Hecklers Yelled Ethnic Slurs, But the 1944 Waterville Panthers Became Champs

How a basketball team made up of the children of immigrants stunned sports fans.

Hecklers Yelled Ethnic Slurs, But the 1944 Waterville Panthers Became Champs
The 1943–44 Panthers, with John “Swisher” Mitchell at center, holding a trophy. Courtesy of the Waterville Area Boys and Girls Club.
By Ronald Joseph

From our March 2020 issue

John Mitchell was 16 years old when his hotshot high-school basketball team headed to Bangor for an away game. As the Waterville Purple Panthers’ point guard — a team leader, responsible for running the offense — he’d come to expect a certain amount of trash talk from opposing players and fans. Still, he bristled when he came off the bench to hear a Bangor booster yell from the stands, “Get off the court, you darkie Syrian!”

Mitchell was, in fact, Lebanese-American, as were five of his teammates (including his older brother, Paul). Another player was Jewish, another Irish, and another the son of French-Canadians. Nearly everyone on the team had at least one parent who’d immigrated to the U.S., and many of the players spoke something other than English at home. Mitchell’s mom, sitting in the bleachers behind the heckler, came to Maine from the village of Bkassine, Lebanon, when she was 18. Even in her 40s, she struggled with English, but she knew enough to recognize a slur directed at her son. She silenced the racist by slugging him with her purse.

Such epithets weren’t uncommon around Maine in the 1940s, particularly not in segregated Waterville, where crowded tenements along the polluted Kennebec River housed the families of immigrant workers who’d come to the industrial town in the early 20th century. Douglas Rooks, biographer of John Mitchell’s younger brother, the eventual U.S. senator George Mitchell, writes that Waterville was “dominated by its ethnic neighborhoods,” with Lebanese-American families like the Mitchells living above the dam in a neighborhood called Head of Falls, Franco-American families living below the dam, and Jewish families clustered downtown. A couple of decades before, those groups and others were targets of the Ku Klux Klan when it drew 15,000 to Waterville for its first state convention, in 1923. And though the Klan’s influence had waned by the onset of World War II, plenty of bigots were still skulking around.

The nonprofit Boys Club (which, at the time, still prohibited girls) was one place in Waterville where kids from every background mingled — and where, as John Mitchell later recalled, effort and athleticism mattered more than ethnicity. “You know, the Jewish boys or the Irish kids or the French kids, it really didn’t make a difference,” he told an interviewer in the ’90s. “If you’re there and you’re playing, if you make a mistake, they didn’t call you an ethnic name. Or if they [made one], you might call them a jerk, but not an ethnic name.”

By the time they got to Waterville Senior High to form the nucleus of the Panthers basketball team, Mitchell and his Boys Club pals had been shooting hoops together since they were 7 years old. And by the latter half of their 1943–44 season, they were silencing even the most prejudiced naysayers in the stands.

It was an undefeated Panthers team that went up against Portland High School for the state championship. Despite a less-than-imposing name, the Portland High Little Boy Blues were a force, state champions two years running and winners for three consecutive years of the Western Maine Tournament. At first, Portland held its own against the Panthers’ full-court defense and pass-heavy, fast-breaking offense, and the score was still close in the final minutes of the second half, when the Boy Blues’ star forward-guard fouled out. Thereafter, the Panthers dominated, earning Waterville High its first-ever Maine state title — and a trip to the six-state New England High School Championship.

The team’s Lebanese players heard taunts of “camel jockey” and “rag head.”

The New England Championship was founded in 1921, and a Maine team had never won it, nor had Waterville ever represented the state. Wartime restraint had caused the tournament’s cancellation the year before, but in 1944, state reps saw the contest as a morale lifter. So on March 15, the Waterville team traveled by train to Providence, Rhode Island, to compete against seven other, mostly larger schools. The late Gene Letourneau, a longtime reporter and columnist for the Waterville Sentinel, once wrote about how a Boston Herald sportswriter called him looking for details on the little-known Panthers. After the underdogs from Waterville advanced two rounds to face Somerville, Massachusetts, in the finals, the Boston sportswriter offered Letourneau a ten-to-one bet against the Panthers. “Waterville doesn’t have a prayer,” he insisted.

