"It was the shot heard around a state"
By TOM CHARD, Staff Writer
Their jump shots have lost a little of their arc and the kids don't have the spring in their legs they once had.
But in the minds of Eastern Maine basketball fans, they're forever young.
They still see a bespectacled Mike Thurston dribbling and passing, Mike Kelley pulling up for a jumper,
and rugged Quentin Blackstone pulling down a rebound.
The story of how Caribou won its only state title on a miraculous, half-court shot 30 years ago is retold every winter,
when the high school basketball tournaments take up residence in the Bangor Auditorium.
The legend of Thurston and his Viking teammates continues to grow. It's part of tournament lore.
There have been many other memorable tournament games, but none had the impact
of Thurston's last-second, improbable shot that won a state title.
Caribou's state title, and "Half-court Thurston's" miracle shot, ranks No. 9 in our series chronicling the top 20 Maine sports moments of the century.
"They talk about it every year," said Bud Smith, a long-time Caribou fan. "One of the sportscasters on TV or a radio announcer
always mentions it during the tournament. "It was quite a thing. It meant a lot to the community. It put Caribou on the map."
Smith, 70, who lived in Caribou and attended every game before he moved to Madawaska Lake, now follows the Vikings on the radio during basketball season.
He still has vivid memories of the 1969 cardiac kids. "They played tough defense. Gerry Duffy was a good coach.
Caribou's 65-63 victory against Westbrook for the state title cemented the nickname given by a local radio announcer.
The Vikings never led until the end.
During their 14-4 regular season, the Vikings had several comebacks. The one that is remembered most
came in a game they lost. Against Belfast, which beat Caribou twice that season,
the Vikings erased a 16-point lead before losing. But in the tournament the cardiac kids did everything right.
Their last three games were won by a combined five points.
In the Eastern Maine tournament, Caribou trailed John Bapst in the semifinals.
"We went full-court, stole the ball four times, and scored each time and won by two points," said Duffy,
who now lives in Bangor. "In the final against Lawrence, which had an excellent team,
they had a good big man. We put our big man (Peter Curran) on him and he negated him. We won by a point."
Thurston's winning heave against Westbrook is etched in Duffy's mind and those of every Caribou fan over 40 years of age.
"Mike took a pass from Curran, who rebounded a Westbrook miss," said Duffy. "Mike took a couple of dribbles and shot a two-handed set.
He was about 8 to 9 feet behind half-court. The ball didn't touch the rim."
Thurston used to try half-court shots after Caribou's practices. In fact, he made a similar shot in a practice game with Presque Isle a few days before the state final.
"Presque Isle's coach, Gary Osgood, told me to save that shot for the state championship," said Thurston.
Teammate Larry Murphy remembers Thurston and assistant coach Larry Baker having half-court shooting contests during the season.
"Mike got pretty good at making that shot," said Murphy, now the boys varsity basketball coach at Fort Kent High.
Murphy remembers being in the state final as a dream come true. "The Bangor Auditorium was kind of overwhelming," he said.
"We had never played in such a big building in front of a crowd that size. We got a taste of it in the Eastern Maine tournament,
but the state championship was even more magnified." Murphy, a reserve, didn't play in the game, but he remembers being so excited after Thurston's shot
that he started running around in circles on the court.
"We ate at the Pilots Grill in Bangor after the game," he said. "The next day we headed home. We rode in Cadillacs with the tops down through Caribou.
"It was a little chilly. It was like a mini-ticker tape parade. We were escorted to the school gym.
"The state championship gave the town tremendous pride. All the younger kids in town wanted to be players. It made me believe that anything is possible.
I've used that psychology with every team I've coached.
"Every year at the tournament there are at least two or three people who come up to me and mention that game. The radio and TV stations talk about it every year
when tourney highlights are mentioned."
Thirty years ago, Caribou sold out every home game. "Against Presque Isle, our biggest rival, we set out folding chairs at both ends of the floor
to accommodate the crowd," said Thurston.
Caribou's high school enrollment in 1969 (1,200) was about double what it is today. The closing of nearby Loring Air Force Base and the general
economic decline in Aroostook County has caused people to leave.
"The main thing is that people didn't have work so they moved away," said Caribou Athletic Director Dwight Hunter.
"Rural population in Maine is decreasing except in York and Cumberland counties, where there is more economic opportunity.
Also, families were bigger 30 years ago. "We're Class A in basketball, soccer, tennis and cheerleading. We're Class B in all the other sports."
In 1968-69 season, just making the basketball team at Caribou was extremely competitive.
"As freshmen we had an undefeated season," said Murphy. "Of that team, I think only five or six were still on the basketball team as seniors."
Curran, a 6-foot-7 senior, began the season as the ninth man on the team. He kept improving and started in the final.
Thurston, Blackstone, Curran, Kelley and Keith Rockwell started for the Vikings in the state championship game.
Westbrook featured standouts of its own — Don Douglas, Dan Randall and its leading scorer, Matt Donahue.
Last December the Vikings were honored at the annual alumni game. The cardiac kids played against the current varsity. For a brief moment it was like 1969 again.
"It was a very nice night for all of us. Caribou always does things up well," said Thurston.
Thurston said he still gets people who come up to him and reminisce.
"I was at a youth flag football game and a grandfather of one of the players told me he saw me make the shot," he said.
There have been many other memorable state finals and tournament games. Stearns vs. Morse in 1963 and South Portland vs. Bangor in 1992 were two of the best.
And there have been other long shots. A few years ago Brewer beat Mt. Blue in the Eastern Maine tournament on a three-quarter court shot.
But no other shot to match Thurston's has won a state title.
Ironically, if one were to rate Maine's top 10 high school basketball teams of all-time, Caribou's cardiac kids probably wouldn't make the list.
What makes Caribou's state title such a special part of Maine sports history is how it won the Gold Ball, and how the team's achievement
lifted the spirit of the Caribou community for years.
"To me that's what makes the moment so special," said Bangor High assistant principal Paul Soucy, who has served as floor manager
at the Eastern Maine tournament for several years.
"A state championship hangs in the balance as the shot was in the air."