Friday, December 30, 2011

Keeping Score of Wingate

In the game of basketball, both keeping time and score are a critical part of game operations.  Without the clock, a game can not exist and without a score, a winner can not be determined.  The same can be said about preserving a town's basketball heritage. One may delay keeping score or track of it's school's basketball records, stories, and traditions, but time will not.  Over generations, history can be lost. But when preserved well, they can live on forever. 

As we traveled north on Indiana State Road 25 in October 2004, we didn't know what to expect in the small town of Wingate, Ind.  This was a spur of the moment decision as we were running ahead of schedule on our trip to Muncie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Milan’s 1954 state championship game.  Located in western Indiana, Wingate is only 6 miles off Interstate 74 near Crawfordsville.  This part of the state is known as "The Cradle of Basketball" because the first eight state champions came from a three-county, 30-mile radius.

We had read about the early Wingate teams winning the state's first back-to-back Indiana state championships in 1913 and 1914, in only the third and fourth years after the state’s inaugural state tournament in 1911.  Wingate even won a state and a national championship in 1920, but our true intention for the visit was to see the historic barn that once played host to Wingate’s home games in the first half of the 20th century. 

Wingate Gymnasium on High Street
Not knowing where the historic barn was located, we made a visit to a local cafe in the middle of town to ask directions. Upon entering, the wall to our right was decorated with trophies, pennants, newspaper articles, and team photos. All proclaiming Wingate's basketball heritage.  These basketball artifacts spurred conversation to any outsider who would enter, and the regulars inside were honored to speak of the old Wingate teams.  We soon learned about the town's decorated past, including the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductees Wingate produced including, Jesse Wood, Pete Thorn, Alonzo Goldsberry, and most noteably, Homer Stonebraker. 

The townspeople talked about how Stonebraker was considered the best basketball player in the United States. He led Wingate to their first two state titles and was a 3-time All-American at Wabash College in nearby Crawfordsville. The 6'3'' star once scored 80 points in a single game.  Those at the cafe also told us that most opponents would pick him up at half-court because he was known to make any shot, anywhere on the floor.

Homer Stonebraker, team captain, is seated in the middle
Stonebraker and the Wingate community were lucky to have had basketball. Since Wingate High School only had twelve boys in the entire school, they almost did not have enough players to field a team.  In addition, Wingate did not have a gym, so they had to travel to nearby schools or play outdoors in order to practice.  As a result, all games were played on the road from 1907 until 1925, which led to their infamous name, "Gymless Wonders". We were then told that the gym was only a block away, west on High Street, and that it was built in 1917 as a livery stable. 

Old Wingate Gym in recent years 
According to the article, The Cradle of Basketball, written by Jason Crowe in the 1995 issue of Indiana Basketball History Magazine, in 1925 the city purchased the livery stable and with some renovations, Wingate had its first and only gymnasium. The school rented the gym from the town for $3 for each practice and $6 for each game. Stoves heated the gym. Wingate played their home games in the barn, turned gym, until 1954 when Wingate closed its doors and consolidated with New Richmond to form Coal Creek Central High School. 

When we pulled up to the historic barn, we were disappointed that the barn doors were closed. We walked around its perimeter and admired how well the barn had held up throughout the years. Time had been kind to it. You could drive by this piece of history and you would never know that basketball was once played behind the large white door. Inside, the dimensions of the court were only 60 x 28 feet and the roof peaked 20 feet in the center.  The barn once displayed  "Wingate Gymnasium" on its exterior front, but it has been painted over in recent years.

A new Wingate sign proclaiming State Champs
On our way out of town, we stopped to read the sign that welcomes travelers and proudly promotes "Wingate: State Basketball Champs 1913 & 1914".  At the bottom in smaller letters, the sign also proclaims "National Champs 1920 & 3 Hall of Fame Members and 2 Football Hall of Famers."  It was the final proclamation that caught my attention, because the townspeople never mentioned it. It reads "First Electric Scoreboard in the Nation made by 2 local men. Mechanical Part by Lee Haxton. Electrical Part by Roy MeHarry." 

