Photos from the 1960 Lewiston High School yearbook from the school’s library of the 1960 LHS State Champion basketball team. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

They are in their 70s now and some memories have faded, but the winds of time have not diminished the pride of surviving members of the Lewiston High School boys championship basketball team.

Six decades have elapsed since the Blue Devils brought home their one and only state title, but there are moments players can’t forget, and each athlete has their own story to tell about that storied, 1960 season.

“What made this team special is we were all real teammates,” Lewiston point guard Lionel Rodrigue said. “There was no hogging the ball. All we wanted to do is put the ball in the basket. We didn’t care who did it.”

Michael Fortunato, 77, a junior guard and a retired school counselor at Cony High School, said the Devils’ starting five were in a league of their own.

“Any of the players who weren’t starters realized that the five players were head and shoulders above the rest of us,” he said. “When we practiced, and Paul Fortin took something off the board, and you were the guard and you were supposed to start the fast break, you’ve got to catch a ball that is going 100 miles per hour because these guys were exceptional.”

Fern Masse was Lewiston’s assistant coach and would later take the reins from Nat Crowley to become head coach in 1962. He said it was a joy watching the Devils’ fast-break offense wear out teams.

“I like the way they played,” he said. “They played up-tempo. They ran the ball like the Celtics, fast break all the time, and they pressed. They ran the floor very well. Fred Gage (the late Lewiston Evening Journal sports editor) used to announce the games. He used to call them the Go-Go Devils.”

A PEEK INTO THE PAST

The 1960 Lewiston High School gold ball from the state champion basketball team after being dusted off and taken into the hall for a photo. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The 1959 season was a heartbreaker for the Blue Devils, who beat Farmington, St. Louis of Biddeford and eventually Deering for the Western Maine crown. A bitter loss to Bangor, 65-64, in the state championship game set the tone and attitude for the 1959-60 Blue Devils. Four starters were returning and that close loss against Bangor did not sit well with them.

Crowley’s starting five — forwards Dick Therriault, a junior who transferred from St. Dom’s a year earlier, along with four seniors, 6-foot-4 Dick Belaire, 6-foot-5 center Fortin and guards Rodrigue and John Doyle, were tall, quick and thrived on the fast break in 1960. Dave Kohr, sixth-man Ted Love, Fortunato and sophomore Ben Palubinskas were go-to players off the bench.

Three of the starters —Therriault, Fortin and Doyle — are deceased.

“We had so much talent. It was unbelievable,” Belaire said. “They were all good athletes, all good, you know? If I had to single out one player, it was Paul Fortin because he could shoot with both hands and he was unstoppable, really.

“The kids today don’t use that shot, but Paul Fortin could shoot a hook shot with either hand. You couldn’t stop it.”

Belaire pointed out that Fortin played for Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, for two years. He died at age 47 in 1989 and was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2015. According to the Maine Hall, Fortin was a Hardin-Simmons fan favorite for “his soft shooting touch and ambidextrous skills.” He averaged 17.2 points per game during the 1962-63 season.

“Paul Fortin didn’t know if he was right-handed or left-handed,” Fortunato said. “He could just turn and shoot from any place. He had large hands and was a great player.”

“Paul Fortin is the best player that ever left the state of Maine,” Ronald Sabourin, Lewiston’s senior team manager in 1959-60, said. “He was tall, he was lanky, but he had a wonderful shot and he was a great team player.”

Fortin’s coach, Lou Henson, who began his college coaching career at Hardin-Simmons before moving on to to become head coach at the University of Illinois and New Mexico State, died at 88 this past Wednesday. According to ESPN’s website, “Henson insisted that the Hardin-Simmons team (and thus the school) be racially integrated, a condition to which the university agreed.”

Masse later met Henson’s wife at a Final Four buffet. Henson’s wife asked Masse where he was from and he told her he was from Maine.

“You know, she says, ‘Maine! My husband coached boys from Maine,” Masse said.

Masse was taken aback. He asked her, “‘Is it Paul Fortin?’ She says, ‘You know something? You know what my husband said about him?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘He said he was the best 6-foot-5 player he ever coached.’ What a small word, huh?”

“I did meet her husband later on and I talked to him about Paul. He really enjoyed coaching Paul and so forth down down there.”

Photos from the 1960 Lewiston High School yearbook from the school’s library of the 1960 LHS State Champion basketball team. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Belaire has not forgotten the athletes he played with and the season that brought Lewiston its only boys basketball title.

“I do (think about them) quite often because we were so ahead of the curve,” Belaire said. “Once a year or twice a year, whenever I am in Maine, we get together, and right now the only one I get together with is Lionel Rodrigue.

“I think about (teammates) because we were a tall team for that time. No one was selfish. We didn’t have one set play. The only play we had was give the ball to the guy ahead of you and move it quickly. We were runners. We would get that ball and move it.”

“That’s all we were known for and that’s when nobody was running,” said Rodrigue, a point guard who oversaw Lewiston’s offense since he was a sophomore. “That’s the only way to win.”

