Tourney Tradition Begins With Esau,
1949 Blue Dragons
“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
That was a line that the late Herb Brooks used during his pregame talk before the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s Miracle On Ice game with the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Some 31 years before Brooks said that to his team, the 1949 Hutchinson Junior College men’s basketball team had a great opportunity presented to it.
Freshman Leroy Esau and the Blue Dragons seized the moment. And thus began a tradition like none other in junior college basketball.
The NJCAA’s second men’s national basketball tournament came to Hutchinson’s Convention Hall in 1949 after a less-than-stellar inaugural run in Springfield, Mo. in 1948.
The Blue Dragons didn’t qualify for the tournament, but received a special invitation to participate. Led by Esau, the 1949 Blue Dragons went all the way to the national championship game.
“We didn’t have a great team,” Esau told The Hutchinson News about the 1949 Blue Dragons, who finished with a 13-9 overall record.
HJC opened the tournament with a 68-50 victory over Sayer, Okla. The Blue Dragons met Jayhawk Conference champion Dodge City, a team HJC lost to twice in the regular season, in the quarterfinals. Esau scored 12 points, hitting several clutch free throws late for a 55-48 upset victory.
Esau was clutch again in the semifinals at the free-throw line when his two free throws tied the game after Hutch trailed Grant Tech by eight points with five minutes to play. Esau finished with 14 points and the Blue Dragons advanced to the finals with a 55-53 victory.
Esau had 16 points against Tyler Junior College in title game, but another upset bid fell two points short as Tyler won the national title, 66-64.
Esau scored 47 points in the tournament and set a tournament record that lasted for four years with eight free throws in the Tyler game. Esau was the only Blue Dragon and the only freshman on the 1949 All-Tournament Team.
In 2006, Esau was voted to the Blue Dragons’ 75th Anniversary team.
Esau’s sophomore team at HJC finished 14-6 and second in the Jayhawk Conference. Esau then went on to the University of Wyoming where he was part of the Cowboys’ 1952 team that went to the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Tournament
So what impact did Esau’s 1949 Blue Dragons have in Hutchinson?
The NJCAA Tournament has been in Hutchinson ever since. The Tournament moved to the Sports Arena in 1952. The Blue Dragons have competed in 16 national tournaments (at the time of Esau’s induction), winning the 1988 and 1994 national championships.