This hidden gem caught my attention because who would expect this type of invention and contribution to come from a town with less than 300 residents. I would soon learn that in 1934, Radio repairman, Lee Haxton, was assisted by Roy MeHarry, to build the first electric basketball scoreboard in the country, which was used in Wingate Gym. Haxton focused on the mechanical parts and MeHarry arranged the electrical circuits. 

MeHarry with the country's first electric basketball scoreboard

Haxton would pass away in 1938, but MeHarry would live to see a movie about a small Indiana town basketball team winning the one-class state championship.  Not only did he see the movie, Hoosiers, he was also in the movie.  A portion of the movie was filmed in New Richmond, just a few miles northeast of Wingate. New Richmond became the fictional town, Hickory.  MeHarry also traveled to Knightstown to play the role of the scorekeeper for the Hickory home games.  You can also see him behind Myra Fleener (actress Barbara Hershey) in the church scene where the town meets to dismiss coach Norman Dale. MeHarry passed away in 2000.
MeHarry operating the scoreboard in the movie Hoosiers
MeHarry (behind Hershey) casting a vote during the town gathering

If you're wondering what happened to the nation's first electrical basketball scoreboard once used in the Wingate Gym, travel to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, Ind.  You'll see the scoreboard hanging on the wall.  It looks as it did when operated in Wingate's gym.  As for the old Wingate gym, it is also a timeless piece of history as well.  The gym will remain a symbol of the early basketball years for generations to come.

Wingate's scoreboard at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame
After leaving Wingate, I couldn't help but think how lucky we were to stop into the cafe to get a brief history lesson, but more importantly, I felt very pleased that members of the Wingate community kept record of their team's heritage and helped illustrate the basketball history that commenced in this region. Time changes things, but one thing that will not change is Wingate's place in Indiana basketball history. Those who appreciate local history, like our family, could not have walked into a better place.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

From the Bottom of Iowa, to the Top of the Sport

Countless Iowans remember 1993 as the “Year of the Great Flood”.  A summer when many families, farmers, and businesses lost things dear to them that may not be replaceable.  But others across the Hawkeye state remember it as the year in which one of their greatest traditions came to an end… girls six-on-six basketball. 

Iowa Public Television documentary looked back at girls' 6-on-6 basketball
The basis of the game was the same as regular basketball but with a few exceptions, including teams having 6 players on each side (3 forwards and 3 guards), unlimited dribbling was not allowed, and both forwards and guards handled the ball.  Forwards must stay in their teams' frontcourt and guards must stay in their team's backcourt. Only forwards were allowed to shoot the ball.

Many tri-state basketball fans probably aren’t aware that Iowa was one of the last states to have this format.  Most states removed the game when the Office of Civil Rights started the process of banning the sport in 1958. The last of the schools to phase out this game was Texas in 1978, Iowa in 1993, and Oklahoma in 1995. Six-on-six ended in both Iowa and Oklahoma as a result of Title IX lawsuits filed on behalf of high school players who felt they would have unequal opportunity for scholarships compared to girls from schools that already played five-on-five.

With the loss of the sport, also came the end to one of the nation’s most decorated girls’ six-on-six teams, the Bullettes of Mediapolis High School (Mediapolis, Iowa).  Located 25 miles east of Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa, the Mediapolis’ program was built by arguably one of the most successful coaches to come out of the tri-state area.

Montrose, Iowa High School Class of 1951
Vernon E. "Bud" McLearn, born in 1933 in Montrose, Iowa, a handful of miles north of Keokuk, graduated from Montrose High School in 1951. According to McLearn's profile on Wikipedia, he began coaching in 1957 at Oakville High School (Oakville, Iowa) and after two seasons became the head coach for the Bullettes of Mediapolis High School during the 1959-1960 season. In 28 seasons he had a career coaching record of 706 wins and 80 loses (an 89.8 winning percentage). During his 26 year tenure at Mediapolis the girls team went 333-8 (97.6 winning percentage) on their home court. This run included consecutive home winning streaks of 97, 84, and 66 games. McLearn's teams qualified for the Iowa state tournament 21 years out of the 28 (including a stretch of 12-straight appearances), with two state championships in 1967 and 1973. He retired in 1987 with the fourth best record in Iowa state basketball history. 

