In today’s Twitter/Instagram hurry-up world, it’s far too easy to overlook a time when the pace was more measured — but the achievements hardly less notable. Former Washington basketball All-American Bob Houbregs died Wednesday at 82, and one local sportscast devoted 18 seconds to the story, while pronouncing Houbregs’ name wrong.
Houbregs is worth lingering over, the best player on the only Final Four team in Washington history (1953), a 1987 inductee into the Naismith Hall of Fame, and, with Brandon Roy, the only basketball Huskies to have their numbers retired.
Comparing eras is always dangerous turf, but this is the big picture: Houbregs scored 1,774 points, currently fifth on the all-time UW list, and he did it in three years, because freshmen were ineligible then. If he’d had a fourth season, no doubt he would have far surpassed Christian Welp’s (1984-87) school record of 2,073 points.
One appreciates Houbregs’ contribution more fully when you look at the UW top 10 in scoring. Every other player on it competed at least two decades after he did, and it’s dotted heavily with more recent names like Jon Brockman, Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas.
People seem to remember two things about the 6-foot-7 Houbregs: He had a hook shot, and he was a great guy. Those are the attributes Frank Guisness, a UW teammate, wants underscored.
“The best thing I can say is, the only thing better than his basketball was him as a person,” Guisness told me Thursday. “Everybody liked Bob Houbregs.
“He had the best hook shot I ever saw, and I saw a bunch of them in my career — using no backboard, and way out.”
Legend is that then-coach Tippy Dye taught Houbregs the hook shot, and the big guy perfected it in only a couple of months.
A Spokane Chronicle piece in 1953, previewing a weekend series between the UW and WSU, quoted John Wooden as saying, “Bob has a hook shot better than George Mikan.” Mikan was one of the premier centers of the era and a longtime pro.
And what Guisness says about a distance hook shot is true. Back in the day, the hook wasn’t the little six-foot baby of today. Guys would unfurl it from deep. In 1965, I went to the Final Four in Portland, and recall Bill Bradley of Princeton winging at least one hook in from the deep baseline near the corner.
That Spokane Chronicle piece claimed that Houbregs “often casts off from as far as 25 feet. He amazed Wooden last year with a hook from the extreme right-hand corner.”
Washington went 24-6, 25-6 and 28-3 in Houbregs’ three varsity seasons, culminated by that Final Four. Guisness says Dye, on a trip to Seattle before his death in 2011, said the 1952 team was better than the one in ’53, but the No. 6-ranked Huskies fell to 19th-ranked UCLA on the road in two of three games in the Pacific Coast Conference playoffs, and that was the end of the road for Washington.
As the 1953 season wound down, the Huskies were matched against Seattle University in the two schools’ first meeting in the NCAA Western Regionals in Corvallis. This was the heyday of the O’Brien twins with the Chieftains, and in an age when there was no NFL, major-league baseball or NBA, it was a big deal here.
“Like I tell people, I was proud to hold Bob to 45 points,” Johnny O’Brien joshed Thursday. “He had a great hook shot, and we decided to overplay him to his right hand and force him to the basket so he couldn’t get that shot. Unfortunately, our off-side forward couldn’t get around to him quickly enough.
“It turned into a gym-rat game and they were better than us.”
Indeed, Houbregs scored a then-NCAA record 45, and the Huskies won big, 92-70. A win against Santa Clara bought them a trip to Kansas City for the Final Four, but Houbregs got in foul trouble against Kansas and the Huskies were bounced out, 79-53, in the semifinals.
As for that first UW-SU meeting, the participants have remembered it as one in which the hype exceeded the hatred.
Says O’Brien, “There was quite a bit of rivalry and trash talk, but the players all knew one another and enjoyed being with one another.” In fact, O’Brien remembers he and his twin brother Eddie, who died in February, meeting Houbregs frequently “at Clark’s Round The Clock Restaurant (at Olive and Boren) for a hamburger with chili on it.
“Bob was the nicest person you’d ever want to see. And he was a generous donor to the Ed O’Brien fund at Seattle U. when Ed passed on.”
Houbregs had a five-year pro career and later became SuperSonics general manager from 1970-73.
Houbregs battled leg problems on and off throughout his life, dealing with rickets as a small child, and in his advanced years, a neuropathy condition that limited feeling in his lower legs. As a result, he had a couple of serious falls.
As recently as May 7, he attended an old-timers basketball dinner, so even at the end, he was among friends. Bob Houbregs had a lot of them.