Andrew Kaza always figured someone ought to make a movie about the most famous basketball game in Baker High School history.
Then he realized nobody had even written a book.
So Kaza decided he would fill this void in the annals of Oregon high school athletics, one that had existed for half a century.
Kaza’s book, “High Contrast: A Story of Basketball, Race and Politics in Oregon 1972,” was released in late August.
The author, who grew up in Beaverton and lives in Redmond, recounts the March 25, 1972, Class AAA boys state championship basketball game in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, pitting the underdog Baker Bulldogs against the powerful Jefferson Democrats from Portland.
Not that there can be much suspense after 50 years, but Baker lost, 59-52.
The game was much closer, though, than many of the pundits had predicted.
Baker actually led for much of the game, and by as many as 7 points twice in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs’ last lead,
50-49, came with less than 4 minutes left in the game.
Yet it wasn’t just the surprisingly competitive contest that made that Saturday night, inside what was then Oregon’s biggest arena, so memorable.
A combination of other factors, some hinted at in the title of Kaza’s book, gives that 32-minute game the powerful legacy that lingers, in the memories of those who were on the court and in the stands.
And it’s a game that retains a fascination even for some who weren’t there.
Kaza, for instance.
The author, now 63, was 12 then. And although he was a rabid sports fan — he attended all the games during the 1969 state tournament — he didn’t make it to the epochal 1972 championship.
But he said he came to understand, even as a boy, that the Baker-Jefferson game was extraordinary.
The main title of his book is a succinct explanation — “High Contrast.”
There were in fact many contrasts.
It is all but impossible to depict the differences without resorting to cliché, but they’re no less true.
Baker was rural and small town and white.
When you watched coach Gary Hammond’s players you might be forgiven for wondering if the 1960s had ever happened.
The Bulldogs’ crew cuts were as solidly 1950s as tailfins and Sputnik.
And Hammond’s basketball style was as traditional as his tonsorial requirements. Baker played a methodical, precise game, one that relied on crisp passing to get open shots.
Jefferson was urban and metropolitan and all the players were Black.
Some of the Democrats sported Afros.
And they played at a frenetic pace.
This collision of disparate styles no doubt contributed to the unprecedented interest in the championship game.
A total of 13,395 people crammed into the Coliseum — 729 more than the listed capacity for the arena where the Portland Trail Blazers, the city’s year-old NBA franchise, played.
It was the largest crowd to watch a high school basketball game in Oregon.
And never had so many people watched a Baker team play.
Both those records remain unchallenged half a century later.
Kaza, in a phone interview about his book on Friday, Sept. 16, said he understood the allure of high school sports.
His dad was a teacher in Portland schools for 25 year, and he also was a band and orchestra leader, taking student musicians to perform at games.
“As a kid I got to tag along to a lot of football and basketball games,” Kaza said.
In his book he explores the popularity of high school sports in 1972 — a level of interest that is difficult to imagine today.
The Blazers, Kaza points out, were a new franchise, and had not yet become the Oregon institution they would be five years later when they won their only NBA title.
The Oregon and Oregon State football and men’s basketball teams were not national contenders — and in any case college sports weren’t yet the nationwide ratings behemoths we’re accustomed to.
“High school sports was just the top of the pile,” Kaza said.
And so the 1972 championship game, with its myriad contrasts, was all but irresistible.
“The whole state was captivated by that state tournament,” Kaza said.
A context beyond sports
Although the basketball game is the centerpiece of “High Contrast,” Kaza said he sought to put sports into context with society, both in Oregon and in the nation, in 1972.
“It was a different era,” he said.
Americans were still fighting in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon was running for his second term.
The game featuring Baker’s “farm boys” and Jefferson’s more flamboyant team illustrated a term that Kaza said has only in more recent times become something of a cliché itself — “the urban-rural divide.”
“And here we have it on the basketball court,” Kaza said.
But he notes, too, that unlike Oregon’s political divide, which tends to separate people into groups that have little to do with each other except for social media squabbling, the 1972 championship game brought people together, even if for only one night.
Kaza said he tells a comprehensive story in his book, including Oregon’s sometimes sordid racial history, most notably the state serving as fertile recruiting ground for the Ku Klux Klan.
Kaza’s own experience had also given him a perspective for race relations.
As a fifth grader living in Beaverton, he was part of group of white students who joined a voluntary program to attend Martin Luther King Elementary School in Portland, where 97% of the students were Black. Kaza was one of two white students in his class.
“That experience forever impacted his world view of prejudice and discrimination,” according to his author biography on the Nestucca Spit Press website.
Research during a pandemic
Kaza, who worked as a sportswriter for the Valley Times newspaper in Beaverton from 1974 to 1982 before, as he puts it, “leaving journalism behind,” said he initially decided to embark on a book project in the spring of 2020.
“I started realizing this was a story I could weave together,” he said.
After living in England for about 25 years, he returned to the U.S. in 2016. He and his wife, Yee Cheng, bought a four-screen movie theater in Sisters.
Of course something else happened in the spring of 2020.
Kaza said the pandemic both helped and hindered his work on “High Contrast.”
Although he certainly wouldn’t describe this as a positive, because his theater was closed for 431 days — a number, he notes with a rueful chuckle, he will always recall with precision — Kaza had more time than he would have had otherwise for research.
But the situation also forced him to conduct interviews — including with several members of Baker’s 1972 team — remotely rather than in person.
Kaza also talked with John Heriza, who was Baker’s assistant coach in 1972 and lives in Baker City, and with Greg Hammond, Gary Hammond’s son.
Gary Hammond died on April 26, 2008, at Pendleton. He was 88.
Two starters on Baker’s 1972 team — Daryl Ross and Mike Davis, the top two scorers — have also passed away.
Ross died Jan. 7, 2015, at age 60 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Davis died Jan. 4, 2016, at age 61.
Bringing the book to Baker City
Kaza said he’s working to get copies of “High Contrast” to Betty’s Books in Baker City. He said the store has ordered 10 books, which should be in stock by the end of September.
He said he’d like to schedule a book signing event in Baker City later this year, and potentially read excerpts at Betty’s Books.
After growing up hearing about one of the more renowned high school sporting events in Oregon history — but not having been in the stands to see it himself — Kaza is glad he’s been able to chronicle that game in book form.
“I never envisioned actually writing a book until this project came along,” he said.