Coach "Bud" McLearn
McLearn was inducted into the Iowa Girls Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1988 and into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2000. The high school gymnasium at Mediapolis was named McLearn Court in his honor in 2001.  After winning so many battles on the hardwood, Coach McLearn lost his battle with cancer in 1999. He was laid to rest at the Montrose Cemetery, a block away from his childhood home.

Although the final buzzer has sounded for Iowa girls six-on-six basketball, the memories of one of the state’s beloved sports still remain strong today. Over the past decade, books have been written about the game, television specials have aired, and a musical has even been produced.  Women aged 50 and older can also participate in the Granny Basketball League, which formed in Iowa in 2005. The women play by the 1920s rules and wear 1920s-style uniforms. And for the man who led the Mediapolis girl's program to greatness, his accomplishments and guidance will never be forgotten as well.  Peer up towards the wall when walking through the entryway to McLearn Court, and you will see a picture of him prominently displayed.  Then while walking out, ponder the fact that Coach McLearn and his Mediapolis teams walked out of the gym only 8 times, over 26 seasons, on the losing end. That's an amazing feat. Even though Coach McLearn grew up in Montrose, with only hundreds of residents, his contributions and influence on basketball reached millions across the state.   

Coach McLearn's photo hangs on the gym wall
In the summer of 1993, the region of southeastern Iowa, including the communities near Mediapolis, were impacted by the flood as the heavy rains came down and the waters breached the levees on the west banks of the Mississippi River. Over time, the water did recede, houses and business were rebuilt, and personal property was replaced.  But, with the phasing out of six-on-six basketball in Iowa that same year, and with the eventual passing of Coach McLearn a handful of years later, Mediapolis and its surrounding communities did lose a part of themselves, which was not replaceable.  Although gone, their place at the top of Iowa six-on-six basketball is a testament that basketball was more than a game to Coach McLearn and the Bullettes of Mediapolis. That will never be taken away from them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reuniting History

Who doesn’t love a reunion?

It’s a time when friends who may not have seen each other for many years reminisce, exchange personal stories, and catch up on everything new in their lives. Photos are generally taken, endless questions asked, and hugs and handshakes exchanged. I look forward to reunions for months, even years in advance, especially since they only come around every five or ten years. But the reunions I am talking about are not family reunions or the reuniting of my high school class, even though I do enjoy them. I am referring to the championship team reunion celebrations that take place across each state, every year, celebrating a basketball accomplishment that may have taken place decades ago. Although every celebration is important in its own right, I have tried to attend the reunions of those teams that have left a large imprint in high school basketball history. 

My family traveled to Muncie, Ind. for our first reunion celebration in February 2004.  Muncie Central High School has fielded a boys basketball team for over 100 years, and is Indiana's winningest program with the most state championships (8 State Titles, 7 runner-ups), but our 850 mile round trip was to meet the team that beat them in the 1954 state championship game – the Milan Indians. All basketball fans are familiar with the Milan story. A town, with a population of 1,150, and a school of 161 students — 73 boys, win the one-class Indiana state championship against powerhouse Muncie Central (enrollment 1,662), on a last-second shot by Bobby Plump. Milan is arguably the most famous small town in high school sports history. More than 40,000 people came to Milan the next day to congratulate and celebrate with them.

