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The Dream Team of ’51: Miami Vandals Set Records

There are storied moments in history which shine light on those who made history and those who remember it long past the actual event. The Dream Team of 1951 made up of  mostly Mexican kids from Bullion Plaza led by Vandals Coach Ernie Kivisto created many magic moments during that season which still resonates nearly 60 years later with the re-telling.

Playwright and journalist, James E. Garcia of the New Carpa Theater was introduced to the story by Robert Revelas ( who graduated in 1951 from Miami) nearly two years ago. “He was familiar with my work and invited me to Miami to look around. We knew there was a story here.” The two ended up at the Miami Sports Hall of Fame– housed in the Miami Library.  In a sea of awards and accolades which have been heaped on Miami coaches and players over the last fifty years, it was the ’51 Season of the Mighty Vandals which stood out 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 here in Globe-Miami, Bullion Plaza Elementary was the school for mostly Mexican American and Apache kids. They came from “less than privileged” backgrounds and were used to playing with hand me down uniforms and shoes. It wasn’t until Coach Kivisto fought to get the team new uniforms and new shoes that many of the kids put on “new” for the first time in their life.

As one player recounts, playing sports was “…a good way to keep our minds off how poor we were.” No doubt the kids from Miami were athletic. There had been Vandal success stories before Kivisto arrived in ’48, but 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.  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.

It wasn’t all about basketball though with Coach Kivisto. He coached them off the court as well and required all of his players to wear a suit and tie on game day. If they couldn’t afford those things he paid for them out of his own pocket. He fought for new uniforms – silky rayon, not cotton, and the team was the first in the League to play in white high-top tennis shoes. Kivisto wanted them looking like the all-star team he knew them to be.

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

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.”

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.  But it is James Garcia and his New Carpa Theater Co. which is bringing the story to life on the stage.

The New Carpa Theater which was formed by Garcia, focuses on Latino and multicultural theater works. This September, he produced a one-hour play for the lunch theatre at the Hersberger Theater Center in Phoenix. Using just  7 actors, the play deftly conveys the story of this remarkable team and their coach. A coach who taught them “the importance of teamwork in competitive sports and that sports belonged to everyone.” The message was clear. Basketball was a way of leveling the playing field for kids who came from a less-privileged life with working class parents. Kivisto was a coach who cared about those things that matter most in life: Heart and Hustle. And he found both in the kids from Miami.

This is a story worth the re-telling again and again and James Garcia and his New Carpa players are doing just that. Garcia hopes to premier the full length version of the play next Fall in Miami if he can find the right venue to handle a crowd…because anyone knows that when you bring The Mighty Vandals to town, you’ve got to be prepared for a packed house!

About Linda Gross

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

2 comments

  1. My father was a member of that amazing team!! Elias Delgadillo Huerta. I’m fortunate to have an signed copy given to me by Sonny.

  2. Richard Starkey

    I was a ten year old student at Inspiration Addition in Miami in 1951. My Dad worked at Miami copper company. I remember these great athletes and was in awe of them. Coach Kivisto left Miami after the 1951 championship season as he had promised his wife that they could leave but not until he had won a State CHAMPIONSHIP. THESE GUYS LITERALLY DEMOLISHED ALL OPPOSITION AND WERE CONSIDERED THE BEST TEAM EVER IN Arizona!

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