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The Mighty Vandals: take center stage at Herberger Theater

There are storied moments in history which shine light on those who made history and those who remember it.

 The 1951 basketball team made up of  mostly Mexican kids from Bullion Plaza created a tidal wave of storied moments and led to one of the greatest basketball seasons ever. They were  led by Miami Vandals Coach Ernie Kivisto, and the story of the ‘Dream Team’ of ’51  resonates nearly 60 years later with the re-telling.

Recently, a Phoenix playwright and journalist, James E. Garcia of the New Carpa Theater created the story for stage after meeting ’51 Miami alumni, Robert Revelas. Garcia says Revelas was familiar with his work  and invited  him to Miami to look around.

“We knew there was a story here” he says of that day that he and Revelas spent looking through local history.

They ended up at the Miami Sports Hall of Fame, which is housed in the Miami Memorial Library.  There, in a sea of awards and accolades, is story after story of achievements and accolades earned by Miami High School athletes and their coaches spanning nearly 80 years. 

Yet it was the ’51 Season of the Mighty Vandals which stood out most in Garcia’s mind.

“This is the story I wanted to tell,” he says. “It is about perseverance… and going against the odds to achieve.”

The story takes place in 1951, just three years before the Supreme Court ruled on school segregation and Bullion Plaza in Miami was a school which catered to kids of “less privileged” backgrounds: mostly the Mexican American and Apache kids. These were kids used to playing with hand me down uniforms and shoes. But things changed with Coach Kivisto, a transplant from the mid-west. Kivisto would make it his mission to convince school officials to find the money for new uniforms and shoes. For many, these were the first ‘new’ items they had ever had.

Although there had been Vandal success stories before Kivisto arrived in ’48, it was Kivisto’s new style of basketball involving “The Fast Break,” and his ability to pull his players together into one smooth scoring machine which helped push the Dream Team to break all State Records that year. Even their own. 

James Garcia talks to the lunch crowd before the play begins. Photo by LCGross

On their way to the class B State Championship that year they inspired accolades from the community, sports writers and even big city sportswriters who scrambled to come up with new superlatives to describe the players and their amazing performances on the courts.

This was a team which consistently beat others by 40-50 points and averaged nearly 85 points per game. And at a time when coaches could be fired for loosing too many games, Coach Kivisto and his boys were instead criticized by some for winning too much and scoring too many baskets against the other team.

In fact, in a pre-game lead up to the Clifton game, the team received “ two anonymous letters threatening violence if Acevedo and Truijillo shot over 15 pts in the game.” A Sheriff’s detail followed the team that night to the game and the Mighty Vandals won over their #2 rival Clifton: 122 – 58.

Years later Kivisto said of the 1951 team,

“ The 1951 Miami High School team was without a doubt the best high school team I have ever seen or coached, even today. They would fast break any team I have ever seen, coached or will ever coach. I shall always be thankful for that great opportunity to coach such a dedicated group of fine boys…I was fortunate to be at Miami when I was blessed with the finest, dedicated talent any coach could ever ask for.”

James Garcia and his New Carpa Theater Co. will bring the story to life on stage this September where is has produced a one-hour play for the lunch theater. The play uses just  7 actors, to convey the story of this remarkable team and their coach, a man who taught them “the importance of teamwork in competitive sports and that sports belonged to everyone.”

In this story, as in real life, Kivisto and his players prove their merit in the things that matter most:  heart and hustle. 


Playwright James Garcia outside of the Herberger Theater where "The Mighty Vandals" is playing. Photo by LCGross
Playwright James Garcia outside of the Herberger Theater where “The Mighty Vandals” is playing. Photo by LCGross

 Amazing Facts about the Dream Team:

Kivisto introduced his players to a new style of play called the “Fast Break” – something the Phoenix Suns today are known for today – but back then Kivisto was the first high school basketball coach in the state of Arizona to initiate the fast break and the “weave”, or “figure 8” on the court. Combined with his kids athletic ability and determination, the 1951 Vandals broke all kinds of national records that year including:

  • Had 3 time outs to opponents 125 in 27 games
  • Scored 970 points in 10 home games for an average of 97 per game
  • Average of 84.7 in 27 games to break former average of 70.1-set by Miami in 1948
  • In 27 games outscored the opponents by an average of 40 points per game.

The ’51 Season has been recorded in numerous articles and in 2008 Sony Pena, compiled and authored a book which pulled together all the press clippings of that amazing season entitled: “The Might Miami Vandals.” It is available through the Miami Public Library and the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues. 

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About Linda Gross

Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.

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