After traveling throughout the night, we made our way to the reunion celebration at a local Muncie hotel.  We chatted with the 1954 Milan team, including Ray Craft, Gene White, Bobby Plump, Glenn Butte, Bob Engel, Rollin Cutter, and Roger Schroder.  We talked to the 1954 Milan players about their 28-2 season, the championship game, playing ball together growing up in Pierceville Ind., coach Marvin Wood, playing against Oscar Robinson, one-class basketball, and the list goes on and on.  
Milan's Bobby Plump
Even though we were tired, we stayed to watch the present day Milan and Muncie Central varsity teams play each other in Muncie Central’s historic Fieldhouse.  The game was even broadcasted live on ESPN Classic and a special ceremony took place at halftime to honor both the 1954 Milan Indians and Muncie Central teams. This was the first time we witnessed Hoosier Hysteria and it was unforgettable. The crowd of 6,500 was loud throughout the game, even when Muncie Central took a commanding lead in the second half.  The spectators near us were amazed that we would drive from Missouri to celebrate the occasion.  We told them the game may have taken place in Indiana, but the story belongs to basketball coaches, players, and fans across the country.  The Milan team continues to reunite each year for various events, meeting fans and telling the story of how they were able to slay Goliath.
The next reunion we attended was in 2006 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the making of the sports movie, Hoosiers. Released in 1986, the film was inspired by Milan's 1953-54 championship season. As everyone knows, the film is about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team, the Hickory Huskers, that overcome adversity to win the 1952 state championship.

Huskers team photo, which still hangs in the gym today
We were excited to hear that the movie's writer, Angelo Pizzo, and four members of the Hickory Huskers team would attend the reunion in Knightstown, Ind, in the gym made famous by the movie. We arrived early to The Hoosier Gym and were able to spend some time talking to the fictional Huskers - Steve Hollar (Rade), Brad Long (Buddy), Wade Schenck (Ollie), and Maris Valainis (Jimmy Chitwood) -  as well as, a few of the local supporting cast members.

A few of the Hickory teammates had not seen each other in years and in almost all cases, they had not been back to The Hoosier Gym since the filming. When Robert Swan (Rollin - assist. coach) walked in and approached the grown players, you immediately knew that he had not seen them since 1985. And you immediately knew that they had a great working relationship while filming the movie, because many hugs and stories  were exchanged.  We talked to them about everything from the making of the movie, its impact on them personally, the passing of Kent Poole, to playing high school basketball in Indiana, since all members of the Huskers were local high school players. 

Jaryt and I with the Hickory Huskers in 2006
We asked Steve and Brad if they get tired of the recognition or talking about the film and they quickly responded that they do not.  They also said they don't mind being called their character's name when out in the communities.  Although they did not realize that the movie would become what it is today, they were honored to be apart of it.

The Hoosier Gym
Although some of the Hickory Husker players were successful in their own right during their high school playing days, they will always be remembered for their inspirational roles in Hoosiers.  And The Hoosier Gym will always be taken care of by the community, so visitors traveling through Indiana on Interstate 70, can stop in to shoot a few baskets, look at the movie memorabilia, tour the locker rooms, and walk through the gym doors and say "Welcome to Indiana basketball".

I enjoyed the reunion so much that in July 2010, I went back again for the 25th anniversary reunion, making it seven times that I have traveled to Knightstown and visited The Hoosier Gym. The Hoosier Gym actually holds the reunion each June, although the movie's cast comes back every 5-10 years.

Meeting with Maris at the 25th anniversary reunion
Maris and Angelo catching-up
If you want to experience Hoosier Hysteria at its finest, make the trip to Knightstown in June and watch the Hoosier Reunion ALL-STAR Classic Basketball Game. The game showcases the top Indiana high school players in a competitive game, where the teams play for either Hickory or Terhune.  If you stay the weekend, you will enjoy an evening sock hop and 50’s diner-style dinner, a golf-outing, as well as, the opportunity to watch the movie Hoosiers in the famous gym.

We attended the 2009 Hoosier Reunion ALL-STAR Classic Basketball Game
My most recent reunion trip was in Illinois. I was thrilled to learn that Collinsville would be organizing a 50th reunion celebration in January 2011 for the 1961 Collinsville Kahoks state and national championship team. I wanted to make this trip for several reasons. I wanted to tour the gym named after legendary coach, Vergil Fletcher, as well as, meet the team who some include in the "greatest Illinois high school team" conversation.  I also wanted to meet Fred Riddle and Bogie Redmon, who were All-State and All-American players who would go on to play ball at Iowa and Illinois.

