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Utah’s Arnie Ferrin talks about the evolution of college and professional basketball

SALT LAKE CITY — From the window of his condo at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, he can see the entire Salt Lake Valley and the campus of the University of Utah. A man worn with years, he uses his cane to walk down the hall to the room that represents his history.

Certificates and recognitions line the walls, while trophies and awards take up the rest of the space, everything in the classic University of Utah crimson red. The room is filled with more memories than is possible to imagine. But amongst all the awards, there on the top shelf, just to the left of a computer, is the most memorable trophy of them all — the Most Valuable Player award from the 1944 NCAA national companionship basketball team.

To most, the story of the 1944 University of Utah basketball team is legendary, but to Arnie Ferrin, it was his reality.

For a 91-year-old man, Ferrin looks as though he can keep going for years to come. With the help of just a cane, he attends almost every Utah home football game, gymnastic meet and, of course, basketball game. Not much for cheering, Ferrin sits quietly at the top of the Huntsman Center, looking down on the court. From his seat, he has a complete view of the Huntsman Center. There is the court, the fans, and of course up in the corner, his name and number, 22, hanging as one of the retired jerseys.

People of all ages stop and shake his hand as they pass by him. He says hello to employees and administrators that work at the Huntsman Center, always asking how they are or even giving them a hug. Ferrin always roots for the underdog, which is exactly what he and the basketball team were in 1944.

When asked what the most memorable moment of his entire college career was, Ferrin immediately answers, “Playing on the team that won the NCAA championship in 1944.”

The story of the 1944 Utah basketball team is what some call a basketball Cinderella story. When the Arkansas Razorbacks withdrew from the NCAA Tournament because of an unfortunate automobile accident, Utah was called to replace them. They went on to play their hearts out in the legendary championship game where the underdogs beat powerhouse Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime.

Ferrin was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Scoring 22 points against Dartmouth, Ferrin then took that on as his number for the rest of his college career.

Later that year, the American Red Cross decided to have a showcase that put the Utes, the NCAA champions, and St. John’s, the NIT champions, up against each other. The game was played on the biggest stage in America, Madison Square Garden.

The experience of playing in Madison Square Garden in 1944 is quite different than what it would be like today.

“All the people sitting around in the good seats were smoking cigars. When they played the Star Spangled Banner, we look up to the ceiling and we couldn’t see the flag because of the cigar smoke,” Ferrin said.

Just like in the NCAA championship game, the Utes came out on top.

Back in the 1950s, playing professional basketball did not have the draw that it does these days. The players were not compensated to the degree that they are in today’s world. Today, NBA players have million-dollar shoe contracts with companies like Nike, or Adidas.

When asked if he had a shoe contract, Ferrin said, “I did. Two new pairs of Chuck Taylor Converse Keds a year. That was my shoe contract.” Now, even college athletes have practically everything they need provided for them.

Times have definitely changed since Ferrin stepped onto the court. When Ferrin was a freshman at Utah, there were no scholarships for basketball players and he was considered a walk-on, along with the other three freshmen starters on the 1944 team. In today’s world, a walk-on starting for a college basketball team is a rarity, let alone four of them.

But the most prominent difference about basketball now, Ferrin said, is the strength, size and speed of the athletes. “My freshman year at the university, I was 6-foot-4 and there was only one player in the conference that was taller than I was.”

Now, teams struggle to compete if they don’t have at least two players over 6-5. Athletes spend hours in the weight room, building muscles and transforming their bodies, attempting to keep up with the athletes they are competing against.

Universities now spend millions of dollars to construct training facilities designed just for college athletes. That is a huge improvement from when Ferrin played. In 1944, the Utes did not even have a home court. They are the only team in history that won an NCAA championship without ever having the “home-court advantage.”

Ferrin is the only four-time All-American at Utah, but he almost didn’t play professionally. Ferrin first refused an offer to play professionally for the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949, but later that year was convinced to reconsider. He ended up taking his new bride to Minneapolis. He played for the Lakers for three years and won two championships while there, making Ferrin one of only two basketball players in history to win an NCAA, NIT and NBA championship.

Ferrin instilled a legacy into his family name that has been passed on for generations. Most of his grandchildren are athletes now, and some have even gone on to play sports in college. Every one of them makes sure they wear the No. 22 on the back of their jersey.

Ferrin’s roots in the University of Utah did not stop after his college basketball career. Thirty-two years after that hallmark basketball game, Ferrin returned to his alma mater as the new athletic director.

To say that Ferrin “bleeds red” would be a major understatement. With a wardrobe that is nearly all red, a view of the Huntsman Center from his balcony, and the legacy he created, it is no surprise that Ferrin always wants the Utes to succeed.

Arnie Ferrin is the grandfather of Ari Davis.