Thurston Townsend isn’t sure what the fuss will be all about Sunday when the 1947 Patten Academy boys basketball team is honored during the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame’s third annual induction ceremony.

But what those nine teammates — from a school of 88 students including just 29 boys — accomplished in winning the unofficial New England Class B championship 69 years ago against a big-city opponent 1,800 students strong truly is the stuff of legends.

That’s unless you ask the surviving players, now in their late 80s and from a generation not prone to bragging about minor accomplishments in a social media way, let alone an achievement of “Hoosiers” proportions.

For the 87-year-old Townsend, one of four surviving players from that team, the Eagles’ 35-32 overtime victory over Boston Latin at the Boston Garden on March 22, 1947, was just one more opportunity to live out a sporting passion no doubt shared by the 23 inductees and six other Legends of the Hall who will be recognized at the Cross Insurance Center.

“We just enjoyed playing the game,” said Townsend, who still lives Patten. “I think there’s more press being made about this deal Sunday than I can understand.”

A colorful start

Patten, which lost in the 1946 Eastern Maine final to Milo, could have been excused for having an identity crisis of sorts as the 1947 season began.

The school’s colors were black and orange, but when new uniforms were ordered they weren’t available in those colors so the team instead played in blue and gold uniforms under white warm-ups that winter while the cheerleaders remained in black and orange.

“Whatever you could get, we bought,” said Townsend.

The only people confused by the Eagles’ five school colors were their opponents.

Patten lost to Class A Presque Isle but dominated the rest of its regular-season schedule under head coach Willis Phair, a former University of Maine player who also was Patten Academy’s principal.

“I don’t know as you would say he was strict,” recalled Townsend. “We just practiced hard for him every night. Did he try to teach us plays? Yes, but we didn’t learn them very well.”

The Eagles outscored their opponents 709-373 to win the Katahdin Valley League title behind an ironman starting five featuring captain Lloyd Wilson, Carroll Hatt and Gil Rossignol, the team’s primary scorers.

“Lloyd Wilson was two feet taller than he measured by the tape,” said 87-year-old Hollis Bates of Lewiston, a reserve on the team. “He was the center, and he could jump a foot and a half higher than he was supposed to for his height.

“Gilman Rossignol was one of the smoothest movers I ever saw and Carroll Hatt was a shooter who could get two points anytime. Usually when he shot they went in.”

Also starting were guards Ken McCourt and Townsend, who had taken up the sport just a year earlier. Harley Dow was the primary substitute, with Bates, Lynn Vickery and Howard Cunningham providing depth. Jack Seeley was the team manager.

The undermanned squad routinely practiced against adults including Phair, assistant coach Arthur Crouse and local men back from World War II, and its “Figure 8” offense proved effective in creating scoring chances.

“That ‘Figure 8’ just totally discouraged the other teams because there was no way they were going to get hold of that ball and then we’d break out of it and go for the basket,” said Bates. “It was marvelous to watch its effect on the opposing teams.”

The road to Boston

Patten’s postseason opener at the Brewer Auditorium was a 37-31 victory over previously undefeated Milo, the team that eliminated the Eagles a year earlier.

Aroostook County champion Limestone, which Patten defeated twice during the regular season, was next and the semifinal meeting was no different with the Eagles scoring a 41-20 win.

That set up the regional final against Lawrence of Fairfield, which had just dropped from Class A to Class B after its enrollment fell to 284 — still nearly 200 more students than Patten Academy.

It was a tight battle, but 24 points from Wilson and 15 from Rossignol enabled Patten to scratch out a 43-42 win.

“As a group we never discussed a game afterward or before amongst ourselves, it was just one of those things,” said Townsend. “We just felt like nobody could beat us, we were arrogant enough for that.”

Next came a trip to the Lewiston Armory for the state final against Western B champion Gould Academy of Bethel, and after Patten residents presented Gould officials with several bags of Maine potatoes before the game the Eagles rallied in the fourth quarter for a 36-33 victory.

“We were always friends with the people we played,” said Townsend. “There was no ill will.”

The big game

One more challenge remained for the new state champions, a battle for the unofficial New England Class B championship at the world-famous Boston Garden.

It would be played as a prelim to the Class A final between Durfee of Fall River, Massachusetts — which had ousted Maine large-school champion Bangor — and Leavenworth of Hartford, Connecticut.

And the opponent? Not another small school with just 29 boys to choose from but Boston Latin, a six-year school with 1,100 boys of high-school age.

The Eastern Massachusetts champs were placed in Class B by Bay State basketball officials because they had resumed fielding a team only four years earlier — though that was little different from some Maine schools — including Patten Academy — that had de-emphasized sports during World War II.

“During World War II there was no basketball in any of these schools,” said Townsend. “Anybody who turned 18 was gone.”

Boston Latin had the numbers, the height and the homecourt advantage, but Patten Academy retained its confidence.

“One thing that comes back to me,” said Bates, “is that I just knew we were going to win. That was the thought Mr. Phair put in your mind. There was no thought of losing, you couldn’t lose, it was impossible to lose.”

The team rode by train to Boston’s North Station and got just one practice at the nearby arena, one remarkably different from the tiny courts in northern Maine where players often put one foot on the wall immediately behind them to signify they were out of bounds.

“We’d been used to playing on all different kinds of courts and I don’t think it meant a thing to us, said Townsend. “We watched a game the night before from the stands so the fact that there was a crowd, you didn’t hear them or see them so I never thought anything about it.”

Some 200 Patten Academy supporters also traveled to Boston — including McCourt’s father, who reportedly had to sell a cow from his dairy herd to make the trip — to sit among the New England high school-record 13,909 fans who attended the doubleheader.

Patten was at less than 100 percent for the game, as Rossignol played despite being confined to bed earlier in the day with an upset stomach. Yet the Eagles kept pace, leading 7-5 after the first quarter and 12-11 at halftime.

Boston Latin then took a 22-15 lead that prompted Phair to call timeout, and Patten Academy responded with a 9-2 run to get within 24-22 by the end of the third quarter.

Boston Latin knew its lesser-known opponent wasn’t going away, and Wilson’s basket with 15 seconds left forced overtime.

The Eagles never trailed again. McCourt scored his only basket of the game for a 33-31 lead, and after Boston Latin converted a free throw Hatt made the game’s final basket as Patten Academy celebrated a dramatic 35-32 victory.

“We felt kind of bad that we beat them in a way,” said Townsend. “They had this big celebration planned and their band was there in tuxedos, but then they lost.”

A state of congratulations

Bangor & Aroostook Railroad arranged for a special train to return the team from Boston, and when it stopped in Portland’s Union Station fans were waiting.

An even bigger reception followed in Bangor where the Bangor and Brewer high school bands and the Bangor High School cheerleaders led a procession to the Penobscot Exchange Hotel for a banquet.

The Eagles boarded a bus the next day and resumed their trek north, first to Lincoln, where schools and stores closed for a welcoming ceremony at the Lincoln House.

Other stops ensued in Sherman Mills and Sherman Station before Maine’s darlings arrived to a hero’s welcome from 2,000 supporters in Patten’s town square.

“It was so exciting, it’s hard to remember all the highlights,” said Bates. “I think the most exciting thing for me was when we got off the bus back in Patten and I looked at the crowd and saw my mom.”

Just four players from that team (Townsend, Hatt, Rossignol and Bates) are still alive, with Townsend and Bates expected to attend Sunday’s ceremony.

“I miss my teammates and I would give anything if there was any way Carroll Hatt and Gilman Rossignol could be there,” said Bates. “This has stayed with me all my life.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...