Riddle, Redmon, Ron Matikitis, Nathaniel Bykit and Joe Brennan of the 1960-61 team - which finished undefeated 32-0 - along with a few cheerleaders and Violet Fletcher, widow of coach Vergil Fletcher all gathered to celebrate as the group.  All were honored before Collinsville's game with Triad.
Introduction of the 1961 Kahok championship team
Presentation of the new Collinsville Kahok team photo
Both Riddle and Redmon were given the microphone during the celebration. Riddle told the crowd that there was only one person who made this special and that was coach Vergil Fletcher.  Redmon mentioned that the state title was the pinnacle of his athletic career.  At Illinois, he beat Kentucky and UCLA, but the highlight was the 1961 state tournament. The Collinsville fans reacted to these comments with loud cheers. 
Talking with Fred Riddle (left) and Bogie Redmon (right)
You might ask what our next reunion celebration trip will be?  We were excited to learn that on Sunday, March 11, 2012 (tentative date) at 11:30am, Hebron, Ill will hold a 60th anniversary celebration of the beloved 1952 Hebron Green Giant state championship team.  If you are from Illinois and a basketball fan, you know the Hebron story.  Alden-Hebron High School is the smallest to win the Illinois boys' basketball championship.  In 1952, the school had just 98 students in attendance when they won the coveted single class state title with an overtime victory over Quincy. Go to the “Hebron Green Giants of 1952” Facebook page to learn more about the reunion celebration.

1952 Hebron Green Giants
What makes these team reunions memorable is not only the time spent hearing everyone's stories or asking the team questions, but the fact that you get to see them interact with their teammates, coaches, community and fans. It takes them back to the days of young, when playing the game was fun. When winning at the high school level was special because they were playing alongside teammates who they had grown up with.  In many ways, these teammates are as close as brothers. They enjoy living the dream once again together, with the people closest to them, even though it is only for a few days. After attending a few of these reunion celebrations, I have came to the conclusion that they are much more special than a reuniting to celebrate an important accomplishment. I guess you can say that the gatherings are a family reunion.  Because that is what good high school teams are...FAMILY.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

'State Champion' has a nice ring to it

No matter the level, all basketball players dream of winning a championship.  They dream of hoisting the trophy over their heads, cutting down the nets, and most importantly, putting their team and name in the history books forever.  To say that you were the best team, comes with a lot of prestige and pride.  And with the state championship win, also comes a small, sometimes big, token of their hard work, dedication and achievement……a championship ring. 
Milan, Ind 1954 championship ring
I am part of the 99.9% of the sports population not lucky enough to have earned one but I have friends who played on state championship teams who have received rings for their achievement.  Two things I can tell you about the rings. They are usually noticeable, due to its size, and the ring is a very good conversation starter.  You take one look at it and you know that this person must have accomplished something great to wear such a large ring.  Within months, those associated with the team begin sporting their rings.  I could only imagine the pride one must have, showing it off to friends, family, or the many others that want to look at it.

1952 Hebron state champions
What if I were to tell you that one of the most recognizable and storied IHSA state championship teams just received their rings in 2004?  After touring Alden-Hebron’s old gym, we also had the pleasure to meet with Phil Judson, of the beloved 1952 Hebron Green Giants state championship team.  We talked about everything related to playing basketball growing up, being a twin (as Jaryt and I are), coaching, to playing for Alden-Hebron and the University of Illinois, to life after basketball.  Jaryt and I had read the “Once There Were Giants” book years ago, so we were familiar with their story, so many questions rolled off our tongues that evening.  But it was during one point of our conversation that we noticed the ring on his finger.  When asked about it, Phil pulled off the 1952 Hebron state championship ring and told us how just a handful of years ago, members of the 1951-52 team decided to order the rings that they never had.

Phil Judson talking basketball with us
He told us he was reading the Chicago Tribune one day, when he noticed a Jostens advertisement, marketing their service of creating custom rings to celebrate personal accomplishments.  Phil mentioned that back in 1952, buying or wearing a championship ring was something that the team never thought about. 

