The winter didn't offer much of a sports calendar in the Twin Cities before World War II. Boxing cards were huge news. There were sizable headlines for occasional speed skating and ski jumping events. Successful high school teams in Minneapolis and St. Paul received considerable coverage.
There was also an opportunity for a winning team at a small college to develop a fan base well beyond its students and alumnus. By the winter of 1936-37, Hamline basketball had become one of those teams.
Joe Hutton had been hired in the fall of 1930. The Pipers started winning MIAC titles in 1932 and soon the "Old Gym" in the middle of campus was inadequate for basketball games and the Hamline athletic program in total.
The school and donors committed $100,000 for the construction of an arena. It was named in honor of Matthew Norton, a former chairman of Hamline's board of trustees and a donor to the school.
The inaugural game was scheduled for Jan. 4, 1937, with a West Coast power, the Stanford Indians (now Cardinal), as the opponent.
College basketball was a disorganized entity in 1937. The first national tournament would be held later that year, an eight-team event in Kansas City organized by the newly formed National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (later NAIA).
The National Invitation Tournament in New York would begin in 1938. The first NCAA tournament was held in 1939. It would be 1957 before the NCAA would have tournaments for both the "University Division" and "College Division."
Bottom line: It was not shocking coach John Bunn would have Stanford stop in St. Paul to inaugurate a new arena for Hamline and Bunn's fellow promoter of basketball, Joe Hutton.
Stanford had played Long Island University before a crowd of 17,000 in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 30. The Indians then would stop in Buffalo (Canisius), Cleveland (Western Reserve), St. Paul and Bozeman (Montana State) over the next week before returning home to play in the Pacific Coast Conference.
That conference had started playing with a radical new rule: There was no center jump after a made basket.
As an enticement to attract Stanford, Hutton agreed to play the first half without that center jump. The Minneapolis newspapers gave as much attention to this novel twist in the buildup to the game as it did the opening of Norton Fieldhouse.
There was a second bit of radicalism to be seen from Stanford:
Hank Luisetti, the 6-foot-2 star, had started shooting one-handed shots with his feet leaving the court. The accounts refer to it as a "running" shot, although Luisetti gets credit by many for starting the jump shot.
Luisetti scored 16 points to lead Stanford to a 58-26 thumping of Hamline on opening night.
Hamline was already a MIAC power, but the best days of the Hutton era still were ahead. The Pipers were champions of 32-team NAIA tournaments in 1942, '49 and '51, in a time when many schools not considered for the limited field of the NCAA chose to play in the NAIA: Louisville, Arizona State, Indiana State, etc.
Through the '40s into the '50s, Hutton was as likely to get an outstanding in-state recruit as was Minnesota. Gophers coach Ozzie Cowles had no interest in a nonconference game with Hamline, even though it would have filled Williams Arena.
"Ozzie and my dad knew each other from Carleton," said Tommy Hutton, Joe's youngest and only surviving child. "Legend has it, the teams scrimmaged once, and word spread that Hamline got the best of it. That killed any chance of the Gophers playing the Pipers."
Another legend is that Bill (Boots) Simonovich, the 6-10 star of Gilbert's 1951 state champions, looked at the Hamline roster, didn't see how he was going to start and went to Minnesota.
The Stanford outfit that crunched Hamline would be named as the Helms Foundation's 1937 national champions. That was it for big-school college basketball at the time.
The crusading by Bunn and Stanford helped to eliminate the center jump after made baskets for the 1937-38 season. And Norton Fieldhouse has proved a durable and history-filled location for Hamline athletics.
Originally, the floor was elevated in the style of Williams Arena. There was a horseshoe cinder track that ran under hollowed bleachers on both sides of the court.
There were also squash courts … and a couple of small living areas upstairs (now athletic offices), where stars such as Vern Mikkelsen and Bob Leviscka are alleged to have resided.
There were balconies added to accompany the Pipers' overflowing crowds in the '40s. There was an $800,000 remodeling in 1967. It was named Hutton Arena in honor of Joe in 1986.
Hutton Arena does remain a wonderful basketball antique, and last Wednesday, its 80th anniversary was celebrated with the Pipers taking on St. Olaf.
As was the case for the first half on Jan. 4, 1937, there was no center jump after made baskets, and Hamline's Zach Smith put in one of those modern, fancy dan jump shots from 15 feet with 1.8 seconds left to give the Pipers a glorious 60-58 victory.