Lewiston’s talent and fast-break mentality pointed Lewiston to a 24-0 season, a state championship title and earned the Blue Devils a trip to the New England hoop tournament at the Boston Garden.

“We probably had the best basketball player in the state in probably a long time — Paul Fortin,” former Lewiston guard/forward Bill O’Connell said.  “We had a great coach — Nat Crowley. Dick Therriault was very good. We had a bunch of good guys. We had good a bunch of complimentary guys, too. They all got along with each other.

The 1959-60 Lewiston High School boys basketball team, the only team in the schools history to win a basketball state championship. The team is, seated from left: Lionel Rodrigue, Ted Love, John Doyle, Dick Therriault, Paul Fortin and Dick Belaire; standing, from left: senior manager Ronald Sabourin, manager Bob Bemis, Ben Palubinskas, Norman Keneborus, Dave Kohr, Tim Love, Bill O’Connell, Mike Fortunato, manager Alan Grab and head coach Nat Crowley. Maine Sports Hall of Fame photo

“One of of the things you don’t know is that Paul Fortin, when he dunked the ball at the Garden, he broke the rim — pulled the rim right out of the glass.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was still in office when the Blue Devils dominated their league. Lewiston went 20-0 during the regular season and made another run for the state title, but there were some precarious moments for the team in the Western Maine tournament.

The first-round game against No. 8 South Portland featured strong performances by Fortin (28 points), Doyle (17) and Therriault (16), allowing the Devils to easily walk away with an 82-65 victory.

But No. 5 Morse, which was also having a banner year, made Lewiston twist and turn in a close, second-round game that came down to the final minute.

Photos from the 1960 Lewiston High School yearbook from the school’s library of the 1960 LHS State Champion basketball team. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Masse said Morse gave Lewiston a rough time in a regular-season game, too.

“Fortin didn’t play,” Masse said of the regular season game. “To my knowledge he didn’t even dress. He had hurt his ankle or something happened.”

Masse added that Lewiston was down 15 or 20 points in their first meeting before shaking off Morse, which reappeared in the semifinal game.

The Blue Devils trailed Morse 49-45 in the final four minutes of the Western Maine semifinal before going on a 13-7 scoring run. Doyle stepped up and tied the game and Belaire delivered the game-winning shot on a rebound. The Devils slipped away with a heart-stopping 58-56 win with little time on the clock.

“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” said the 78-year-old Belaire, who taught school for 20 years in the Portland system and then started a glass company.

Sabourin will never forget that nail-biting game.

“We won it in the last three seconds of the game,” said Sabourin, a former salesman. “It was the closest game I can remember.”

Lewiston disposed of No. 6 Cheverus in the next round, 67-60, with Doyle scoring 16 points and helping to hand Lewiston its second straight Western crown.

Fortin turned in another fine performance, scoring 26 points, to help deliver Lewiston’s 81-64 drubbing of Brewer and the state title at the Portland Expo. Doyle and Therriault backed up Fortin, scoring 20 and 21 points, respectively.

There are moments when Sabourin thinks back to that remarkable season and players.

“I grew up with a lot them,” Sabourin said. “Paul Fortin was a personal friend of mine. We used to tease one another mercilessly. I have a shoulder that still aches because he used to pound the hell out of that shoulder. We hung out at Sabattus and Congress streets. We spent many nights watching cars go by and talking.”

Lewiston’s shining 1960 season earned the team an invite to compete in the New England championship at the Boston Garden.

Photos from the 1960 Lewiston High School yearbook from the school’s library of the 1960 LHS State Champion basketball team. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of the Boston Garden, Lewiston picked up where it left off after the state championship game, winning the first two rounds of the New England tournament. The Blue Devils beat Malden, Massachusetts, 70-66 and Notre Dame (West Haven, Connecticut) 70-67 before falling to Wilbur Cross High School of Fairfield, Connecticut, which stalled the ball and slowed down the Go-Go Devils to collect a 70-58 victory.

“That’s how Wilbur Cross beat us in the end,” O’Connell recalled. “They sat on the ball in the last quarter.”

“The first game in New Englands,” Belaire recalled, “we played Malden and we were 17 points behind at halftime and we came back and beat them. The next day we were having a luncheon, and we were sitting with the Malden players, and they said, ‘You know the second half, we couldn’t run anymore.’ They were dead (on their feet).”

FRIENDS FOR LIFE

Four of the fives starters on the championship team — Belaire, Rodrigue, Fortin and Doyle — established a bond that went all the way back to the fourth grade.

“I transferred from St. Mary’s School to St. Peter’s in the fourth grade,” Belaire said. “And in the fourth grade, and at that time there was a Brother Eric who ran a basketball program, and he came out to me and said, ‘Would you like to play basketball?’”

Belaire had never played the sport, but the brother invited Belaire to come Saturday and he would introduce the elementary student to basketball. Belaire was a no-show.

“On that Monday, Brother Eric said, ‘We missed you. Think about it. About 50 kids and he said, ‘We missed you.’ I said to him, ‘I don’t have any sneakers.’ So he said, ‘Oh, no problem. Come this Saturday and we will have sneakers for you.’ Now I go and he has sneakers for me.”

