LAGRANGE, Maine — Jamie Russell’s passion for Maine high school basketball has its roots amid familiar circumstances for youngsters growing up during the 1970s.

First came watching the tournament on TV. Then came the chance to see it in person.

“I had a friend ask me if I wanted to go down to the [Bangor] Auditorium and watch Penquis play Orono in the semifinals,” Russell recalled recently. “It was Wally Russell’s [no relation] senior year and it ended up being a three-point game.

“A guy who lived just down the road from me, Doug Cummings, was on that team, too, and of course we played in the LaGrange Town Hall, so just being at that game with the full house and the atmosphere and it being a close game and Doug was playing, I got hooked on it.”

Russell went on to play at Penquis Valley of Milo before beginning his coaching career with the freshman team at his alma mater while a sophomore at the University of Maine.

Now in his 32nd year as a varsity coach — amidst his second stint at Piscataquis of Guilford — Russell has 340 coaching victories.

Along the way, he has amassed a wealth of knowledge as a basketball historian. Russell published two books in 2003 that detailed every current school in the state’s year-by-year basketball history since the 1961 expansion from three to four classes.

He’s continued to maintain those records, as well as detailing coaching records for peers from as far back as he can track down information.

More recently, Russell has traveled the state procuring memorabilia for the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame’s exhibit at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center.

“My oldest brother Chris brought home a yearbook from his freshman year of high school, and in that yearbook [Penquis coach] Carroll Conley put in the team’s record game by game with all the stats for all the players.

“I was 10 and I remember being really intrigued by that, and to this day when our season’s over I give our players all their stats for the season.”

“All of it is very interesting to me, I’ve always enjoyed the history of it,” he added.

Research snowballs

Russell’s initial foray into high school basketball history came after he took his first varsity coaching job at Penobscot Valley High School of Howland in 1985.

“I was curious about how the program had done in the past,” he said. “But you couldn’t go to a particular source and find out what Penobscot Valley’s record was in 1966. That just didn’t exist and the more I poked around the more curious I was about it.”

Russell checked with the Maine Principals’ Association, to no avail, but eventually detailed Penobscot Valley’s basketball history after laboriously scrolling through microfilm at the University of Maine’s Fogler Library.

When Russell moved in 1988 to Central High School of Corinth, where he still teaches physical education, his scope expanded with the assistance of colleagues Rod Johnson and Dick Sjogren, the latter of whom put Russell’s research on a computer for the first time.

That led Russell to take his research statewide.

“Once we had that on a spreadsheet, Dick told me I could isolate each school and do it individually,” he said. “I had to do it one at a time but I got into that and found out that other people were interested in it, too, but that it hadn’t been done before.”

Neither had research on high school coaching records — until Russell added that to his work.

“I’d take the summer and drive to different places like Rumford or Wells or Down East. I just started going to public libraries to get names,” said Russell.

“Every once in awhile I’d hit a home run. I’d call someone in Presque Isle, and they’d tell me the name of someone who might have done some work on the history of Presque Isle and through making contact with people like that I was able to start piecing things together.”

One valuable contact was Bob Butler of Wells, the MPA’s longtime Heal Points keeper. Another was the late Walter “Bud” Heal of East Millinocket, whose father Durward Heal created the point system used to rank high school teams around the state.

By the book

By March 2003 Russell had amassed enough data to publish separate volumes of boys and girls records.

And while he has no plans to publish updated editions, Russell continues to update the records annually and indicated he might make those updated records information available on disc at some point.

Thanks to technology, keeping pace with each season is now a much more efficient process.

“Today it takes about 2½ hours to update each gender in one sitting,” he said. “I can do both boys and girls in about five hours.

“But I have a filing cabinet in the basement of my house that’s just scary. It’s all stuff I photocopied and saved. Now, of course, with the computer you can copy and paste and save it all that way.”

Russell recently updated the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches’ honor roll of the state’s winningest mentors — led by former Aroostook County girls basketball coach Dick Barstow (664 career victories) and longtime Boothbay boys coach I.J. Pinkham (604 and counting).

“The first week I was doing that, I accidentally wiped out three schools,” said Russell. “The panic button came out, but I had it backed up so it was OK.”

While that finished product is the most complete history of the state’s top coaches available, it’s not lacking some lingering frustrations for Russell.

Take legendary Stearns of Millinocket coach George Wentworth, credited with 484 victories.

He initially coached for four years at Lawrence of Fairfield, and while Russell found records for his final two years with the Bulldogs in 1938 and 1939, he still hasn’t found results for Wentworth’s first two years there.

When Wentworth moved to Stearns, he missed two full seasons and part of a third while serving in World War II. But Russell said when he researched Wentworth’s career, he found the games Wentworth missed while at war were included in his overall record.

As a result, Wentworth’s updated MABC win total includes the two years Russell discovered at Lawrence but not the games won by Stearns while he was away serving his country.

“The ironic thing was he was replaced by three different coaches for those years, and two of them also left to go to war,” said Russell.

One public high school program for which Russell has incomplete records is the Gray-New Gloucester girls basketball team.

“I’ve been there a number of times,” he said. “I’ve been in the school, I’ve been in the Gray library and in the New Gloucester library, and the people have been very helpful but that’s one I’m having trouble with.

“I’ve got some like that that are still driving me crazy.”

Guarding history

One of Russell’s latest passions is gathering artifacts for the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I’ve met a lot of interesting people through that,” he said.

Russell has found most people willing to loan items to the hall for a year, but that some donors are careful to ensure that memorabilia so significant to a particular school is preserved and protected while on display.

When Patten Academy’s 1947 New England championship team was honored last year, Russell learned its championship plaque might be available.

“The man who had it wanted it on display but the only way it was going on display was if he put it in the display case and took it out himself,” Russell said.

Similar concern arose when Russell and a friend gathered items from the former Brownville Junction High School last summer on the same day the school’s alumni association was holding its annual meeting.

“We were taking things out of the room where they keep all those things and loading them into my truck, and the next day I get a call from the president of the alumni association saying, ‘Jeepers, people are really worried about that stuff, can you write down everything you have, and even better can you take a picture of it?’

“So I drove to the Cross Center the next day and took pictures of the items in the cabinet to verify it for them.

“People are very willing to donate things,” he added, “but they’re also protective. You can’t blame them. It’s a big part of their history.”

That’s something Jamie Russell understands quite well.

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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...