By Mickey Winfield, Freedom New Mexico
The Portales Rams and Lady Rams have combined for 10 New Mexico state basketball championships over the last 40 years, and they are usually in contention for a state championship every season.
But it was a group of boys 60 years ago that laid the foundation for Portales basketball success.
“Even though it’s become old hat (in Portales), that was still great because it was the first,” Former Ram Cecil Cook said. “The whole county knew it was the first. It wasn’t just Portales pulling for us. The whole county was pulling for Portales at that tournament.”
The year was 1948. The second World War had been over for a few years, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como were at the top of the charts, millions of Americans went to bed nightly with the Ed Sullivan Show and the Portales boys basketball team won the school’s first state championship.
At least three members of that team remain in Portales; Melvin Norton, Bob Wood and Cook.
“We had a really good year and we had just a really good balanced team,” Wood said. “We had four or five really good guys that were really good basketball players and a guy or two like me.”
Portales began the 1948 season with a bang, winning their first six games in blow-out fashion, before getting their first true test of the season against Clovis. But the Rams proved they could win a close game, beating the Wildcats 38-37 to keep their record unblemished.
“Clovis didn’t beat us,” Cook said. “When we beat Clovis, our arch-rival, we felt pretty good about that.”
Numerous classes based on school size was still six years away in New Mexico high school sports, so Portales competed regularly against much bigger schools like Clovis and Carlsbad.
“We beat the best there was out there,” Cook said.
The Portales boys easily won their next four games, including a 65-19 performance against Elida.
Portales went into the second-to-last game of the season against Tucumcari with no losses, but the Rattlers punctured the perfect season, winning 42-33 heading into the playoffs.
The Rams beat Rogers in the county championship 51-37, then crushed Clovis in the district championship 50-26, before beating Navajo Mission 33-31 for the title. But after taking a big early lead, the Rams had to hold on for the historic win.
“We had about an 8- or 10-point lead at the half,” Cook said. “Those Indians, their tallest player was 5’-8”, but they were quick. You didn’t make a pass without it being intercepted. They were quick and they were deadly accurate with their shots.”
The Rams surged in the third quarter, taking a 28-16 lead heading into the fourth period and Portales held on for a win that was remembered by many, instantly turning the Portales players into local celebrities.
“It probably took a day to soak in,” Norton said. “But it felt pretty good.”
“Back in those days, (the state basketball tournament) was the biggest thing in the country,” Cook said. “There’s not that many of us left, but even today, about once a month someone says, ‘Hey Cookie, I remember when you guys beat those little Indians.’”
“It was a really big deal,” Wood said. “We had a lot of support from everybody in the community.”
While many of their teammates have either passed away or moved out of town, Norton, Cook and Wood will always have Portales High School’s first basketball state championship from