Belaire eventually hooked up with Therriault, Rodrigue and Fortin, who were also hoop players. In the summer of 1956, the players were about to head to Saint Dominic Academy to start their freshman year.

“But here is what happens,” Belaire said. “In the summer, Saint Dominic canceled football. So what happens is my friends who play football say, ‘Hey, we are not going there. An avalanche takes place and we all go to Lewiston.

“So now out of the starting five, you have four people who were in that basketball program. Then in the summer, myself, Paul Fortin, Lionel Rodrigue, we would play on the Bates playground every day, and Dick Therriault played at City Park in Lewiston, and we played against each other.

“Nat Crowley, who was the coach at that time, took care of the playgrounds in the summer so he could see what was coming in (to Lewiston). He would talk to us and be very nice to us. But four of the five started from that elementary basketball program.”

“We played ball for years together,” Rodrigue added.

Sabourin pointed out that the friendship between the four and their days spent playing pick-up sports helped give them the edge at the high school level.

“They were already familiar with one another’s playing and they could run forever,” Sabourin said.

COACH’S CALL

Crowley, who served in World War II as a top-turret gunner in B-24s for the U.S. Army Air Corps and spent time in the political arena as a state legislator, was a devoted coach who believed speed and passing wins basketball games. He died in 2015 at age 98.

“When I was a freshman in high school, Nat Crowley found a job for me in the City Park playground,” Fortunato said. “I was a counselor and I worked that all through high school and all through college. I thought that was a nice thing.”

Fortunato said Crowley was a quiet man who implemented the fast break.

“One of things he liked to do at the end of practice (is play) Three Xs (three-man teams) with us, and he wouldn’t stop playing until they won the last game, then practice was over,” Fortunato said. “He was a very nice man. He was the only school counselor we had for 1,600 students, so his job was enormous.”

The 1960 Lewiston High School gold ball from the state champion basketball team after being dusted off and taken into the hall for a photo. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Sabourin also had fond memories Crowley, who also described him as quiet, knowledgeable and demanding, but not in a draconian way.

“We understood the practices were meant for practice not for fooling around,” the former team manager said.

Palubinskas, 76, a sophomore guard, said Crowley was a good coach who kept things together and focused.

“I mean, that team wanted to go to the New Englands (when) they lost that opportunity before by getting beat by Bangor,” said Palubinskas, a retired Westbrook middle school teacher. “They had a mission and you couldn’t find a better bunch of guys.

“I made some mistakes and they weren’t hollering at you. They were very supportive and trying to help out. They were just a super bunch of guys. You can quote me in saying I think this is one of the best teams ever. You had Dick Love coming off the bench at 6-foot-5, and I was short.”

WENT TO A GARDEN PARTY

After the Blue Devils snatched the state title, the championship team couldn’t wait to step onto the court at the Boston Garden in the New England competition.

“Imagine playing at the Boston Garden to a full house, and you are a kid from Lewiston, Maine,” Belaire said.

“Back in the day, it was the six teams in New England (that played) and they changed it after we were done to just playing four teams,” Rodrigue said. “Malden was supposed to win the place.”

But Wilbur Cross stole the show and won the final.

“They were big, tall and old. They looked like men,” Rodrigue said with a laugh.

Stepping onto to the Boston Garden’s court for Fortunato was a thrill of a lifetime.

“The fondest memory for me was with one minute left to go in the championships at the Boston Garden,” Fortunato recalled, “Lionel Rodrigue fouled out, and thanks to Rod, I played a minute on the parquet floor. They can’t take that away from me. It is a great memory”

Playing hoop at the Boston Garden left Palubinskas star struck.

“We were practicing and there weren’t any fans,” Palubinskas recalled. “I mean I was 15 years old and I going, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ I was scared as I could be.

“The first time the coach called my name, I didn’t move. He mentioned again to one of the guys and he said, ‘He wants you.’ I was one scared puppy. Game day, I couldn’t believe it. The place was loaded. It’s packed. It was quite an experience to say the least. Yeah, it was fun.”

“It was big time for a kid from Maine,” said O’Connell, who was a manager of manufacturing plants.

“Going to the Garden was a big deal for anyone,” Masse added.

Some memories slip into oblivion, but the pride Belaire still feels for the 1960 team remains.

“That year, to me, is something that will last with me for a lifetime — friendship and all those things that happened,” Belaire said. “Just playing at the Boston Garden was a dream. To me, Lewiston (boys basketball) has not won a championship since then. I would say we were the greatest team to come out of Lewiston High School.”

Tough to argue Belaire’s point with the championship hardware sitting in Lewiston High School’s trophy case for the past 60 years.

Former Lewiston boys basketball coach and athletic director Fern Masse assisted in this article by providing players’ phone numbers and sharing his knowledge of basketball. Bim Gibson’s book, “History of Edward Little/Lewiston Basketball,” served as a helpful reference and contains a wealth of information about the basketball programs at the two Twin Cities high schools.


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