The ad had a direct response number, which Phil decided to call.  He mentioned that he was from Hebron and wanted to order championship rings.  The Jostens representative was familiar with the Hebron story so he informed Phil that a rep would be in the area in the near future.  Phil, Ken Spooner, and Bill Schulz met with the Jostens sales representative in May, 2004 and he helped them capture their story within the design of their ring.  A few months later in August, they were presented with their championship rings and since then, they have displayed and worn them proudly.  The rings that Phil, Ken and Bill wear are exactly alike but Paul Judson’s is slightly different.  Since he spends time in Florida, he was not at the initial meeting, so when he spoke to the Jostens rep at a later date, he ordered a slightly different design.  His ring has a ”#1” on it, rather than a “H” for Hebron.  For those that cannot tell the Judson twins apart, I guess all you have to do is look at their rings.

Phil Judson's ring: 35-1 record
"H" for Hebron

Judson's #9 inscribed in the basketball and dated 1952
Although not every state title team may have them,  I was amazed to learn that probably the most celebrated championship team in state history did not have a ring.  I had seen a 1954 Milan, Ind. championship ring at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, Ind., so I assumed that teams wore them in that era.  As we drove to the hotel after spending the evening playing and talking basketball in Hebron, we talked briefly about Phil’s championship ring and why it was not important for them to have rings for so long.  If you have ever spoke to any of the players, they were excited to win the title, but they did not know how important and meaningful their victory had on the state.  A ring was not what they played for. They enjoyed playing the game with their friends, for their coach, their community, and to be the best by beating the best. They never thought the win would have such a profound impact.  Nor did they imagine that people across the country would associate Hebron, with their title team.

Tribute photos line the hallway outside the gym
We came to the conclusion that for so many years, this team didn’t need a ring to identify themselves.  Their photos and stories were plastered in various newspapers and magazines across the state. Even now, images of their team and their winning season can be found on websites, in books, and even blogs.  Over the last six decades, anytime a conversation led to someone asking them where they are from, they would simply reply, “Hebron, Illinois” and that alone would kick start the conversation and questions about the memorable 1951-52 season.  They are one of the few championship teams that don’t need a ring to identify what they won or who they are. 

The popular Hebron water tower

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Beginning of the Madness

There are a dozen small town clichés that can describe the village of Manito, Ill, in northern Mason County, near Pekin, Ill.  I have driven through it numerous times when I make my treks back to Missouri or when attending my wife's family gatherings held in the town, so I can contest that you can blink and miss it. 

Established in 1858, the town still showcases its 1858 "Old School" and 1906 "Old Jail".  The three day Manito Popcorn Festival is celebrated annually on Labor Day Weekend, since 1972. It attracts not only local residents, but residents from Mason, Tazwell and Peoria counties as well.  The village of nearly 1,600 is also home to Midwest Central High School and its Raiders, which have played host to the IHSA sectional playoffs.  But what most Illinois high school basketball fans might not realize is the tie the town has to one of Illinois' most coveted basketball traditions.

Small Illinois community
When planning our basketball trips, it is customary to give it a basketball name that is popular within the state we are traveling.  The days leading up to our Illinois trip this past October, it was a no-brainer to identify our trip with the most popular basketball term that originated in Iliinois, "March Madness".  While researching it, I was surprised to learn that Manito was the birthplace of Henry Van Arsdale Porter (H. V. Porter), who would coin the popular phrase in an essay written in 1939.  "March Madness" defined the excitement and spirit of the Illinois high school basketball tournament.  

 H.V. Porter (1891-1975)
Porter was born in Manito on October 2, 1891, but he grew up on a farm near Washington,  Ill.  Following high school he attended Illinois State Normal University and after graduating, he began his career teaching in Mount Zion, Keithsburg, and Delavan.  From 1919 to 1928 he served as principal of Athens High School, where he also coached basketball, leading his team to a second place state finish in 1924.

