April 5, 2007
by Emily Meyer
In 1939, Ohio State basketball entered into the dance for the first time. The Buckeyes were one of eight teams to make it to the first NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. Ohio State fell in the championship game to Oregon, 46-33, ending its season with a 16-7 overall record but the visit established OSU basketball as one of the nation's elite programs.
Nearly 70 years have passed since the men of Scarlet and Gray appeared in the first NCAA tournament and much has changed. From eight teams to 64 teams, the tournament now known as March Madness consumes basketball fans for weeks as they follow teams from Selection Sunday until the championship game.
Yet Bill Gall, the last remaining member of the 1939 team, remembers what it was like to play at Ohio State before the program called St. John Arena or Value City Arena its home. At 90 years-old, Gall recalls the not so glamorous lifestyle of Buckeye basketball. The practice area was cold and difficult to get to but the 1939 was a family and that is the prevailing memory Gall takes with him.
"In the days in which I was playing basketball, we played at the Coliseum on the Ohio State fairgrounds," Gall said. "It was a real chore to get out there to practice and it was cold, so once you got there you kept moving to stay warm. Yet, the team in 1939 was probably one of the closest-knit organizations."
Coming out of the Great Depression, the team did not have top of the line practice equipment, but they had enough heart to make up the difference. Gall worked three jobs during his time at the university just to make do and cover the bills.
"A date in my time would cost you five cents," Gall said. "Because you would have one Coca-Cola and two straws."
Despite his already busy schedule of classes and work, Gall went out for the 1938-39 Buckeye basketball team for an extra-curricular activity. As a freshman, Gall was one of 600 players trying out for the squad. Separated into groups, the candidates would be sent to different basketball hoops and told to shoot the ball. Each day, one group, like teams in the NCAA tournament, would be eliminated.
"The well-known fellows were all sent to the same group," Gall said. "My group was eliminated but I kept coming back and joining other groups.
"One day assistant coach J.E. Blickle over heard me say, `I am as good as any of those other guys,' and he made me practice with the well-known players. After practice he went over to head coach Harold Olsen. They talked for a couple of minutes and then Blickle came over to tell me I was on the team."
Gall did not see much playing time but because of his persistence the young man made room for himself in the Buckeye family.
"Each player looked after the other," Gall said. "We even decided to get our hair cut the same way. One guy went out and got a crew cut and soon after the whole time was walking around with short hair."
After creating history at Ohio State, Gall went on to study at West Point Academy and served in the U.S. Army for 30 years and became an expert in African affairs.
Now residing in Rhode Island, Gall continues to follow Ohio State athletics. In good health and excited for the success of the current basketball team, Gall and the Ohio State Athletic Department attempted to get the former-Buckeye to the Final Four game in Atlanta, Ga., but for personal reasons Gall could not make the trip.
In the program's 20th NCAA birth, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta led the 2006-07 Buckeyes to the national championship game for the first time in since 1962. Although both the 1939 and 2007 Buckeye teams fell in the title game, only two other times (1961 and '62) in Ohio State history did a team end its season as national runner-ups.
Although Gall could not be with Ohio State in person, he followed the Buckeyes from afar as he has for many years. In a different time, in a different place the rich tradition of Ohio State basketball continues. For Gall, the program's success offered the former member a chance to watch and remember what it was like to be a Buckeye competing to be the best in the nation.