March Madness in the 1920s |

March Madness in the 1920s

Tim Willoughby
Aspen High School girls on a basketball road trip in 1926. (Willoughby collection)

March Madness had a different meaning in 1920s Aspen. Basketball was the antidote to winter boredom. Boys and girls participated in the sport, and the town’s adults were serious spectators. Results of college games attracted no attention.

Colorado prohibited girls athletics for decades before the 1960s, but not as far back as the 1920s. Roaring Fork Valley high schools were all very small, as many adolescents left school to bring home a few dollars in the cash-scarce Depression years. It took all who remained to make a team, and most years every school fielded both boys and girls teams.

My mother was not at all athletic, but she played basketball with the other 13 girls in her class. Her next youngest sister was a star player, which meant that every once in a long while she made a basket. Unless the teams were lopsided, which easily happened with varying school enrollments, the game scores remained low.

Scoring points was a challenge because schools did not have gyms. Aspen provided one of the largest playing facilities, the Armory Hall. There, spectators could watch from a balcony and the rafters were too high to interfere with most shots. In some communities, however, games took place in stores or older buildings that were no longer in use. There was no official court with paint-striped sidelines. You were declared “out of bounds” if you ran into a wall or into the spectators who lined the walls. Low ceilings and/or the roof rafters precluded long shots. Home court held many advantages to locals who knew where they could shoot unobstructed shots. Locals also knew the location of dead spots on the floor where the ball would not bounce as anticipated.

My father’s favorite basketball story was about a game in the Emma Store. Games were lively and spectators often interfered. Rules were not arbitrary, but home teams clearly had an advantage. My father was muscular and athletically agile, but not tall. The other team included a very large player who was scoring most of their points. My father kept running into him. That may have been purposeful, but my father didn’t relate that in his story. The angered giant picked him up, carried him over to a wall of shelves and stuffed him into one of its upper cavities.

Game schedules were always tentative because of questionable winter travel. One winter day the team headed for a downvalley game in good weather. By the time the game ended, a blinding blizzard was depositing a few inches of snow an hour. Even on a sunny summer day, blessed with few flat tires, the drive between Basalt and Aspen could take two hours. My father was the driver and his risk-taking was legendary. Not wanting to spend a night in Basalt, he convinced his passengers to take the car to the railroad, let the air out of the tires, and ride home unimpeded on the clear train tracks.

Wins and losses faded from my parents’ basketball memories, but they remembered many stories of Aspen’s March Madness.