In 1928, Porter was hired as assistant manager of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA).  Along with organizing a department to license and train officials in sports, such as, football, basketball, and baseball, Porter served as editor of a new monthly magazine, the Illinois High School Athlete.

According to, nearly every magazine contained an article or essay from Porter himself. In 1939, near the end of Porter's tenure at the IHSA, he wrote an essay titled, March Madness, about the fans of the Illinois high school basketball tournament, which during the 1930s had grown in popularity.  The term itself is thought to have come from the old English saying, ‘Mad as a March Hare.’ The essay’s punctual line was,
When the March madness is on him, midnight jaunts of a hundred miles on successive nights make him even more alert the next day.”

The spirit of March Madness
 Shortly thereafter, Porter left the IHSA to become the executive secretary of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). In 1942 he provided one last contribution to the IHSA’s magazine, a poem titled “Basketball Ides of March“, which ends with the final stanza:
           WIth war nerves tense, the final defense
           Is the courage, strength and will
           In a million lives where freedom thrives
          And liberty lingers still
          Now eagles fly and heroes die
          Beneath some foreign arch
          Let their sons tread where hate is dead
          In a happy Madness of March

Shortly after joining the NFHS , Porter became a member of several influential committees. As a member of the National Basketball Committee, Porter contributed to many innovations that shaped basketball for years to come.

It is also worth noting that Porter was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960, in the second inducted class.  The following are his basketball contributions listed on the Hall of Fame website:

"Equipment inventor, rule maker, high-school coach, and athletic administrator, Henry Porter's innovations were vital to the evolution of basketball. In 1933, Porter designed the popular fan-shaped backboard, adopted for official use in 1940-41. In 1935, he pushed for replacement of the then-used cumbersome, irregular, and expensive 32-inch sewn leather ball with a 29 1/2-inch molded leather basketball. Under his leadership, high schools adopted the new ball in 1938, and later in the 1940s, adopted an even better composite-molded basketball. Throughout the 1930s, Porter teamed with Hall of Famer Oswald Tower to create new and consistent rules for basketball. In 1936, Porter published the first high school rulebook standardizing the game across the nation. In 1940, Porter became the first full-time executive secretary and editor of publications at the National Federation of State High School Athletic Association (NFSHSAA), a position he held until 1958."

Career Highlights
  • Served as the first rep for high schools on the National Basketball Rules Committee
  • Pioneered use of motion pictures to study proper playing techniques
  • Published the first high school rule book, 1936
  • Published the first magazine-style state high school association publication, The Illinois Athlete
You can see why I was taken aback to learn that a man of large influence to basketball, state-wide and nationally, came from this small, rural community.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me when I look at the history of Illinois high school basketball and the list of small town players, coaches, administrators, and programs that have contributed to the game and to the Madness of March.  Trust me when I say that small town clichés do not apply to Porter.  Because when you are reading about Porter and you blink, you can't miss reading his accomplishments and contributions.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Legeman's Court Vision

When entering through the doors to your school’s gymnasium, grabbing a game program and taking a seat in your favorite spot, you generally don’t ask yourself, “who built this gym?” or “why was the gym designed this way?”  If you have been in more than a handful of the tri-state area gyms, you will probably agree that they have their similarities and differences.  But there is one style of gym that is so unique, its design belongs to only a small fraternity of gyms in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan and to one man, whose late night vision would change the basketball landscape for decades to come.  
Ralph E. Legeman
Architect Ralph E. Legeman, of Evansville, IN, launched a career in architecture in 1922, designing general buildings but his legacy would be cemented nearly 25 years later with a simple solution to a large problem.  In 1946, he began to be approached by school officials asking him to build them a gymnasium that could hold large capacity crowds, but at a low construction cost, since the cost of labor and materials had increased tremendously in recent years.  With this problem on his mind, Legeman had troubles sleeping. One night with numbers, facts, and figures running through his head, he got out of his bed and went to his desk to do some sketches.  It was that night that his vision of a unique design would become the answer to the school officials problem. Shortly thereafter in 1948, Legeman would file to patent (granted in 1956) his solution, which is to build underground. 

