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JUST ANOTHER BASKETBALL SEASON

by Cliff Johnson, IHSBHS Editor

After I wrote this personal memoir 23 years ago, it first appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of the "Indiana Basketball History Magazine," a quarterly publication owned by the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame. It has been lightly edited here, mainly for updating purposes.

Just a few country miles from the cradle of high school basketball in Indiana are marked the rectangular borders of Howard County, Ind. Although I've now resided in California for half a lifetime, I grew up there and remain to this day a Howard County Hoosier at heart. As was the case in the other 91 counties of the state, much of Howard's residency routinely fired up its collective psyche as the first chilly days of a winter season rolled in and heralded a new basketball season. I always wondered if the added heat generated by everyone's basketball enthusiasm and nervous tension may have been an important complement to the countless steam heaters that radiated back in those days to cope with north central Indiana's winter months. Anyway, the setting for this personal little recollection was the year 1944, and the month was November. Generals Eisenhower and Patton had launched the Battle of the Bulge several months earlier on a beleaguered continent 10,000 miles to the east, and the push to end World War II was on. Consequently, everywhere the will to "win" that Fall was feverish and contagious. There was no immunity from it in the basketball camps of Indiana, either. While Evansville Bosse was the defending high school basketball champ with most of its players returning, every one of 776 schools was going to have a chance to wrest the crown from them. Kokomo, the county seat just 12 miles from my hometown of Russiaville, fielded a team that had almost won it for themselves that previous Spring. The Wildkats succumbed to Bosse's Bulldogs by just four points in the final game of the state tournament. And now, a brand-new season was at hand.

I was only eight years old at that time and a third grader at Russiaville, a town of 812 population at the west end of the county, but already I considered myself a "veteran" basketball player. My dad and uncle, both rough and tumble players on the Bronco teams at nearby West Middleton in the early '30s, broke me in at age five with a laced ball that was almost as large as I was, it seemed. They nailed up an open-ended tomato hamper to an out-of-use privy behind our family garage. On the first "give and go" play I ever helped execute, my uncle accidentally split my left eyebrow wide open with his elbow, requiring a brief break in action to allow Doc Evans, just a block down the street , to sew it closed with three stitches. That scar is still a personal identifier. Both family roughnecks then went off to fight the war before I ever started school, and here I was now in the third grade practicing some of the things they had taught me, like staying well clear of flying elbows.

Just about 100 feet from the schoolyard outdoor basketball court where the "big" kids (7th grade and up) regularly played a game or two before the school bell rang at 8 a.m., we tiny tots congregated at about the same time in the mornings to play our wet tennis ball version of the game. We didn't have a regular basketball to play with, and even if we had had one, there was no second goal in the schoolyard to shoot it into anyway. So we contented ourselves with the wet tennis ball game. Simply put, a smooth well-used tennis ball was rolled across a patch of dew-covered Autumn grass by one of us in order to get its entire surface soaked prior to our scrimmage. The "goal" was the schoolhouse cornerstone (dated 1904) having a light cement surface area of about one square yard. A two-point field goal was readily acknowledged whenever the tennis ball was tossed at the cornerstone and left a wet spot within its perimeter. There were very few arguments since --well, the wet evidence was staring you right there in the face. Any dispute had to be settled quickly though, before the wet spot dried. You can imagine how, with a game like that, many of us who were a bit more serious than the others about "real" basketball were motivated to grow up as quickly as possible in order to get into that other schoolyard ballgame with the real cowhide ball and the real metal hoop. Fortunately for me, it wasn't long in coming. One morning the following year the big kids were short one player and recruited me to fill in. I was lucky enough to sink a few pot shots for my side and thereafter was welcomed into the schoolyard's "big league." So I left the old cornerstone area behind me at that point and never looked back. The only time I recall stepping foot over there again was to comfort my best pal, Billy Ayres, while his tongue was stuck to that old nemesis of the schoolground, the frost-covered school flagpole--in this case it may have been a maypole, I'm not sure. Anyway, Billy was stuck good. He couldn't even cry out--all we could hear were a few grunts and groans. A splash or two of hot coffee water onto his tongue by a sympathetic but medically untrained substitute teacher freed him from the pole--and at that point we could finally hear his cries of anguish, yet somehow we felt better about his overall situation.

Kokomo's Wildkats had been comprised of their famous L-S-M-F-T team the season past (1943-44), those letters not only referencing the first letters of the names of their starters Leslie, Schwartz, McFatridge, Farrington, and Turner, but also being a play on the then well-known tobacco radio commercial for Lucky Strike cigarettes. That jingle was "Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco." As mentioned earlier, that team was the runners-up to Evansville Bosse in the state finals. Six-five Tom Schwartz was the sole returning starter for the new season, but the Wildkats were expected to once again be threats for the State title, or at minimum to win the North Central Conference (NCC) crown. Ultimately, they failed at the former but did succeed with the latter. We third graders at Russiaville knew the names of Kokomo's squad members by heart, though we probably didn't even know our own teachers' full names, or really much of anything else at that age. My young buddies bestowed the name of "Schwartz" upon me during our wet tennis ball battles. It was the supreme compliment, I thought.

