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How A Small Town in Rural Arizona Put Aside its Racial Differences for the Good of the Game!

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

The town of Miami, Arizona, in the early to mid-1900s was known around the state for its basketball team. During the Depression, the team of coaches Bryant C. "Bud" Doolen and R.V. Zegers captured the Eastern Conference championship for Miami in 1930, 1935, and 1938. In 1941, the Vandals won their first state basketball championship when they defeated Peoria by a score of 44 to 40. It wasn't until their second state-championship in 1951 that it really made an impact.

In 1951 the Vandals of Miami would shatter national high school records and go on to win the State Championship. This was of small importance to what this team really meant for the individuals involved and the community as a whole.

During this time, Miami, Globe, and the surrounding areas had racial issues between Hispanics and Euro-Americans that were to the point of boiling over. Hispanic in the 1910s and 1920s would migrate to the area looking for work and the ability to provide an improved quality of life for their families by working in the mines. Upon their arrival, almost immediate segregation from the two ethnicities was enacted.

Local elementary schools were segregated by race, separating the Euro-American children from these Hispanic immigrants, until they would reach high school.

Segregation and the uneasiness of ethnicities were also present by the use of the local YMCA's in the area. The year 1915, Miami would partner with the YMCA to build a large three-story building in the center of town for recreational use. A few years later, YMCA leaders would establish a Mexican 'Y' room, which was a small wood-framed room specifically for Mexican-born and Mexican American laborers. The YMCA would serve for both ethnicities as a place where they would be introduced to the game of basketball, but the Hispanic children would play in the Mexican league, and Euro-Americans would have a league of their own.

Then a particular individual and his wife would move to the Miami area and things started to change. In the year 1947, Miami High School would hire a man named Ernest Kivisto from Michigan, the son of Finnish immigrant parents. The year before being hired and moving to Miami, Kivisto would finish his bachelor's degree in philosophy. During his time at the University of Marquette, Kivisto would star on the basketball team and would participate in track and field.

Immediately upon his arrival, Kivisto got to work. One of his first significant moves was pressing the high school leadership to provide the funding for brand new sets of uniforms and team sweats. Some of the Hispanic kids would explain this as the first time they received brand new clothing. That was not the only new look that the team took on. With the integration of the two different ethnicities, Kivisto taught relentlessly about teamwork and effort, and that is how his team started to perform and wins started stacking up against some of the region's better teams.

For many of the Mexican players, they found it easy to relate to this new coach. Coming from immigrant parents who also worked in a mining town of their own, Kivisto understood the lifestyle that some of these Mexican kids were going through. He showed his frustration for the way that some of his Hispanic players were being treated on a road trip to Morenci, where his team approached a restaurant that had a sign that read they would not serve Mexicans. Coach Kivisto would pack up his bags and would not be found eating at a restaurant that would not serve all of his players.

The new leadership of this team on and off the court would create a ginormous stir. The team was playing fast, and they were playing together. During the 1951 season, the team would never find themselves on the wrong side of the win/loss column. They would gain national exposure for their fast-break style of play, and the entire community began to support these young men for what they stood for, how they played together, and the show that they were putting on. The time had come to do more cheering for the entire team, regardless of ethnicity. This comradery would be capped as the team would hoist their second state championship.

This unbeaten high school basketball team, through their play, and the ability to grow and bond together would be the catalyst in starting a shift towards better ethnic relations in their school and the copper mining-based community. The town would unite to support these young men representing their town through the game of basketball.

Pretty cool story of how people can work together for the common good when they have something both sides believe in.In this case, a group of young men where worth putting their differences aside, and a small town in rural America learned to trust the soul of a man rather than his ethnicity.

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