The moment of clarity that would inspire one of the best teams in the history of Arizona high school basketball came during halftime of a nondescript, regular-season game in a dingy locker room in a corner of the state.
Nearly 45 years ago, after a sluggish first half against host Douglas, the Tucson Badgers were subjected to rants by their coach and one of the players following a sluggish first half. Whatever was said ultimately proved to be the igniting point for a team finally able to reach its potential.
Two games earlier in that 1969 season, the Tucson Badgers had once again been vanquished by city powerhouse Rincon. Now they trailed by double-digits to Douglas.
Coach Tony Morales angrily pleaded with his kids to elevate their game and focus. A halftime chew-out from a notoriously intense coach wasn’t unusual, but what followed next was.
A normally mild-mannered senior captain pulled his players together and ordered his mates to forget everything else and to just play their own role for the team.
The results would go down in state basketball lore as the Badgers finished 23-1 and won their eighth and last state title in basketball.
At the forefront of Tucson High’s 1969 team was 5-foot-9-inch guard Delano Price. Popular and suave off the court, Price was a heady marksman and natural leader with an unflappable demeanor on the hardwood.
The co-star was 6-1 wing Kenny Ball. Long-limbed and gangly with dark, floppy hair, Ball was deceptively athletic and adept at taking anyone off the dribble or rising up for a jump shot.
Both players combined with big man Chuco Miranda to lead their freshman team to an undefeated record before being promoted to junior varsity near the end of the season.
The three were talented enough to enter the 1966-67 varsity starting lineup, but the good times stalled out from there.
Many of the upperclassmen quit because of the coach’s decision to start three sophomores, and the team suffered.
In spite of the thrashings his young team was taking, Morales was resolute.
The 1967-68 team looked good on paper, and a dynamic newcomer figured to alter the Arizona high school basketball landscape.
Flamboyant, excitable and ultra competitive, Wallace “Hoegie” Simmons stood only 5-7 but owned a body constructed for basketball. Blessed with incredibly long arms and enormous hands, he was an athletic dynamo who could dunk by the time he was 5-4. He was also an adept ball-handler, capable of beating even the quickest of defenders off the dribble.
“I just saw this freshman at Pueblo dominating, and his game was unlike anything I had ever seen,” said Price. “I immediately thought of how he would fit in on our squad.
“I had no problem taking on less of a scoring role because his athleticism would take our team to the next level.”
Fortunately for the Badgers, Simmons’ mother was about to purchase a house in Tucson High’s neighborhood. He would soon become a Badger.
Stashed on the JV squad, Simmons captivated fans with his jaw-dropping athleticism but yearned to join his sophomore classmates on varsity. He didn’t make his varsity debut until the second semester of the 1967-68 season but still finished the season as the Badgers’ leading scorer.
Despite losing in the first round of the 1968 playoffs, the Badgers finished with a 14-6 record and appeared primed to challenge for state basketball supremacy the following season.
But tension was fomenting below the surface.
Ball and Simmons clashed their junior season with Morales. Where Ball battled anger issues, Simmons naturally rebelled against hard-nosed coaching. Little things, like being ordered to run, set off the volatile Ball, while any coaching instruction to Simmons could result in a skirmish.
Nonetheless, the Badgers were the most talented team in the state going into the 1968-69 season, boasting an athletic team of stars, role players and, with the insertion of a 6-6 forward into the starting lineup, height.
Bruce Klewer was the lone newcomer in the starting lineup and easily its least talented player, but the pale, baby-faced inside presence buoyed the team in other ways. In a lineup with so many fierce competitors, Klewer’s humor was necessary to lighten the mood, while his lengthy frame helped alter shots and snatch rebounds.
The Badgers won their first 11 games, including a victory over two-time defending state champion Phoenix Union. All appeared well, but the ultimate test would come against Rincon in the 12th game of the season. The Rangers were known for a suffocating full-court press that befuddled Tucson High for years.
“We went into that game confident,” Ball said. “But at that stage they were just more cohesive, and it showed because they found a way to make plays at the end. Even though we barely lost, we were a mess at that point.”
Two games later, Tucson went into halftime down big to Douglas.
The Badgers were stunned and their coach none-too-pleased.
The tightly spaced, airless locker room housed one of the more epic Morales rants, and his fiery yet disappointed message was clear: The Badgers already squandered a chance at perfection, and time was running out on the season. He then stormed out of the locker room.
Recognizing it was time to unite or enter the legions of talented yet flawed teams, Price briefly huddled the starters.
“We hunched together, and I just looked into the guys’ eyes and said this was completely on us,” Price said. “You play your role and let others play theirs. It wasn’t anything special I said, but coming from me I think the guys really took it to heart.”
Within minutes, Simmons was darting to the hoop or setting up Price for easy jump shots while Ball was scoring off an array of pull-up jumpers and forays to the basket as Tucson roared back to win.
Where most fans observed a team with three incredibly talented players coming out and destroying an eminently beatable opponent, few knew that a brief set of instructions had set the stage for the rest of the season.
The Badgers sensed a different team vibe, but couldn’t be sure until the rematch game against Rincon, this time at their gym.
A hushed excitement permeated throughout the Tucson gym in the moments leading up to tipoff. The raw emotion fueled the Badgers, and Simmons, in particular.
“I told our other ball-handler (Price) to give me the ball, and I will break this myself,” Simmons said. “There wasn’t an athlete in the state who could stay with me one-on-one, and this was the perfect kind of team for me to attack.”
With Simmons weaving through the defense at a dizzying rate and Price and Ball raining jumpers from the wing, the Badgers went on to a decisive 98-88 win.
After vanquishing their longtime nemesis in convincing fashion, the Badgers won out and dominated Rincon and Union along the way. The Union win set up a state championship clash against Tempe High School.
“We didn’t care who we were playing,” said Simmons. “From that Douglas game on, we were a machine and would beat anyone.”
Tucson’s internal confidence aside, it was thought by many that while the Badgers were the more athletic team, Tempe’s relentless size would be too much in the end.
Observers underestimated the mild-mannered Chuco Miranda.
Deaf in one ear while armed with a long, gangly frame and his trademark coke-bottle glasses, the 6-9 Miranda was difficult to take seriously on the court. But it never took long for opponents to appreciate his awkward effectiveness.
With so many talented scorers surrounding him, Miranda’s primary responsibilities were to defend and rebound, yet he was also a more than capable finisher around the hoop.
From the opening tip it was clear this was Miranda’s game. Whether it came off an offensive rebound putback or an occasional post-up opportunity, Miranda efficiently lit up the scoreboard.
Every one of those points was needed as Tucson held off Tempe 80-76, completing one of the most dominating runs in Arizona high school basketball history.