"The reason this book will be a hit, is that it's one of the first books to really explain what the game really means to Hoosiers.—Bob Adams, Berne Tr" —Weekly News
The Golden Age of Indiana High School Basketballby Greg L. Guffey
The years 1945–1959 marked the time when basketball truly became the sport of Indiana. High school basketball bound together communities across the state and interest in the sport rose to a new level. The period saw the Milan/Muncie Central game, given new fame through the movie Hoosiers. It also saw the first televised game, the start of the career of Oscar
The years 1945–1959 marked the time when basketball truly became the sport of Indiana. High school basketball bound together communities across the state and interest in the sport rose to a new level. The period saw the Milan/Muncie Central game, given new fame through the movie Hoosiers. It also saw the first televised game, the start of the career of Oscar Robertson (who played for Crispus Attucks), and friendly town rivalries to build the state’s biggest gymnasium. It was a time before the massive consolidations of the 1960s and ’70s, with more than 700 teams involved in basketball tournaments. (There are some 300 now.)
Greg Guffey captures the flavor of the period and showcases many of the best teams, players, and coaches. This is a book for all fans of Indiana basketball.
"From the smallest towns to our capital city, The Golden Age of Indiana High School Basketball captures what basketball meant to Hoosier players and fans in the ‘40s and ‘50s. All fans should take this nostalgic journey through a simpler time when basketball was king." Steve Alford
Read an Excerpt
The Golden Age of Indiana High School Basketball
By Greg Guffey
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2006 Greg Guffey
All rights reserved.
Evansville Bosse 40, Washington 34
March 11, 1944
The Beginning: "It was every player's dream to be on the varsity team. That's all we thought about."
Confidence and arrogance are often difficult to discern when analyzing sports teams, especially the good ones. Ask anyone in Evansville to describe Bosse basketball in the 1940s, and those are the likely adjectives. Confidence if you loved the east-side team that would win back-to-back state championships in 1944 and 1945. Arrogance if you lived in virtually any other area of the city. Ask anyone about Broc Jerrel, the diminutive star guard who would provide the spark for those teams, and expect to hear the word "cocky."
"Broc was cocky; we were confident," says 1945 Bosse grad Norm McCool.
"Going into a bigger gym in Indianapolis really meant nothing, especially when you had Broc Jerrel, who thought he could take on the world," says teammate Gene Whitehead.
"They were a cocky group of kids when you got down to it," says Frank Schwitz, a member of the 1946 Evansville Central Final Four team, who had many battles with Bosse over those few years.
"I guess I had a look on my face that irritated the other side," Jerrel says.
Even in the 1940s, looks could be deceiving. Evansville Bosse had limped into the 1944 state tournament losers of four of its last five games and sported an overall 9-7 record, but six of those defeats had come by four or fewer points. They had two big stars in Jerrel and center Bud Ritter, but it took longer for the team to come together. Then the tournament started, and everything suddenly fell into place for the Bulldogs.
"The '43-'44 team was carried most of the season by Broc Jerrel and Bud Ritter. By the end of the regular season, everybody had grown up a little bit, and we were ready for the tourney," recalls 1945 Bosse grad Norm McCool. "We were a surprise, no question about that, but it was no surprise to us at all. We knew we were better than what we were doing. It wasn't until the end of the season that we had what it takes."
By the time Evansville rolled through seven tournament games to reach the final eight, people had started to notice the Bulldogs. That set the stage for the perfect bellwether game against Washington, the 1941 and 1942 state champs under Marion Crawley, and the team that others in southern Indiana used as a measuring stick. This Washington team was a lot different from those that won the state title, but Bosse still needed to get past the Hatchets to move into elite status and to reach the state finals.
"Everything was on the line that night," says Jerrel. "We were expecting to play them as the tournament evolved. After we beat them, there was a much different atmosphere and outlook. We felt like we belonged at that point."
"That was the turning point right there," says Gene Whitehead.
Bosse beat Washington 40-34 to advance to the finals in Indianapolis the following weekend. Victories over LaPorte and Kokomo sealed the first state title ever for an Evansville school.
The city of Evansville quickly became the standard for basketball in southwestern Indiana. Three city schools — Bosse, Central, and Memorial — started the 1945 season ranked in the state's top fifteen. All three finished the season ranked in the top fifteen. Throw in Reitz — mainly a football power, but one that could field a competitive basketball team as well — and the city of Evansville had competitive games every night, played primarily at the larger Central gym, with partisan fans that held strong loyalties to their favorite schools.
"We were neighbors and the schools were close, so that made us more competitive," says McCool. "It was every player's dream to be on the varsity team. That's all we thought about."
"I didn't think about Bosse being the state champions," recalls 1947 Central graduate Chuck Lamar. "I thought Central was the best. I had it in my mind I was going to be a Central basketball player. We wanted to beat Bosse every time we got on the floor. It was a big rivalry."
"Central always had good teams then but could never make it to the state finals," adds 1946 Central grad Bob Northerner.
