NOT REALLY INTERESTED
Almost every young man growing up in Indiana aspires to play for his high school's varsity basketball team. And most of the ones who were able will tell you that these were some of the best years of their lives. That wasn't the case with me. The reason for my lack of interest at the time probably had to do with the fact my mother had taken me with her to Detroit in 1944, when she went to work in the war effort. My heroes were Hank Greenberg, Hal Newhouser and a Hoosier named "Dizzy" Trout. They were some of the Detroit Tigers who won the 1945 World Series.
After the war, I returned to my hometown (Lebanon) as a fifth grader. There were three grade schools in town, and one in the country which I attended. The three city schools had basketball teams; mine didn't. But soon after school started, we learned we were to have one. My sports were softball and baseball. I didn't go out, but soon thereafter I was told I should, so I did. I can't remember too much about these two years other than we didn't win many games, Mr. Mitchell, our principal, was the coach. He was quite elderly and didn't seem to care much about winning. He would substitute regularly giving everyone a chance to play equal time. I remember one particular game, we lost by one point because one of our players made a basket for the other team. Surprisingly, by season's end I was starting to like the game.
A BIG DISAPPOINTMENT
After grade school, students moved on to the junior high (the old high school) which was situated next to the current high school. Soon it was time to try out for the junior high team. The competition was quite keen, there were no 7th "A" and "B" and 8th "A" and "B" like they have today. There was just one team made up of the best from both grades. The coach was "Cat" Adam who had been one of the stars of Lebanon's back-to-back state championships in 1917 and 1918.
I made the first cut and we were told the final cut would be the following Monday. After school let out that Monday, everyone went to check the list. When I looked, my name was missing. What a disappointment. So, what! I hadn't wanted to play anyway. But as I continued to gaze at the list, I saw my cousin Marshall "Otto" Sheets had made the cut, so I thought I would take a chance and dress anyway. After all there was a Sheets on the list and "Cat" was an old man. During practice, I thought I had done OK and blended in adequately, but at practice's end the old boy set us down in the bleachers and, after a few comments said this. "I won't mention a name, but there is someone here that doesn't belong, He knows who lie is."
The irony of this story is that only three of the 14 boys sitting in the bleachers that day made it to the varsity level and only two of the three ever started on the varsity - cousin "Otto," who scored 254 points as a freshman, and the guy who didn't belong.
The following year, there was a new coach. "Cat" had passed away. I made the team and was a starter. The following two years, I started on the freshman and junior varsity teams. As a junior varsity player, I occasionally got to dress with the varsity. I had one wish - that if I ever got into a varsity game, I hoped it would be an away game so that if I messed up, it wouldn't be in front of the home crowd. But more on that later.
MY JUNIOR YEAR (1953)
The 1951 and 1952 teams had won consecutive sectionals, with the 1952 team setting a record for most points scored (1,311) in a season. Things were looking up in Tigerland. There were two starting slots available and one was mine. The season began with a win over Lapel and three losses to our arch-rivals Crawfordsville, Frankfort and Lafayette Jeff by a total of five points. I was riding high as the leading scorer with an 11.7 average. Then the six-week grading period came and I received an "F" in one of my four solids. The coach decided to suspend me for one game, even though I was eligible by IHSAA standards. After that, the situation between the coach and myself began to deteriorate. We ended up losing the sectional championship game to Zionsville by the largest margin that a Lebanon team had ever lost by in a sectional contest. After the game, I had some choice words for the coach. It looked like my basketball days were over.
MY SENIOR YEAR (1953-54)
As luck would have it, the old coach was gone and Bob Igney (a future Hall of Famer) replaced him. Mr. Igney was a protégé of "Piggy" Lambert, a Naismith Hall of Famer who had coached at Lebanon before becoming an icon at Purdue and, in the process, had coached John Wooden. Things were again looking up for the Tigers. Three starters returned, along with two new players - one from Noblesville and another who had moved in from the county late the previous year. However, Marshall Sheets had joined the Army. Another two-year starter was permanently suspended and I was hampered for the first seven games with a football injury. The Tigers got off to an unimpressive 4-6 start. Then things got even worse.
The next game was at Alexandria. My parents attended, then stayed overnight with relatives in Elwood. When we returned home, we decided to have a party at my house. We were found out and the leading scorer Lynn Miller, the Noblesville transfer (also a starter), myself, and a sub were suspended. The coach said we would miss the upcoming weekend games versus Shelbyville and Terre Haute Gerstmeyer. We would then be told our fate the following Monday. At the Shelbyville game, I found myself rooting against the Tigers for the first time. A 17-point loss occurred. The next night a 40-point debacle at Terre Haute. These two losses were most likely what got the leading scorer and me back on the team. The other two were dismissed.
I hated to miss the Gerstmeyer game. We thought we had a chance to upset the Blackcats because they had beaten us by 10 the previous year. They led by 10 at halftime, but we played them on even terms in the second half. Besides Harley Andrews had graduated and we hadn't been all that impressed with the Andrews twins and their cousin, it was the two guards (Balk and Smith) that had given us problems the previous year. Upon our return, Mr. Igney didn't start the two stray cats at Cathedral and, with that loss, we stood at 4-10. The next night, Miller and I were in the starting lineup and we registered a surprisingly easy win (59-44) over Cleon Reynolds' Shortridge Blue Devils. Why surprising? We had played an almost perfect game against them the previous year and still lost by eight. I still consider that team the best I played against in my years with the Tigers.
