Hoops History: This League was the Next Stop for College Players Before the NBA

Workforce |  2 min. read

Here’s a little hoop history to get you in the mood for March Madness.  No school has won more NCAA titles than UCLA – 11 altogether (and that record won’t change this year, since UCLA won’t be going to the Big Dance).

And of the teams that are in this year’s tournament, none of them are even close to the record:  Duke has 5, North Carolina 6, and Kentucky is in second place with 8 titles.

But there is ANOTHER team with 11 national titles to its credit.  Want to guess?  We’ll give you a clue – this team’s nickname is the 66ers.


               TICK TOCK

                                 TICK TOCK.

Ok, time’s up.  And if your guess is the Phillips 66ers – our Stetson is off to you.  On the other hand, if you’re thinking, “Who?” – here’s their championship story:

Back in the days after basketball had been invented (1891, Dr. James Naismith) but before the NBA (1949) – the next stop for most college basketball players was the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union.  And one of those AAU teams was the Phillips 66ers (yes, that Phillips, the energy company).

The game was a little different in the ‘40s and ‘50s than it is today.  No three balls, for instance.  But watch a little 66er video, and you’ll see some slick ball movement and sweet mid-range jumpers.

Some of those 66ers had some serious game:  like Bob Kurland, the first player to dunk, back in 1944 when he played for Oklahoma State; Kurland went on to play for – the Phillips 66ers.  And Hank Luisetti, who the San Francisco Chronicle described this way, “Imagine a basketball player from 80 years ago who compares to … Stephen Curry. … He dribbled behind his back, fired no-look passes and drove the lane with either hand” – Luisetti also logged a year as a 66er, in the ’41-42 season.

Phillips wasn’t the only business to field a basketball team in those days.  The 66ers matched up with teams like the Peoria Caterpillars, Denver-Chicago Trucking and the Buchan Bakers.  But at their best, there was nobody like the 66ers.  During those six years they were national champions (1943-48):  the team record was 241-24.  Overall, the team had 1,543 wins, and just 271 losses.

But those 66ers weren’t just basketball players.  They also had day jobs working for the Phillips Petroleum Company (as it was known back then).  As Bill Martin told the Oklahoma City News, “I got $125 a month, worked all day and played basketball at night.”  Burdie Haldorson (who also played on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 1956) explained, “Phillips offered me the chance to continue playing basketball, as well as a good job. … we reported to work every day and practiced after work.”

The first 66ers hit the court in 1921, and with a couple of stops and starts, Phillips fielded a team through to 1968.

As it turned out, the 66ers were a pretty successful bunch off the court too.  Over the years, the 66ers roster included four company presidents: Boot Adams (President, 1934-39), Paul Endacott (President, 1951-67 and Naismith National Hall of Fame Inductee in 1972), Bill Martin (President, 1971-74) and Pete Silas (President, 1982-94).