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After 37 Years, Pilots Now Smell Roses

March 8, 1996

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ The last time the Portland Pilots were in the NCAA basketball tournament, the game was played on a portable floor in a drafty livestock pavilion that smelled faintly of cow manure.

Smudge pots, normally used to keep orchards from freezing, lined the hallways of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition arena to keep the fans warm as Ray Meyer’s DePaul team beat Portland 57-56 in 1959.

Thirty-seven years later, in a much different NCAA tournament, the Pilots are back, thanks to an aggressive young coach who quickly has erased the small Catholic school’s long legacy of losing.

On Monday night at Santa Clara, the Pilots upset Gonzaga 76-68 to win the West Coast Conference Tournament and an automatic NCAA bid. Coach Rob Chavez, ever intense on the sidelines, cherished the moment.

``It’s hard to put in words the excitement and the emotions that you go through so quickly,″ he said. ``You’re just trying to hold on to win, and then the game’s over.″

In two years under Chavez, the Pilots have gone 40-18.

Suddenly, there’s a whiff of March Madness among the 2,700 students on the university’s tranquil campus on ``The Bluff″ overlooking the Willamette River.

``Everybody’s really thrilled and excited about what we’ve done in two years here,″ Chavez said. ``It’s been a long dry spell.″

The Pilots have played basketball since 1922, and moved up to the NCAA level in 1959, making it to the tournament that first season. Since then, playing in front of small crowds in relative obscurity as most of the city’s attention went to the Trail Blazers, Oregon State or Oregon, the Pilots have mostly lost.

The team had 25 losing seasons between 1960 and 1993, including 3-23 in 1968-69, 4-22 in 1969-70, 5-21 in 1970-71, 6-22 in 1987-88, 2-26 in 1988-89 and 5-23 in 1990-91.

Mauro Potestio, a retired school principal and currently the Pilots’ golf coach, endured it all. He hasn’t missed a home game since he was a senior at the college 47 years ago.

``There was a period there when it was almost like an obligation going to games,″ he said. ``Now I have butterflies in anticipation of going to games.″

Chavez, 39, had a 136-24 record in five seasons at Chemeketa Community College in Salem before moving in 1992 to Maryland-Eastern Shore, where he led the school to its first winning season in 13 years.

When ex-Trail Blazer Larry Steele was fired as Portland coach in 1994, Chavez came back to Oregon. His first Pilots’ team went 21-8 and lost to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final.

``It was like night and day,″ said fifth-year senior Rick Brainard. ``He came in with this intense defense, trying to get everybody to give everything they possibly could give.″

The Pilots lost three of their top players from last season, and this year was inconsistent. Portland wound up the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, where the opening-round opponent was San Francisco, a team that had beaten the Pilots both times they had played this season.

``We had beaten every team except San Francisco,″ said Kweemada King, ``and we knew once we got past them, we could win it all.″

After the Pilots beat the Dons in the first round and San Diego in the second, they met conference co-champion Gonzaga in the finals.

``I felt we were playing good basketball at the end of the year,″ Chavez said. ``I thought in a three-game tournament, if we got to the championship game, that maybe our depth and our balance would pay off.″

King, who grew up in the Bahamas and transferred from Western Nebraska Community College this season, tied his career high with 26 points as Portland opened an early lead and held on for the biggest victory in the school’s history.

The team is 19-10 heading into the NCAAs, where it will be one of the lower seeds and a huge first-round underdog.

``We’ll go against a heavyweight. There’s no question about that,″ Chavez said.

Even if they are bounced out quickly, it shouldn’t be another 37 years before the Pilots are back.

They have two sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup. Several top reserves will be back, too. And Chavez is a tireless recruiter.

All that’s missing now is fans. The Pilots have sold out their home arena, the Chiles Center, only once the past two seasons. This year, it was never more than half-full.

``It’s kind of frustrating sometimes because Portland is a really big city,″ Brainard said. ``The Chiles Center only holds 5,000. You’d think we could fill it up.

``I just hope this will wake people up to realize who the University of Portland is.″

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