Diagram from the patent
Legeman felt that his underground “bowl” design would be economical in construction, safe and convenient in use and attractive in appearance.  In Legeman’s design, only the roof and upper walls stand above ground. The design also eliminated the need for elaborate structural supports for seating and roofing, which were expensive and constrained by limits in technology.  Bleachers were concrete, built directly on the sloping dirt sides of the excavation and the top of the gym is supported by steel trusses. Spectators are seated up to where the trusses join the abutments. There are no steel rafters above the court, since the abutments support the weight of the structure.

In addition, the underground design would allow the spectators to enter the seats from above and leave the same route, without interfering with persons on the playing floor and without obstructing the views of the persons in the seats.  Also, Legeman thought exits could be installed behind the seats at ground level so that the spectators may leave at many access points and the seats may be quickly emptied at the end of a game.  

Legeman's design became so successful that he would eventually design 27 bowl gymnasiums for both high school and college and license 10 others during the late 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.  There were three different gym sizes that a school could build: small, medium, and large.   In 1949, Herrin, IL (Memorial Gym) became the first of 27 bowl gyms and Loogootee, IN would be the last, built in 1968.  Many of Legeman's gyms are noteworthy, large and small, such as Duster Thomas gym in Pinckneyville, IL, the Jacksonville Bowl in Jacksonville, IL and the 12,500 seat multi-purpose arena, Roberts Municipal Stadium, in Evansville, IN.  The most recognized would probably be Chrysler Fieldhouse in New Castle, IN. Chrysler is better known as “The largest high school basketball gymnasium in the world”, since its seating capacity is 9,325, but has held more than 10,000. 

Duster Thomas Gym in Pinckneyville, IL

Chrysler Fieldhouse in New Castle, IN

For someone like myself who grew up in northeast Missouri, I too do not have to travel very far to see or play in a Legeman Gym.  Twenty miles to the east, in Hamilton, IL, Legeman erected their high school gymnasium in 1956.  Once home to the Hamilton Cardinals basketball teams, it is still in use today for a handful of the West Hancock Titan varsity basketball teams home games.  Having traveled to some of Illinois and Indiana’s most decorated basketball schools and gyms, I was excited to learn of the local connection between Hamilton’s gym and the many prominent gyms that Legeman built. 

Hamilton gymnasium interior

Hamilton gymnasium exterior - steel abutments
I am never surprised anymore when I learn something new about the historical relevance of a gym, school or person located down the street or in the area where I grew up.  When recently talking to Hamilton High School Athletic Director, Dave Dion, he mentioned that he too is learning things about his gym after being at Hamilton for 35 years. Uncovering history can start by asking a simple question or by keeping your eyes and ears open to conversations. Basketball history is everywhere around us.  You could even be sitting on it and you might not know it. 

Additional information:
According to chopperinu of, Ralph Legeman Associates, Evansville, Ind.,  designed or licensed bowls in the following cities:
Three gyms yet to be identified, plus:

Norris City
Owensville (IN)
Herrin JHS
Murphysboro (now MS)
Huntingburg (IN)
Bushnell-Prairie City
Lynnville (IN)
Central (Clifton)
Center Grove (IN)
Roberts Municipal Stadium (IN)
Evansville North (IN)
Carmel (IN)
Edinburg (IN)
Boonville (IN)
Connersville (IN)
New Castle (IN)
Indiana Central College (IN) (now UIndy)
L.C. Walker Sports Arena (MI)

Designed by Weber & Curry, Terre Haute, Ind., under license:

Switz City (IN) (now White River Valley)
Clay City (IN)
Orleans (IN)
West Vigo (IN)
Springs Valley (IN)

Designed by James Associates, Indianapolis, Ind., under license:

Brownstown Central (IN)
West Washington (IN)
Eastern (Pekin) (IN)
Indian Creek (IN)

Designed by Lester Routt & Associates, Vincennes, Ind., under license:
Loogootee (IN)