From Wyoming to Manteca; from Manteca to Indiana. Disparate geographical locations in America. But they all come together in the docu-film, “Cowboys: The Story of the 1943 Wyoming Championship Basketball Team.”
At the heart of this inspirational and moving labor-of-love project is a man named Kim Komenich, the film’s producer and director.
The film is about the glory days of basketball, long before the days of multimillion-dollar players and decades before they were even a twinkle in their mothers’ eyes. But even more than that, beneath all the athletic excitement, Cowboys is a film about a son’s love for his father. It’s “about a son trying to find out about his father’s glory days,” in Komenich’s own words.
About a son making up for the questions he never got to ask his father while he was growing up in Manteca. And about that now grown-up son discovering the truths about his father being a giant in the historical realm of basketball – discoveries that have been melded into a slim palm-sized shiny compact disc. It’s a posthumous Father’s Day gift of the son, Kim, to his late father, World War II-era basketball great Milo Komenich.
The film is a project right in Kim Komenich’s professional alley. The Manteca High graduate who now lives in Mill Valley and has been assistant professor in San Jose State’s journalism department since he left the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, is a Pulitzer Prize winner in photojournalism (1987) which he won for his coverage of the People’s Revolution in the Philippines that led to the downfall of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship and his subsequent flight to exile.
• • •
Cowboys, the film
“Cowboys” is a film that is gripping, not only because of the story’s significance in the annals of basketball in America but because of the story revolving around the young men who were members of The Greatest Generation who voluntarily walked away from the excitement and glitter of the basketball arena to serve their country in World War II. Milo Komenich signed up twice for active service overseas but was denied twice because at 6-foot-7, he was “too, too tall.” Instead, he served in the military at home in Wyoming driving a water truck in Laramie.
The focus of the film zooms into what was called the “Red Cross Game” and how this game helped define the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) as America’s premier basketball championship. The game was the first-ever playoff between The University of Wyoming Cowboys, the winner of the NCAA basketball championship and the winner of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), played against St. John’s Red men on April 1, 1943 – at the height of World War II – at Madison Square Garden in New York. Milo Komenich led the Cowboys in scoring in that world title game which was billed as a benefit for the Red Cross. Within weeks of that historic game, nearly all of the Wyoming players were shipped out to active duty in the Pacific.
Interspersed among black-and-white clips of that 1943 game in the film are Komenich’s interviews with some of the star players whose reminiscences are, by themselves, highly entertaining and informative as these living basketball encyclopedias relive those glory days in their own words. These giant athletes, in more ways than one, include Kenny Sailors, Jimmie Reese and Tony Katana from the 1943 Wyoming Cowboys; and, Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane from the 1943 St. John’s Redmen. Additional historical flashbacks are shared by former Wyoming coach Jim Brandenburg, former U.S. Senator Alan K. Simpson from Wyoming who was a kid in the locker room in 1943, and several others who had front-row seats of the game at that time.
The film premiered in March in Laramie, Wyo., where Milo Komenich and his teammate remain legends to this day. Narrated by “Voice of the Cowboys” Dave Walsh, the film is directed and produced by Kim Komenich, written and produced by G. Allen Johnson, and edited and produced by Jessica Sison. Komenich and Johnson first met in 1997 when they were both working at the San Francisco Examiner.
After Komenich came back from Laramie with the interviews and footages he shot, “he didn’t know what to do with it,” Johnson recalled. After seeing the footages, Johnson commented that this was “like an oral history project” and told his friend, “You can make a documentary out of this.” So they started working on it right there and then. Johnson knew what he was talking about having made some short films himself. It was through that experience that film editor Jessica Sison came on board the Cowboys project. Johnson was familiar with Sison’s body of work and called her “a talented film maker and editor. Sison, said Johnson, “was very instrumental in the film.”
Sison, who is now working on a Philippine documentary with Komenich titled Revolution Revisited, said she met Johnson when he was serving as a judge at a film competition where she was one of the contenders.
Komenich started shooting the interviews for the Cowboys film in 2009 with a trip to Wyoming to interview the former senator as well as Sailors and Reese.
For more details about the Cowboys film or to purchase a copy ($20 each DVD plus $5 shipping), log on to http://cowboysmovie.com.