Indeed, Central won its share of games against Bosse, two times in 1944 and once more in 1945, but it was Bosse that enjoyed the tournament success. It was a rivalry started in the shadow of World War II, a time when basketball served as a distraction for the adults in the community. Shortages of gasoline and tires limited what would normally have been a statewide or regional schedule for the Evansville teams, and the city schools played each other twice. "That was a part of life then," says McCool. "We didn't get nice white socks. The shoes were terrible." Adds Jerrel, "The whole time was difficult. The adults used basketball as an outlet."
After the surprise in 1944, Bosse entered the following season as the favorites, the ones to beat in the entire state. The Bulldogs began the season ranked number one in the state and had the confident, cocky swagger to back it up. "We expected to win," says McCool. "We thought we were going to win, and that's all there was to it."
"Our team didn't go on the floor thinking we would score so many points," Jerrel says. "We just wanted to win the game. Everybody on the whole team thought we were going to win."
Bosse won its first eight games, dropped a road contest at Jeffersonville, rattled off seven more wins before a loss to city rival Central, and finished with a victory over Vincennes. A one-point sectional win over Evansville Memorial would be Bosse's only big challenge on the way to a repeat appearance in the state finals. The Bulldogs rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Indianapolis Broad Ripple in the morning game before handling South Bend Riley in the championship.
Bosse had its place in history, alongside other teams such as Washington and the Franklin Wonder Five as repeat winners. The players enjoyed celebrity status in a town that loved high school sports. Sixty years later, they are still recognized and still revered as winners. "It would be my idea to remember we played as a team," Jerrel says, "and the thought of winning was the one thing on our mind."CHAPTER 2
Flora 50, Lafayette Jeff 48
"You just forget everything and play by instinct."
Everyone throughout Indiana eagerly awaited the finals of the 1946 Lafayette Semistate. It seemed a mere formality that top-ranked East Chicago Washington and third-ranked Lafayette Jeff would advance to an evening showdown, with the winner favored to take the state title a week later in Indianapolis.
Someone forgot to tell Flora and Culver, the two small schools opposite the powerhouses in the afternoon contests, about that plan. Culver, which had beaten second-ranked Elkhart Central a week earlier in the regional, pulled the first upset, a 35-33 victory in the initial game against East Chicago Washington. That left Flora to complete its end of the bargain in the second tilt.
Flora, in northern Carroll County, was like any other small town — crazy about basketball. "Once we got into junior high school, it was all basketball," recalls Fred Oyler, a 1947 Flora graduate. "We had a really nice gym that seated about fifteen hundred, and we played most games at home. It was one of the larger social gatherings. Much of our lives centered around it."
The Badgers had won three sectionals heading into that 1945–46 season but had never advanced past the regional. After they won the 1945 sectional before bowing out in double overtime to Monticello the next weekend, Dick and Fred Oyler's father took them to the state finals in Indianapolis. The brothers, a year apart and both on the Flora basketball team, saw Evansville Bosse win its second consecutive title and then walked onto the court following the game. "Dad told us, 'I want to see you out here on this floor next year,'" recalls Dick Oyler.
At the time, it seemed like a distant dream. The post–World War II economy had left communities like Flora in search of even a good basketball to use during practice. The team was short on warm-up jerseys; a team photo shows half the squad in different apparel. "Winning the sectional was the epitome of our thoughts," says Fred Oyler. "It was a dream to win the sectional. If you won the sectional, that was the big battle."
Most smaller schools across Indiana had a measuring stick, a larger nearby team that the smaller squad usually met in a mostly ceremonial game during the regular season or the sectional. For Flora, that school was Logansport, a North Central Conference team that often played the best programs in the state. The Badgers finally broke a long drought with a three-point victory over the Berries early in the 1945–46 season, giving them some confidence and momentum.
Then, when everything seemed to be on track for Flora, Dick Oyler broke his leg and missed the better part of the regular season. The Badgers stayed focused, losing just four regular-season games, and three of those defeats came at the hands of nearby rival Rossville. Dick Oyler returned just before the tourney began, and Flora rolled through the sectional and the regional, the latter producing a decisive twenty-five-point victory over Logansport. "We felt pretty confident we could be competitive," says Fred Oyler.
While its presence in the semistate was not unexpected, Flora's chances of an opening-game victory seemed even more remote than Culver's. Robert Spitler, who had scored sixteen points in Flora's two regional victories, fell ill just before the game with Lafayette and stayed home. Flora coach Sweet Reid brought reserve Dave Mills to the gym at 6 A.M. the morning of the game, walked him through game situations and told him he would take Spitler's place in perhaps the biggest game ever for the Badgers.
Mills held his own against Lafayette, but it would be Fred Oyler who would eventually be the hero. Jeff held a 45-38 lead in the fourth quarter before Flora began a 10-3 run that tied the score at 48 with around one minute remaining. The score remained tied until a jump ball at center court with just a few seconds remaining. Fred Oyler tipped the ball to Dick Hanaway, who kicked it back out to Fred Oyler, who was standing near center court. He didn't hesitate, shooting and hitting the game-winning shot that would send the Badgers to the evening finals. "We didn't talk about it in the huddle," Dick Oyler recalls. "It just happened, and he was open. We were kind of numb." Says Fred Oyler, "As I remember, Hanaway turned to see what he could do. He was closely guarded, and he passed it back to me and I shot it. We were walking on air. It was unbelievable, like a dream."
