By Todd Lancaster
Times Herald Columnist
---- — The world was a different place on Dec. 14, 1923. It was before television, internet, trans-Atlantic flight, moon-walking, computers, the horrors of WWII or the social change that has essentially moved us from the end of the Victorian era to cyber-driven virual world we live in today.
And there was an other thing that wasn’t here — Jim Riffey.
However, not too very long after Big Jim arrived that December, he made a big impact of Washington Hatchet basketball.
Jim Riffey is one of two remaining members of the Hatchet championship teams of 1941 and 1942, a member of three basketball Hall of Fames, and in his day, he was the “big man on campus at WHS.”
He will also turn 90 on Saturday.
I have known Jim for the last decade or so. He began to call from his home in Battle Creek, Mich., at the start of the Hatchets “decade of dominance” in the early 2000s and we have continued to correspond several times a year ever since.
He has been invaluable as resource as we looked back on those early championships, and has given me several first-person narratives about his experiences in the South Pacific. However, mostly what he has given me was his friendship. His booming voice and infectious laugh always leaves me with a smile after one of our phone calls.
Washington fans should know that he has his son Mike helps him keep an eye on the internet with the Hatchets and follows the Zeller brothers as well. As he enters his ninth decade of life, Jim is always good for a laugh — and never afraid to share his opinion.
Jim is a living, walking history of the early years of the NBA. When he was selected 19th in the 1950 NBA draft. Do you know who was drafted just a head of him? Bob Cousy, Paul Arizin, Bill Sharman and George Yardley — four NBA Hall of Famers. In the fourth round of that same draft, Hall of Fame Minnesota Viking football coach Bud Grant was selected by the Lakers. Not bad company for a guy from the West End (something he is still proud to say).
The last time I talked to Jim I asked him if he played football at Washington? He said “Heck no, Marion Crawley wouldn’t let me. He let Charlie Harmon and Art Grove play, but he wouldn’t let me,” sounding like he was still upset with the decision 73 years later.
Jim is of those “Greatest Generation” guys, as an entire generation left warm and comfortable lives (for Jim it was as a freshman basketball player at Purdue) to experience a Hell that only those who were witness to it will ever understand.
When they returned, they built a nation, however, I believe that Jim had a little fun on the way. He scored over 1,000 points in his career at Tulane (after the war), after which came the NBA and a successful coaching career in both Kentucky and Michigan. Jim recently lost his wife after more than 60 years of marriage, however that alone is a testament to the values that generation possessed.
The first question Jim always asks me is “How is your family doing?” and when he ends the call he reminds me to “tell everyone down there I miss them, and I’m going to get down to Washington again soon.”
One thing Jim always stressed to me is no matter where he traveled, or where he played basketball, that old gym in Washington is the place he remembers best.
Gentleman like Riffey and teammate Charlie Harmon (currently living in the Cincinnati area) are last of basketball legacy from a bygone time. However, with 180 years between them, it is quite legacy, but more importantly than legacy, they are lives well-lived.
Happy 90th birthday Jim Riffey, from all of Hatchet nation.