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Tuesday July 22, 2003

The hoopman of British Columbia

Participated in three Olympics as player, coach and manager, and led UBC team to major victories in Canada, U.S. and against the Harlem Globetrotters

Special to The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER -- He was a precocious basketball talent who attended the Olympics as an athlete, a coach, and a manager. Bob Osborne, who has died at age 90, was a fixture on the campus of the University of British Columbia for nearly a half-century.

As a 17-year-old freshman in 1930, he led the varsity team to its first Canadian basketball championship. He later coached the men's and women's hoops teams, as well as the track and field team, and served for 33 years as physical education director until retiring in 1978.

Mr. Osborne was rare among basketball coaches in being able to include on his résumé a victory over the Harlem Globetrotters.

Mr. Osborne was a throwback to a gentlemanly age of sporting conduct. He was a modest man in an era of bravado.

"He wasn't loud," said Fred Hume, the university's athletic historian. "He would understate his accomplishments."

Among his many honours was induction into at least four sports halls of fame.

Robert Freer Osborne was born in Victoria on April 10, 1913. He moved as a boy to Vancouver, where his father ran a store in the comfortable Kerrisdale neighbourhood.

He starred at track, rugby and basketball at Magee High School and his arrival at the nearby University of British Columbia campus was preceded by his glowing athletic reputation. He did not disappoint.

Mr. Hume's research shows Mr. Osborne won the 220-yard dash and placed second in the 100-yard dash at his first track meet. Yet it was on the gymnasium floor as a basketball guard that young Bob would earn his greatest accolades.

As representatives of the only university in the city, the varsity team's opponents were senior men's teams from Vancouver and the Lower Mainland suburbs. The team's zone defence, led by captain Arnold Henderson, stymied opponents, while Harry (Pi) Campbell led the city league in scoring with an average of 5.6 points, a reflection of the low-scoring game in the days before the shot clock and the three-point basket.

UBC entered the playoffs with a 16-2 record, having outscored their rivals, 442 to 295.

The league final was a best-of-five showdown against the New Westminster Adanacs, the defending Dominion champions. UBC won the first two games, 17-11 and 13-12, thanks to a stingy defence.

"To get past the outstretched arms of the elongated Henderson and the equally gigantic Osborne is a feat which the Adanacs have yet to accomplish," the student newspaper reported.

The Adanacs won the next two games, however, setting up a winner-take-all final. UBC knocked off the defending champs by 21-16, with Mr. Osborne leading his team with seven points.

The Lower Mainland title in hand, UBC then defeated a team from Victoria, featuring future NHL stars Lynn and Murray (Muzz) Patrick, for the provincial title.

The Blue and Gold, as UBC was known, headed east, defeating the University of Alberta Golden Bears in a two-game, total-point series to claim the Western Intercollegiate title. UBC then outscored the Winnipeg Toilers 50-36 in another two-game showdown for the Western Senior A championship.

In April, 1931, UBC met the St. Catharines [Ont.] Collegiate Grads in a two-game series at Denman Arena in Vancouver. The visitors won the first game, but UBC trounced their guests in the second to claim the Dominion championship.

Mr. Osborne, who was made captain of the team in 1931-32, continued to play basketball in the senior men's league after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in 1933 after just three years of study. He earned a Bachelor of Education degree 15 years later, after serving in the armed forces during the Second World War.

He attended the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as an athlete, the London Olympics of 1948 as a coach, and the Melbourne Games of 1956 as a manager.

In 1936, he was invited by the Windsor [Ont.] Fords to join the team as it travelled to Germany to represent Canada at the inaugural Olympic basketball tournament. Canada was defeated 19-8 in the final by a powerhouse United States team led by College Joe Fortenberry. The gold-medal game was played outdoors in the rain on a clay tennis court that quickly became a quagmire. Mr. Osborne was a substitute player whose only action came in practice.

Back home, Mr. Osborne worked as a high-school teacher while also coaching the university's women's basketball team, which featured Ruth Wilson, regarded as the province's finest woman athlete of the century.

After his army discharge with the rank of captain in 1945, he was hired as the first director of a new department of physical education at UBC.

He coached track and field (winning conference titles in 1945 and 1946), but it was as a basketball coach that he enjoyed his greatest success.

The first postwar squad was one of Canada's all-time best amateur teams, dominating play against American colleges and universities. UBC beat the College of Idaho 124-33, setting a school scoring record that would survive for 50 years.

The 1945-46 basketball team beat the University of Washington Huskies, the Washington State Cougars, the University of Oregon Ducks (twice), and, in the school's most famous victory, the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters, who were shocked in a 42-38 upset.

The team won the national title and became the first representing a Canadian school to win an American intercollegiate conference championship. Among the players was Patrick McGeer, who would go on to an acclaimed career as a scientist and a less-praiseworthy stint as a provincial politician. The team's manager was Garde Gardom, who later sat with Mr. McGeer as a Social Credit cabinet minister before becoming lieutenant-governor of B.C.

In 1948, Mr. Osborne was named coach of the Canadian Olympic basketball team. Six of his UBC players were on the roster, although the team failed to qualify for the final tournament of eight teams.

He returned to the Olympics eight years later in Melbourne, Australia, as manager of the Canadian track and field team.

His success as a player and coach was perhaps superseded by his talents as a builder and administrator. Mr. Osborne was on the organizing committee of the successful 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. He also helped found the B.C. Amateur Sport Council, the Vancouver Olympic Club, and the Vancouver Field Sports Federation, and served as first president of the B.C. Recreation Association.

He also was involved in the creation of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now Canadian Interuniversity Sport).

Mr. Osborne was a vice-president and long-serving member of the Canadian Olympic Association.

He was general manager of the Canadian team at the British Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, Wales, in 1958. He held high positions with the Canadian delegation to the Pan American Games from 1959 to 1975, serving as chef de mission in 1971 (Cali, Colombia) and in 1975 (Mexico City).

His lengthy list of honours and awards includes being named to the Order of Canada in 1981. He received the International Olympic Committee Award in 1984.

A gymnasium at UBC carries his name, while his formal portrait is on display at War Memorial Gymnasium, a campus building in which he played an important role in having built.

Mr. Osborne died at St. Vincent's Hospitals, Langara, an extended-care facility, on May 8. He leaves Dorothy (née McRae), his wife of 65 years; a son. He was predeceased by a son and a brother.

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