We cheered on our Russiaville Cossacks, too. The Russia" part of Russiaville, by the way, for those who don't know, is not pronounced the same way one normally refers to the homeland of a Muscovite or Siberian Yakut or Tarter. Instead, it is the French pronunciation of an early French settler named John Richardville, with the pronunciation being something "Roosh-a-ville," similar to the ou sound in the word "should." The name technically has nothing to do with the horsemen of the Steppes. But the Cossacks nevertheless were "our" team, and our parents (mostly mothers, because of the war) took us to as many games as possible in the always crowded coal-stoked gym behind the schoolhouse. Fridays were always the best, when after the pep rallies in the upstairs auditorium at 3 or 4 in the afternoon we little kids would be exposed to the thunder of 200 high school feet descending down the staircase and a resounding 100 voices singing the Cossack fight song. That was generally the signal that school hours were over, and at that point we really couldn't marshal enough brainwave energy for anything but thoughts about the game that night anyway. The Cossacks were our real heroes. Gene Parks, a member of the school's 1944-45 team and later a well-known high school coach and principal) is still a regular correspondent and close friend of mine. He is also a member of IHSBHS. (Update Note: Parks died in 1913, at age 85.) The former school principal and superintendent, Richard Rea, also still writes to me. (Rea passed on in 1915, at age 98.) Russiaville is now a part of the Western School System that I attended while in high school, and it now encompasses the entire west end of Howard County.

I felt sure that the basketball excitement at the other nine schools in our county back then was no less intense than ours. By the time the sectional tourney arrived, everyone was primed for the local school's team to do its best, though it would be a major shock if any team but Kokomo's were to win. We loved it that way, though. It was the challenge that really mattered. And we rooted for the Wildkats the rest of the way if indeed they got by all of us, as expected.

Herman Keller's Evansville Bosse team lived up to its billing that season, winning all its regularly scheduled games but two. Strangely enough, the final AP statewide sportswriters' poll placed Jasper at the top, ahead of Bosse, with Kokomo voted as third best after winning the NCC title. There were also several small school "people's choices" that year, each with an outstanding season record. Included in that group were Leo, Eden, Waynetown, and Hope. Like Milan's Indians nine years later, any of those teams had a chance to win the whole thing because they were all good enough to get the job done--with the right breaks. It's probable also that each of the people's choices had a player that year just like Bobby Plump who had acted out a final shot scenario over and over again on his private court to win an imaginary state championship. I know I did. What separated Bobby from the rest of us was that he did it for real. What a thrill for him--and for us too when he did it since we were all unfulfilled Bobby Plumps.

As expected, Russiaville was wiped out in the second round of the sectional--but not by Kokomo. Little Howard Township did the honors, they in turn getting walloped by Kokomo. The Wildkats then knocked off Greentown in the sectional final. The Wildkats made it all the way to the sweet sixteen that year but were bumped off in a cliff-hanger 29-28 by an upstart Huntington Vikings team in the afternoon at the Muncie semi-finals. Ivan Wilhelm, a sophomore substitute, later to star with Tulane University, netted one from twenty feet, a la Bobby Plump, with time running out, to win the game for the Vikings. As "Tiny" Joe Jordan, our 350-pound radio announcer for the Wildkats, proclaimed as Wilhelm dropped the ball through the net to end the Wildkats quest for the state crown, "That's all, brother!!" Tiny Joe used that phrse often, but that time I think he really meant it.

None of the State Final games that March was spectacular, but all three were well played. The Rockets of Indianapolis Broad Ripple were nicked by Bosse's Bulldogs 37-35 in the afternoon, while a strong South Bend Riley team (ranked fifth in the final AP poll) put away Huntington 39-28. Bosse took out Riley in the final by 10 points, 46-36. Herman Keller's team was quite solid once again in every aspect of its court play to repeat as state champs, duplicating the feat of the Washington Hatchets just three years earlier. It was nearly accomplished 17 years earlier by the Martinsville Artesians, the high school team on which Johnny Wooden first performed his on-court superlatives as a player.

Back-to-back championships (in single class state tournaments) have since been won five more times in the past 53 years, with Marion achieving a triple in 1985-86-87. This Bosse team was a great one though, without a doubt. Bryan (Broc) Jerrell and Gene Schmidt (the only departed 1944 starter) WENT ON TO STAR AT Texas Christian University and many of their teammates played stellar college ball as well, notably Norris Caudell, Julius (Bud) Ritter, and Jack Matthews. McCool, Butterfield, and Whitehead were other performers, as were Tilley, Buck, and DeGroote. The team was deep.

1944-45 was just another basketball season in Indiana, much like any other, with its fair share of thrills, upsets, and historic moments. It just happened to be the first season I can recall as a kid. Today, as anaging self-proclaimed sports historian, I find that I must gather archival materials to supplement a straining memory. It's never good to forget about the things that gave you enjoyment in life, not even the minor details. And not even when you're old enough to have a good excuse for forgetting them.

While there was only one state champion that season of 1944-45, there were 776 teams that really were winners. They were winners simply for having the audacity to challenge for the 1944-45 state crown. That was high school basketball at its best, the likes of which Indiana--because of the looming extinction of single class sports after this 1996-97 season--might possibly never experience again. It literally could be--THE END.

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