It was in 1968 that Tom Cheek lost out on the broadcasting job with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. He came close but was beaten out by Skip Caray.
Good thing. If he had gotten the job, he never would have had the chance to broadcast that great 1971 Division II state final in boys basketball at Patrick Gym between Fair Haven and Winooski.
Fair Haven fans filled up their cars at 40 cents a gallon that day and made the trip to Burlington with high hopes of seeing their Slaters upset the Spartans. There was no question that Winooski was a solid favorite.
There were plenty of Rutland County fans in the gym that day. Proctor was playing Arlington in an earlier contest for the Division III crown.
Arlington had a huge halftime lead but the Phantoms stormed back. The game got very close, and in the Proctor huddle, Billy Greeno looked into the stands and winked at a fan as if to say ‘we’ve got this.’
The Phantoms didn’t have it. The Eagles hung on for a 50-46 victory.
The world was a very different place then. There were no girls basketball state championship games. They began in 1972.
Tom Cheek had worked in Rutland at both radio stations, WHWB and WSYB. He was working in Burlington by 1971 and describing the action of the Fair Haven-Winooski game.
“I am not sure if WSYB carried the broadcast. It might have been only on the Burlington station,” Rutland broadcaster Jack Healey said. “I know Tom Cheek did the game because one of the Fair Haven parents gave me the tape to listen to.”
The Slaters stunned Winooski, 54-51 and needed a clutch free throw by Tim Gilbert to do it.
Gilbert’s teammate Jay Wilson stepped over to the foul line and whispered something to Gilbert. I was standing on the baseline, ready to make my way out of the gym after the final horn but could not quite hear what Wilson was saying.
The words have certainly been changed over the course of 50 years but roughly it was: “We love you whether you make it or miss it.”
Even then, Wilson had the earmarks of the future great coach, the one who won 223 games and a couple of state crowns as the boys basketball coach at Mill River from 1978 through 1995. One of those state crowns came against Fair Haven, 61-53 in 1982.
Wilson and Gilbert would go on to be members of the faculty at Rutland High at the same time, Wilson a math teacher and Gilbert a science teacher.
The coach on the Winooski bench that day was Rene Blanchard.
Blanchard won more than 200 games during his varsity career, also coaching at Weeks School in Vergennes and Plainfield.
Blanchard and Wilson are linked as members of the Vermont Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Mike Barsalow was on the Fair Haven bench matching wits with Blanchard that day. Barsalow is also in the VBCA Hall of Fame with 318 victories over a coaching career that ran from 1966 through 1989.
The Wilson family coaching legacy marches on today. Jay assists his son Kyle in coaching the Fair Haven Union High girls varsity basketball team. He also is his son Chad’s assistant coach with the Proctor High boys varsity soccer team.
Like Jay, his sons have collected state championships.
I once got a ride from Cheek while hitchhiking on the corner of West and Pine in Rutland. He was on his way to do the 5:20 p.m. sportscast at WHWB on the West Proctor Road.
It was a thrill even though Cheek was still a long way from making one of the most memorable calls in broadcast history.
He became the Toronto Blue Jays’ first full-time broadcaster in 1977.
He is known for his call of Joe Carter’s home run in the sixth game that won the 1993 World Series: “Touch ‘em all, Joe, you’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.”
Cheek had quite a run before dying at age 66, 10 days after surgery for a brain tumor in 2005.
He had a streak of broadcasting 4,306 consecutive games, plus 41 postseason games, for the Blue Jays.
Also on his resume is play-by-play for the University of Vermont’s basketball and football game.
Ah, but that game in 1971 that links Wilson, Gilbert, Barsalow, Blanchard, Cheek and so many others. That was special.