In Rhode Island, according to Mitchell, the team’s Lebanese players heard taunts of “camel jockey” and “rag head.” On the court for pregame warm-ups, a Somerville player yelled to him, “Hey hayseed, how many pecks of potatoes did you pick before the game?” The Somerville town paper, Mitchell recalled, had printed dummy versions of the next morning’s front page, declaring their team’s victory (“Somerville Supermen Whitewash Waterville”), which Somerville fans held aloft as the teams took the court. According to Waterville native and amateur historian Fred Stubbert, who’s working on a book about the team, in the capacity crowd of 3,000, just a few hundred fans had come to cheer the Panthers.

Somerville’s game was built around their gifted 6-foot-3-inch center, Tony Lavelli, who would go on to set records at Yale and play two seasons in the NBA. But like many of the era’s high-school teams, Somerville played slow, deliberate offense, their games often low-scoring, keep-away affairs. The Panthers, meanwhile, had communication and ball sharing drilled into them at the Boys Club — they passed quickly and often, hurrying the ball up the court, and Somerville couldn’t keep up with their fast breaks. By the time a reeling Somerville team called its final first-half timeout, Waterville was up 24–2.

From the bench, Mitchell spotted two women in the stands who had wildly waved the Somerville newspaper before the game. “They sat quietly, and one had tears streaming down her face,” he recalled. “I felt sorry for her. It was just a game, after all, not World War II.”

The Panthers won the New England championship game 47–34. On March 19, the jubilant team boarded a train home to Maine. At a stop in Portland, they were stunned to look out the windows and see the coaches and players of the Portland High Little Boy Blues, from whom they’d snatched the state championship a week before, lined up at the station in sport coats and ties, saluting their rivals.

In the wake of the Panthers championship season, dozens of kids lined up at the Waterville Boys Club to enroll in youth basketball. Courtesy of the Waterville Area Boys and Girls Club.

The team was greeted in Waterville by a crowd of 5,000 cheering fans. Basketball historian Stubbert was among them, sitting on his dad’s shoulders for a glimpse of his new heroes.

“It’s not an exaggeration to claim that the 1944 team’s up-tempo playing style revolutionized high school basketball in Maine,” Stubbert says. “The ball hardly ever touched the floor. They were a fabulous team on and off the court — the entire community embraced them.”

The Panthers’ winning streak lasted until 1946 — 67 games without a loss. The team was among the inaugural inductees into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Waterville High gym is named for its coach, Wally Donovan. John Mitchell’s feats on the court earned him the nickname “Swisher,” which stuck with him throughout a career as a high-school teacher, principal, and coach, as an assistant coach at Colby College, and even, for a short time, as director of the Waterville Boys and Girls Club. He died in 2018, at age 91. Today, there’s just one living member of the 1944 team.

And while tributes to Swisher and his teammates unfailingly mention the championship, admirers have taken equal inspiration from many of the players’ adult lives as prominent businesspeople and civic leaders, despite their upbringing as part of an ethnic underclass.

“For those of us growing up in their shadows, they were living proof that the world could change, and change for the better,” Waterville-raised blogger and activist Luke Hill wrote after Mitchell’s death. “That the people who’d always been in charge didn’t necessarily remain in charge. That in America, those who had nothing could become something.”

Mitchell himself realized the championship was about more than just basketball. “We helped change people’s attitudes about race by demonstrating that success, regardless of ethnicity, comes from preparation, hard work, unselfishness, and dedication to team,” he said. “All of us went on to have successful careers and become community leaders. We lived the American dream envisioned by our working-class parents.”