Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 7, 2014

End of an era

Palo Alto High's gym saw 85 years of athletic success and achievement while leaving lasting memories

by Keith Peters

The evening of Jan. 11, 1929, was historic for Palo Alto High School as more than 2,500 folks — about half of them students — attended the dedication of the school's new gym.

Following the formal dedication, the Paly boys basketball team took the floor at George Stewart Gym and made some local history by playing rival Sequoia High School in the first-ever game hosted there. The Vikings won, starting a tradition of success that would span 85 years in the classic building with the elevated, painted wooden bleachers.

On Feb. 27, 2014, the Palo Alto and Sequoia boys took to that same floor in that same ancient gym one final time. The occasion was the Central Coast Section Division I playoffs. The Vikings won again, this time 61-49. Two days later, Paly fell to Menlo-Atherton High in the quarterfinals.

That loss not only ended the Vikings' season but brought a close to a unique era of championships and history in the sport. While badminton players will take over the gym this spring, the final basketball game has been played and the final wrestling match has been held.

The next ball to be brought to Paly's gym will be a wrecking ball in June, sometime after graduation, when the Class of 2014 not only bids farewell to its school but to a part of local sports history.

The memories are many, perhaps too many to share in one space. Clem Wiser won more than 400 basketball games at Paly and had no idea where to start.

"After spending some 35 years at Paly, 28 as the varsity basketball coach and two terms as AD (athletic director), it would be impossible to list all the memories and good times," he said. "Needless to say, I enjoyed my time in the old gym and hate to see it go!"

Wiser, who turned 90 in May, will go down as the winningest basketball coach in Paly history in the old gym, compiling a record of 401-248 with 19 winning seasons and nine championship teams — six in the South Peninsula Athletic League and three in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League.

Wiser coached current Oregon state Sen. Ron Wyden in the late 1960s. Wyden still holds the school scoring record in league play as he averaged 25.5 points a game in 1967.

Long before Wiser and Wyden took the floor, it was Hod Ray who coached the first Paly basketball team in 1929. That team went 19-0 and later was voted State Team of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports. In 1930, the Vikings went 14-0 (including a forfeit) and won the same honor.

Ray, who coached for 25 seasons and won 250 games, had a third State Team of the Year in 1942 when the Vikings went 18-0.

In one of his final years, Ray coached Jim Loscutoff. He led the Vikings in scoring and rebounding and was named the Peninsula Athletic League's Player of the Year after leading the Vikings to the title in 1948. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound Loscutoff eventually made his way into the National Basketball Association and played on numerous championship teams with Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics while earning the nickname "Jungle Jim."

It was decades later, however, that Palo Alto won its first-ever state championship. John Barrette, who passed away in 2004 at age 71, coached the Vikings to a 31-0 record that was capped with a huge 79-59 upset of Morningside in the CIF Division III title game that year. That perfect mark still ranks among the state's all-time leaders for an undefeated campaign.

David Weaver, who was the captain of that team, recalls first seeing the Paly gym in 1988. A few years later, he was leading the Vikings to a historic undefeated season.

"For our team as a whole, our gym represented something much more important and indelible than anything we could ever achieve as individuals," said Weaver, who now works in a law office in Seattle, Wash., and is recently married. "It became the place where we all learned to let go of our desires for individual accolades and recognition. As cliche as it might sound, we learned how to be selfless in that gym. It was there that we realized how helping one another succeed was truly more gratifying than anything we could accomplish on our own.

"And because of that collective sentiment we developed together, we were able to take the program to new heights and set a new standard for the teams that played after us in that gym. And because of our time together there, we continue to share a bond with one another that will last us all a lifetime."

It was 13 years later that another young player by the name of Jeremy Lin helped lead another Palo Alto basketball team that was steeped in those same values. Once again, an underdog Paly team rose up to claim the CIF Division II state title with a 51-47 shocker over heavily favored Mater Dei. The Vikings went 32-1 that season, establishing a school record for most games won in a single season. Lin went on to star at Harvard University and now plays in the NBA for the Houston Rockets.

Peter Diepenbrock coached the Vikings to that 2006 state title.

"Obviously, having coached around 100 games in the gym, I have lots of very special memories," he said. "But, my most special memories are the Gunn games and the playoff games. That is when the gym was full and had a classic high school atmosphere."

Diepenbrock said two games stood out for him, his first game against rival Gunn and his last (NorCal) playoff game against Laguna Creek.

"That first Gunn game was insane! It was the 1997-98 season, and we were in different leagues. We played them just the one time. We were up most of the game. Then at the end there was two seconds left and we were up 1 and shooting two free throws. We missed them both and, on the second miss, we fouled them going for the rebound! Then they came down and missed the free throw and then they tipped in the miss from 6 feet away as the buzzer went off to win by 1.

"The roar from the Gunn crowd at that instant was the loudest I had ever heard at a basketball game in my life. Just totally deafening!"

Diepenbrock's other memory involved the NorCal semifinal in 2006 against Laguna Creek.

"The gym was totally packed full," Diepenbrock recalled. "We were up 8 starting the fourth quarter. We were held scoreless for the first seven minutes and they tied it up. Then Jeremy (Lin) hit a clutch 3, as he tended to do, to win the game and the crowd went completely bonkers! I have always said that we would not have beaten that team on any other court. We needed every bit of that gym and that crowd to get that win."

While the Palo Alto boys won more than 1,000 basketball games over the life of their gym, the accomplishments stretch beyond that. The Paly girls made some history, as well, in the sport.

Under the guidance of coach Scott Peters, his 2011 team captured the SCVAL De Anza Division title with a 12-0 record (its first unbeaten record in that league) and won its first-ever Central Coast Section crown in program history with a victory — appropriately enough — over rival Gunn in the Division I finals.

Basketball, of course, wasn't the only sport played in the gym. Volleyball and wrestling had their moments, too.

Two of the best wrestlers in U.S. history left their mark at Paly — Dave and Mark Schultz. Dave won the school's first-ever state championship in 1977 and Mark followed a year later with one of his own. The two went on to win gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The girls' volleyball program also brought two state championships to the school, in 2010 and 2011. The team went a combined 77-4 over those two seasons while achieving unparalleled success in program history.

Kimmy Whitson was the starting setter both seasons and recalled what a special time that was and what the old gym meant to the athletes.

"One of my favorite memories is winning the NorCal title at home my senior year," said Whitson, now a standout player at Pacific. "We had a huge student section and fan section in general, and it seemed as though the stands were practically full. I loved the fact that our gym was different from everyone else's and was intimidating for other teams to come play in.

"We always would joke about having home-court advantage simply because we were used to practicing in the extremely hot and non-air-conditioned playing conditions. But, in truth, it was extremely special to play in that gym. The atmosphere is incredible, and we loved being able to look down on the court when watching games or looking up at our fans from the court when we were playing. I ran a lot of liners, played a lot of volleyball, and worked extremely hard in that gym with a great group of girls for four years. The banners and great games that have been played there is something really special.

"I feel really lucky to have played in the Paly Gym and am sad to see it go but excited to see the improvements of the new gym in the future!"

So it's time to start packing up the memorabilia and trophies and all the banners and plaques that have hung from the rafters and clung to the walls for so many years. The old gym has seen better days, and it's time for a new one. The memories, however, will always be there. They are a part of a special 85-year moment in time that may never be equaled again.

Sports Editor Keith Peters can be emailed at kpeters@paweekly.com.

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