RICHLAND — Toivo Piippo, for 30 years the man who taught thousands of Richland youngsters how to dribble, pass and shoot a basketball, passed away at 2 a.m. Monday at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland from congestive heart failure.
He was 85.
Piippo fell ill last week during a trip to the west side of the state with two of his grandsons. He returned home and was admitted to Kadlec.
"His system had shut down," said Vikki Piippo, Toivo's daughter-in-law. "But he passed away very peacefully."
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Word spreads quickly in Richland when one of its greats is in trouble. That was no different with Toivo. Vikki said there were so many visitors to see Toivo at Kadlec that the hospital moved him into a private room.
The number of visits wouldn't surprise those who knew him - many who first learned under Piippo, only to become his friend later in life.
"Personally, he was a close friend of mine," said Jim Castleberry, a former Richland High player in the 1950s and then a long-time Richland basketball coach. "He and I fished together. We went to Huskies games together. I lost a good friend today."
Piippo was instrumental in developing the basketball skills of many players in the 30 years he coached at Chief Joseph Middle School.
The late Art Dawald may have been the father of Richland basketball.
But it was Toivo Piippo who was the grandfather.
It was Piippo's role at Chief Joseph to develop players. It was Dawald's job to fine-tune them at the high school level.
"They kind of ran the same offense and defense," said former player Norris Brown. "They'd both keep you in shape."
It was Piippo's job to teach the basics.
" Toivo taught fundamentals, discipline, everything," said Phil Neill, who played for Piippo and Dawald before becoming a successful coach at Richland. "I think you look at Art Dawald and Toivo, they put the whole program into shape. Toivo had the gym open all the time. He was a tough coach, but everyone liked him."
Practice was all about fundamentals with Piippo. Constant dribbling, shooting and passing.
"It was nothing fantastic," said former standout C.W. Brown, Norris' brother. "You worked under him. He was the kind of guy that you do what he tells you to do or you don't play. He gave you discipline. It was a team effort under him."
"When you came out of Chief Jo, you were a polished basketball player," he said.
And then there was the hat.
"He had a little hat that everybody would rub before the start of the game," C.W. Brown said. "It's hard to believe he's gone. You'd see him anywhere you went around town. I used to see him every morning. He was looking younger and would never stop going."
Piippo played for the winning NCAA men's basketball championship at Oregon in 1939, and he became a hero in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was invited to interview for the head basketball coaching position at Richland High in case Dawald left to take a job at Gonzaga University.
Dawald never left, and Piippo took a job at Chief Joseph where he taught health, science, physical education and coached basketball.
"He taught an awful lot of young kids how to play the game," said Ray Stein, one of Richland's all-time best basketball players who credits Piippo with turning him into a player. "And he ran that summer league."
Piippo always valued his work with kids as his most significant accomplishment, and he was extremely proud of the Richland summer basketball program that still goes on today.
Piippo discovered an unused slab of cement next to the high school in the early 1950s. That's when the program began.
"When I came here there was nothing but sand and dust storms, and so when summer came there wasn't much to do," Piippo told former Herald columnist Jim Riley last year. "I had a real love for basketball, so one day I decided I was going to clean that slab as a place to play basketball."
It soon became the place to play, with lights allowing the games to go on each night until 10 p.m.
Piippo expanded the program to include opening the Chief Joseph gym on Saturdays and holidays. Sometimes as many as 300 kids would show up.
"There were many of us who went through the program that started at Chief Jo," Castleberry said. "You started playing in junior high, and when we were in college we kept coming back."
Piippo is survived by his wife Laurel, two sons, Steve and Robert, and seven grandchildren (Tracy, Kara, Kristi, Scott, Nick, Micah and Stevie).
Vikki Piippo said a memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at Einan's Funeral Home.
"We're also planning a 'traditional nontraditional' Finnish celebration of his life, whatever that is," she said with a laugh. "But we're not sure when yet."
Whenever it is, many old Bombers will be there.
"I feel bad," Stein said. "It seems like it was just a month ago I chatted with him at McDonald's. I feel real bad. But I sure was thankful he was around when I was younger."
Many feel that way.
"He was a very unique individual," Castleberry said. "He spent most of his life where whatever he did was spent helping people."
* Jeff Morrow can be reached at 509-582-1507 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.