Part I: Depression Era Basketball: In the 1930s, Tarpons dominated the dirt courts

Special to the PRESS/NEWS

With the 2020-21 edition of the Port Isabel Tarpon Basketball Team heating up the courts straight into the postseason, this writer thought it would an appropriate time to reissue an article compiled and published in 2015 detailing the Post-Depression-Era Tarpons and their historic run on the courts that brought a struggling community together during another challenging time in its history. Please note that the great Noe Gonzales, who was quoted in the story, is no longer with us and Carl Chilton is now in his 90s.

In 1937, the Port Isabel basketball Tarpons took center stage with an astonishing team that rolled through the competition in the Annual Valley Wide La Feria Tournament.

It was a time when basketball was played outdoors in the heat of day on dirt courts. In P.I., every afternoon as the bell sounded to end the school day — it was also just then that a distant whistle sounded which was not the sound of a shrimp boat coming to port, but rather…a call for practice for the mighty Tarpons, a daily ritual of sights and sounds of shuffling feet and fast-breaks as they prepared to repeat their feat of the previous year.

The Tarpons of ‘38 were ready to defend their title in the biggest tournament of the Valley. All the big and small schools from the region gathered at La Feria to test their skills among the best in the area.

The Tarpons were again the team to beat and predicted to win it all. The “Blue Wave,” led by two six footers in Noe Gonzales and Calvin Williams splashed the oppositions in the preliminary games with relative ease.

But in the championship game, it was a battle that is still remembered by anyone who was there. Noe Gonzales, who today is 89 years old and still lives in Port Isabel recently said, “It was an exciting and very close game from the beginning to the last shot of the game.”

Another Tarpon from that period was Brownsville Historian Carl Chilton, who is also in his 80s and now lives in Brownsville.

Chilton made his mark in basketball as a member of the 1936 P.I. junior high team which won the Cameron County Championship. The junior Tarpons won the title with only six players on the roster.

The championship game matched P.I. against Raymondville.

The Herald headlines read, “The Port Isabel Tarpons nosed out the Raymondville Bearkats, 22 to 21. The game was a ding-dong affair all the way with the Bearkats taking the early lead they held until the closing seconds of the game. The Willacy County quintet led 15 to 7 at the half and 16-14 when the third quarter ended. The Tarpons rallied at the end of the regular playing time with the game ending deadlocked at 19.”

As the game went into overtime, the Tarpons fouled, sending a Bearkat to the foul line who made one of two throws to give Raymondville the lead by a single tally. But with only seconds on the clock, Tarpon forward Robert Garcia shot from far away, a looping basket to win the game and with it the title.

The story goes that Robert, who was a smoker at the time — had lit one up, during a timeout, which gave him the extra boost he needed in overtime. Smoking was not considered nor was not known as a hazard during this era.

The same two teams that played in the final game in ‘38 clashed in the championship game in 1937 and the same referee, J. Mil Auld of Lyford officiated. The Tarpons won the 1938 championship in exactly the same manner they did it the 1937 tournament, defeating Raymondville coming back to meet them again in the finals.


A conversation with Noe Gonzales

What kind of transportation did you use when you traveled to play teams from the upper valley?

“The school district did not have any vans or buses, so because we were only 10 on the team, the coaches used their personal cars to take us to the games.”

Describe your playing facilities at Port Isabel High?

“We played on a dirt court, but because of repeated use, the ground became as hard as cement. The playing area had one set of bleachers that were empty most of the time. Few fans came to our games — if it wasn’t for our cheerleaders you wouldn’t know that there was a game going on. We did not have ideal playing conditions like they did in Harlingen. Our team played several indoor games there and we thought we were in Heaven.”

Who were the starting five on your team?

“Robert Garcia and I were at forward, Calvin Williams who was 6’2 was at center, and Elmer Mahurin and La Roche were the guards. The rest of the team members included: Carl Chilton, “El Coyote” Green, Koer, Cail and Ferry.”

What other sports could a student participate at P.I. during this era?

“During this time we didn’t have football, there were just not enough athletes to make up a football team. Basketball and baseball were the only sports that were available at the time. I was also a second baseman for the baseball team.”

Would you say that the referees then called a good game?

“What do you mean referees? It was one official per game; it was not like today that they need two or more to call a game. The referees then had eyes behind their backs. There were just not enough of them to use two per game.”

What would be the biggest difference in shooting techniques from then and now?

“We were taught to use both hands to shoot — a two-hand shot was common for us. Today, they release the ball with one hand. It was harder to put some spin on the ball using a two-hand shot, but with practice I did it well. From the free throw line many players used the two-hand under shot.”

When did you start playing basketball, and what was the reward of playing the game?

“I got interested in playing basketball when I was in the 10th grade. I was taller than most boys at school at 6’0, so I certainly had an edge. My height helped me in becoming the top scorer of the team.

Earning a lettermen’s sweater was a great honor and the best reward one could receive. Imagine walking on campus wearing a letterman sweater, wow! Like they say today, it was priceless.”

Chilton was just as proud of his lettermen’s sweater — “Basketball was king in Port Isabel and wearing a P.I. sweater was the ultimate,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian and humanitarian with a wealth of community service to his credit. 

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