Fred Oyler had hit the winning shot, and Dick Oyler had scored nineteen points in what he called his "best game" ever. A headline the next day summed up the experience for the favorites — "Jeff Oylered," it read across the top of the page. "There was all the hype of the big powers playing at night, but it didn't work out that way," says Dick Oyler.
The heroics in the evening game were saved for Bill McPherson, who broke a 35-35 tie as time expired to send Flora to its first Final Four in the school's history. The players celebrated with a bonfire in their hometown before a quick trip to the ill Spitler's house to tell him of the day's exploits and of their date with Fort Wayne Central in the next weekend's state finals. "It was shock on both sides," admits George Savanovich, a junior for East Chicago Washington who did not dress for varsity games that season. "After the game, it was total shock. Everyone was positive East Chicago and Lafayette Jeff would be facing each other in the night game. Everyone still talks about those two games where the two favorites were knocked out."
* * *
The expectations for basketball in Anderson were a lot different than in Flora. People in Anderson, a gritty blue-collar town in the industrial corridor of east-central Indiana, expected their beloved Indians to compete for a state championship every year. There was never talk of rebuilding, never talk of being satisfied with only a sectional title. "In Anderson, basketball was it," says Johnny Wilson, the 1946 Mr. Basketball. "Basketball was so big in Anderson at that time, the coaches were in danger if you didn't win. They would bust eggs on his car, threaten to run him out of town. The coach was probably the best-known individual in town. Everyone knew the coach. They loved him or hated him depending on how the game went."
The coach was Charles Cummings, a master of detail and conditioning who insisted that athletes play every possible sport. He coached football, basketball, and baseball, and even fielded a boxing team one year. "The thing I think most about is the coach had a big impact on the players' personalities and lives," says 1946 Anderson player and graduate Bob Ritter. "We might not have liked what he had to say, but we didn't disagree with him."
Wilson knew what was expected by the time high school began. The Indians had established themselves as perennial state championship contenders, winning the title in 1935 and 1937 while advancing to the Final Four in 1936. Wilson grew up idolizing those players and teams, walking the two blocks from his house to the gym each afternoon, where he would watch every practice and study every move. "I would sit there and dream about being out there myself someday," he recalls. "Anderson basketball was the most feared, most talked-about program in Indiana from 1935 until 1950. Everyone thought each year that Anderson could win the state tournament. Just about every boy who grew up in Anderson wanted to play for the Indians."
Says Ritter, "You wanted to get on the team. That's what you were focused on. It was an honor. If you were on the team, everyone knew and recognized you."
When he reached high school, Wilson was ineligible for the first semester of the season for an Anderson freshman team that had not lost a game in eight years. When he finally joined the team, the Indians immediately lost to Lapel and ended the streak.
The following year, in the fall of 1943, Wilson joined the varsity. He played the second half of Anderson's first game against New Castle and started every game the remainder of his prep career. The Indians, with Wilson and future Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine leading a talented group, lost three games to North Central Conference foes — New Castle, Muncie Central and Kokomo — during the regular season before putting together a closing win streak that included revenge victories over the Trojans and Bearcats.
The chance to avenge the Kokomo defeat would come weeks later in the state finals, after Anderson had marched through the first three rounds of the tournament with an average margin of victory of more than fifteen points per game. A win over Whiteland in the semistate final set up the rematch with Kokomo, but an injury to Wilson in that Whiteland contest virtually doomed Anderson's chances in the finals. "I could rebound, but I could not get down the floor like we would usually run the fast break," Wilson says. "That was the best ballclub I ever played on. We watched Bosse win it [that night in 1944 over Kokomo]. We thought we could have beaten them with no problem."
After that trip to the final four, Anderson began a rebuilding effort that ended with an upset loss to Danville in the 1945 regional final. The 1945–46 season didn't start any better for the Indians when they were upset by county rival Lapel in the second game of the season. They won eight of the next nine games before enduring a stretch of ineptitude that left even the strongest Anderson believers wondering about any post-season chances. The Indians hit seven of seventy-eight shots, lost to Fort Wayne Central by twenty-seven points, and waited in the dressing room for Cummings to admonish their performance. "We were horrible that night," says Ritter. "Cummings came in and said, 'You have nights like that. Let's go get some fried chicken.'"
That approach didn't appear to work, as Anderson dropped three of its last four games, including a chance to win the North Central Conference outright against Kokomo and a chance to share the conference crown against New Castle. That left Anderson 12-7 heading into the tournament, with no momentum and no support. "No one picked us to win the sectional," Wilson says. "No one even picked us to win the first game of the sectional against Elwood."
Excerpted from The Golden Age of Indiana High School Basketball by Greg Guffey. Copyright © 2006 Greg Guffey. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Greg Guffey, Director of Publications and Technology for the Indiana House of Representatives, is author of More than a Game, a history of basketball in Henry County, Indiana, and The Greatest Basketball Story Ever Told: The Milan Miracle, 50th Anniversary Edition (IUP, 2003). He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.
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