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