One problem still remained. Lynn Miller, who was only 5-foot-9, was faster, quicker and could out jump all of us, but wouldn't quit smoking. He would play like gangbusters on offense but tended to play little defense. We were always calling time outs to let him catch his breath. Calling time outs with the previous coach was no problem, but Mr. Igney knew something was up. So, some of us threatened to turn Lynn in. We think he quit.
With the coach finally getting our attention, things started to fall into place. We lost one more game, a one-point overtime loss to Larry Hobbs' Sheridan Blackhawks, led by Larry's son Joe, who was later selected to the 1954 All-Star team. (See Summer 2001 Boxscore). We also beat Crawfordsville 61-52 after losing two earlier games to them by 16 and 13. Another satisfying win (79-70) came against Indianapolis Howe in the season finale after they had beaten Crispus Attucks. Oscar Robertson was a sophomore on this Attucks team.
With a lackluster record of 9-11, hardly anyone was picking us to win the sectional and in the first game, it looked like they might be right. Against a weak Dover team (2-16), we trailed by one point at the half, but after a lambasting by the coach, it was no contest.
All four games were won by double digits, including a 55-42 victory over Pike in the finale. Bob Igney had stepped into a cesspool and came out smelling like a rose. This should have been no surprise. He had won four sectionals in five years at Kendallville in his first coaching venture.
We received a tough draw in the regional. Frankfort drew what was usually the perennial weak sister in the first game. Lebanon drew the favorite, Lafayette Jeff in the second. As we waited to take the floor for our game against Jeff, we saw Fowler had upset Frankfort, a team that had beaten Milan, the eventual state champ, during the regular season. Now all we had to do was beat the Bronchos. Jeff had beaten us by 12 early in the season, but it was a different story this time. The game went back and forth with neither team leading by more than four points. With 45 seconds left and three starters fouled out, the Tigers trailed by one, and had the ball. The instructions were simple. Our starting guard, who was really quick, was to drive the lane with about eight seconds left and score or get fouled. Everything went smoothly until our center, who had played the game of his life, misread the clock and took an ill-advised shot that missed. These Lebanon Tigers who had grown up just in time had lost a heartbreaker but at least had given their fans something to cheer about. They also had set the all-time record at L.H.S. by scoring 1,371 points, and along the way had learned some valuable lessons.
I have often wondered how things could have been. What if 6-foot-4 Marshall Sheets who had scored 254 points as a freshman, had returned and our two-year starter Don Lambert hadn't been suspended? What if we would have applied ourselves to the task at hand more diligently? We had the fan support, a good coach and a great tradition to back us up. Our immaturity did us in and it's a shame that we were defeated in Lambert Fieldhouse in our last game. It had been named after a man who had coached at only two places - Lebanon and Purdue.
There are many other recollections that come to mind. Three rather hilarious ones follow. The first two happened when I was a sophomore. The third occurred during my senior year. We traveled to Michigan City for a game. After settling in and eating our pre-game meal, the coaches told us we could go to the sock hop after the game if we won or even if we played a good game and lost. Late in the game, we had the ball and a four point lead. With 1:45 left, the coach called time-out. We were told to run our delay offense and to take no shot unless wide open under the basket. Everyone did his job until the ball went to "Otto" Sheets, the talented but immature freshman. He fired an 18-footer, it missed and M.C. scored. Another time-out was called. The coach gave the same instructions with the same results. Marshall fires again. They score and then win the game in overtime. Back at the hotel a bunch of disgruntled Tigers congregate in one room for a lynching. Our captain grabs "Otto" and wants an explanation. The freshman's reply was that someone in Lebanon gives him $20 every time he scores 12 or more points and he only had 11.
The other funny thing happened to me. As a sophomore, I occasionally dressed with the varsity but never got in a game. We were playing Gary Froebel at home and they featured two 6-foot-5 all-staters— Johnny Moore and Vladimir Gasnovitch. As the game was winding down, the coach called for me. By the time I found out who I was to replace and reported to the scorers table, there were but 40 seconds remaining. The only stoppage in action was a foul called on a Froebel player. Fortunately for me, the guy I was to replace had to shoot the foul shot. He missed and play continued to the end. I was definitely relieved because I never wanted my first game to be played in front of the home crowd in case I messed up.
This last incident supposedly happened. My dad wasn't going to use one of his season tickets one night, so left it with a friend to use. The friend had something come up and gave it to someone my father didn't know. Sometime during the game, I made a couple of glaring errors in consecutive trips down the floor. The fellow looked at my dad and said, "They ought to get that boy out of there, don't you think." My Dad's reply, "Don't ask me."
I hope you readers don't think this was an attempt to glorify or denigrate Lebanon's basketball program. It was not. I felt it was a way to tell some interesting happenings (good, bad and exciting) that can take place in Indiana high school basketball in a short period. I know there are many, many other tales to be revealed and I hope my adventures motivate others to tell theirs.
Harley Sheets is the original author of Tiger Basketball, A Lebanon Passion, a book that documents the entire history of Lebanon High School basketball. The latest version of the book can be purchased at tigerbasketballbook.com/order.