At the end of games, when we had a lead, we'd spread the court. We called it `fist.' And they let me operate one-on-one, and if I could bring the opposition in, I'd dish off, or I'd go to the basket and if nothing was there I'd pull it back out ... If we had the lead against a team we had no business being in the game with, we'd go to the four corners offense."
Vikings open strong, post memorable win at Victoria
WWU jelled early and began the season with three straight wins and eight victories in its first 12 games.
The Vikings' most memorable triumph during that stretch and perhaps of the season came in just their second game on Nov. 26, 1983, at Victoria, B.C. The opponent was the University of Victoria, which had won four straight Canadian national championships and would eventually extend that string to a national record of seven.
Victoria had a huge front line led by 6-11 center Greg Wiltjer and a talented backcourt that featured 6-1 point guard Eli Pasquale. Both were first-team All-Canadians. The coach was Ken Shields, who directed the Canadian national team for five years and was inducted into that country's basketball hall of fame.
Wiltjer had played at Oregon State in 1981-82 on a team that reached the Elite Eight as the No.2 seed before falling to top seed Georgetown. He sat out the next season before transferring to Victoria and later was a second-round draft pick by the Chicago Bulls. His son Kyle recently played for Kentucky (2011-13) and Gonzaga (2014-16).
Pasquale was named the Canadian collegiate national Player of the Year as a fifth-year player in '83-84. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Seattle SuperSonics, played in two Olympic Games and was a Canadian Hall of Fame inductee.
During the pre-game warmup, WWU was laughed at by the Victoria faithful because of its lack of size. But as the game proceeded, the crowd grew quieter and quieter. The Vikings shot 56 percent from the floor (46-of-83) and were outrebounded by just four (46 to 42) as they won by 13 points, 99-86. Bailey scored 26 points, Peters grabbed 16 rebounds and DeFranco handed out 10 assists.
"That was a very important win for us in that it made our players believe that they could have a good year," said Westphal. "It was a perfect game, a perfect 40 minutes."
"We go in there thinking this is the Jolly Green Giant playing the midgets, and we ended up winning that game," said Peters. "A few of their players were on the Canadian national team. I just remember their front line was ridiculously big. I don't know if they just didn't take us very serious, but we just hung around, they got a little tired and we had some big plays at the end."
"My vision of what the team could be was realized in that game," recalled Bailey. "We just played our game after we got laughed at during pre-game warmups ... That's what I saw this team being able to do during the summer. We weren't going to get a lot of second shots, but we could get up-and-down the court and that gave us a good chance of winning some games."
"They were determined to press us and even though we handled it, they wouldn't come out of it," said DeFranco.
WWU made converts of the home fans by winning the Bellingham Herald Holiday Invitational Tournament in late December, one of those victories being over Sacramento State, 60-57. DeFranco, who made three clutch free throws in the final minute of the win over the Hornets, and Peters were named to the all-tournament team with DeFranco being picked the tourney MVP.
Beat arch-rival Central on last-second shot
Another huge win for the Vikings came on Feb. 3, 1984, when they overcame a 13-point deficit midway through the second half to defeat arch-rival Central Washington, 67-66, before a near capacity crowd of 2,800 at Sam Carver Gymnasium. The winning basket came on a shot deep in the corner by Bailey with five seconds remaining in regulation.
"I remember that we called a timeout with 10 seconds to go and Westphal did a good job of designing that last play," said Bailey, who was carried off the floor by his teammates. "That was a good memory, knowing the outcome was going to be on my shoulders ... Being a competitor, I was shooting well in that game and definitely wanted the ball. It's a good feeling knowing that your teammates have trust in you too."
Afterward Westphal called it the best game he'd seen or coached.
Central went on to win the district championship and reached the second round at the national tournament.
The Vikings set school season records for field goal and free throw accuracy, shooting 51.8 percent (751-of-1450) from the floor and 74.3 percent (378-of-509) at the line. They also averaged 10 steals a game.
WWU shot 50 percent or better from the floor in 16 contests, including one stretch of eight straight games.
Three Vikings earned NAIA District 1 all-star honors - Bailey, DeFranco and Peters. DeFranco also was a second-team Little All-Northwest pick with Bailey receiving honorable mention.
WWU established school records for best field goal and free throw shooting in a game, hitting 67 percent (28-of-42) from the floor versus Great Falls (Mont.) and 96 percent (21-of-22) at the line against Saint Martin's.
Peters was WWU's leading rebounder in 19 games, while Bailey paced Viking scorers in 17 contests.
"Westphal could break a game down in a hurry and as an Xs and Os guy was awesome," said Peters. "With that group, he found five guys who played well together and put us all in situations where we could be successful."
"It was a fun year. DeFranco was the energy, Lambrecht calmed things down, and if you got the ball to Bailey in any of his spots it was almost automatic from 15-18 feet, and Bobby (Franks) just played hard, he would go through a wall for you. He was the ultimate team guy. They were all good teammates, and that included the guys off the bench."
"It was a close team. Bill brought us together and Bob (Grisham) was the young assistant (coach) who we loved ... We got along and we had guys who knew their roles."
"And another thing about that team, I don't believe that we ever took bad shots. We played within the system that Bill put in place for us and that's why we had success. And all five of our guys could handle the ball. We weren't going to beat everyone because of the size factor, but we were going to give everyone a game every night."
The three-point shot was still two years away from becoming a part of men's collegiate basketball.
"If we'd had the three-point shot at that time, we'd have beat a few more people," Peters said. "DeFranco, Lambrecht and Bailey would have stretched the game a lot more and caused a ton of mismatches for other teams"
DeFranco said, "It was the most fun team that I ever was a part of. We were in so many games which we had no business being in from a talent standpoint. And Bill would always have some sort of plan that was unique for that game."
"The thing about this team that was different from any team I've been on was that this team was smart, and we all got along well ... The basketball IQ of that team was about as high as you could get. We were able to execute a game plan pretty easily by just practicing it one time, and that was unique ... We boxed out well, and the way we ran, even after a made basket."
"This was a super group of young men, who were really committed to one another," said Westphal in summation. "They played hard at all times, win or lose."
Where are they now?
DeFranco is in his 31st year, and now the president, at DeFranco Insurance, which his father, Louis, began in 1953. Peters is in his 31st year at Centralia (Wash.) CC, the last 26 as director of athletics and a stretch of 15 as basketball coach, and Bailey (Lake Stevens, Wash.) is in his 28th year in restaurant management.
Westphal recently retired after 30 years of collegiate basketball coaching, the last 17 (357-181) as the head women's coach at Point Loma Nazarene (San Diego, Calif.), with an overall record of 597-351. His 2004-05 team finished 33-5 and got to the NAIA final four. Besides WWU, he coached men's teams at Grand Canyon (Phoenix, Ari.), twice going to the NAIA national tournament, and Occidental (Los Angeles, Calif.). He was a starting forward at the University of Southern California, earning Most Improved and Most Inspirational honors as a Trojan.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015