Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Greatest Collection of Basketball Pioneers Ever Assembled?

 In honor of today’s 125th anniversary of the birth of basketball, I dug out some stuff that has been loitering in the notebook for a while about what may be one of the greatest gatherings of basketball pioneers in the history of the game. It was a two-day basketball orgy played in a cow barn at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in March 1925.

The 14th-annual Indiana High School Basketball Tournament began only two days after the greatest tornado tragedy in U.S. history, though that really does not figure into the story, other than to set a contrasting scene for the weekend of basketball that followed. An air of sadness and revival hovered over the festivities as three states tried to figure out what caused a weather event that killed more than 800 people. While schoolboys played games, a total of 83 children died in nine leveled school houses across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

From the March 22, 1925, edition of the Indianapolis News.

The mustachioed man followed the path of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, sitting on a clattering train for 520 Midwestern miles to reach his final destination.

He left Lawrence, Kansas, on a trip to Indianapolis to see what Hell he had wrought. At least it's assumed he went on a train, because commercial air travel was still in its infancy, thanks to the Kelly Act, and there was no coherent interstate highway system for driving such a distance for a four-day trip.

In some ways, the man was beaten down by life, having peaked at the age of 30 with his greatest innovation. An ordained Presbyterian minister, a licensed physician and a former college administrator, he had been relieved of many of his duties at the University of Kansas, from chapel director and professor to basketball coach to university physician to athletics director to chairman of the department of physical education.

Of the eight coaches in the long and successful history of Jayhawk basketball, he is the only one with a losing record (55-60).

His name was James Naismith, and 125 years ago today (12/21/1891), the native of Almonte, Ontario, Canada, created basketball.

More specifically, he posted the game’s first 13 rules—a total of 474 words—on a bulletin board at the Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA. [Hear the only known recording of Naismith talking about his invention of the game from a 1939 radio interview, weeks before his death.] If it wasn’t already such a busy time of the year, with so many other things to do, Dec. 21 should be a joint Canadian/U.S. national holiday.

In March of 1925, at the age of 64, Naismith was still a celebrated speaker, giving well-attended presentations about the benefits of physical education. But in Lawrence, he was relegated to teaching a a health and hygiene course at Kansas, using graphic U.S. Army slides from World War I to teach 60 freshmen about the dangers of venereal disease.

On this weekend, however, he was invited by Arthur L. Trester, commissioner of the Indiana State High School Athletics Association, to be the guest of honor at the 14th edition of what would become the most famous high school basketball tournament in the country, the inspiration of hoops heroes for more than a century.

Dr. Naismith agreed to attend but, as was his habit throughout his unassuming life, there was little pretense about his appearance. Frankly, he just wanted to see if his simple winter diversion had been corrupted by the IHSAA officials, who turned his “basket ball” into “Hoosier Hysteria.” When he arrived at the fairgrounds' 15,000-seat exposition hall, he had no kind of pass to get him in.  Security guards were loathe to admit an unticketed guest into the overflowing arena.

The police were called, and one of the officers eventually asked for identification. When he told them who he was, they said, “Good lord, man, why didn’t you say so long ago?”

He came to see happiness in a devastated region, in an event that had moved for the first time into a such a large arena, on a court that for the first time employed glass backboards. They were shipped in and installed a week before by the Nurre Mirror Plate Company of Bloomington, Indiana.

Naismith invented basketball—a derivation of something called “duck on a rock” that he played as a boy in Canada—in Massachusetts but it was quickly imported into Indiana a few months later at the Crawfordsville YMCA.

"Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport," Naismith once wrote.

Naismith was stunned that his indoor activity had turned into a multiday tournament sport that needed to turn thousands of spectators away. He never understood why people would pay to see the game. In reality, he never saw the need for coaching, even though he had been the head coach of the Jayhawks for eight seasons. He thought boys should just go out and play, without regard to strategy.

His trip to Indiana changed his beliefs. He was particularly surprised that adults, even if they were not parents of participants, would pay $1 a day or 50 cents per session to watch games.

"As a guest of the IHSAA, I had the opportunity to watch the effects of their state tourney,” Naismith wrote about his experience. “The possibilities of basketball as seen there were a revelation to me. The striking features were the grade of basketball, the splendid spirit of the players and the unbound enthusiasm of the 15,000 spectators who crowded the Exposition Building. …The work of Arthur Trester cannot be too highly commended, as it is showing results throughout the state."

Trester—the father of the Indiana high school tournament and an inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the shrine to basketball that anchors the town of Springfield, Massachusetts—was one of the many pioneers there that day who would end up with a plaque in Springfield.

Also sitting with Naismith was Wisconsin coach Walter Meanwell, the Big 10’s father of fast-break basketball; Iowa coach Sam Barry, the father of Pac-10 basketball while at Southern Cal; and Purdue coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert, one of the game’s great innovators with short passes and zone defenses. Future Tulane coach Clifford Wells, the rival and nemesis of one of the 16 coaches in the finals field, was in the building recruiting high school players for his summer camp. Later, he was the first executive director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Surely first-year Indiana coach Everett Dean was there scouting the tournament’s talent. In 1942, he coached Stanford’s only national championship team.

There were legends in every corner. William Fox, editor and columnist for the The Indiana News and author of the newspaper’s influential high school basketball feature called “Shootin’ ‘Em and Stoppin’ ‘Em,” covered every game. He was called “the man who has done more than any other for high school basketball in Indiana.”

No doubt that basketball ambassador Chuck Taylor talked his way into the tournament, eager to sell his Converse All-Stars to teams across the state. Later that summer, he traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to give the first of his thousands of basketball clinics and launch his Hall of Fame career as basketball's global ambassador.

Future Big 10 legend Charles “Stretch” Murphy, a three-time All-American at Purdue, was a junior on Marion’s defending state championship team. When his playing career eventually ended, he was inducted into the Indiana, Helms Foundation and Naismith basketball halls of fame.

The tournament began on Friday at 9 a.m. when former Indiana State coach and tournament referee Birch Bayh Sr. tossed the opening tip-off in the first of nine games that day. The next day, when the finalists had to play three games to get to the championship, the first official ever inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Dale Miller, called the title game—and three others on the tournament’s final day.

Somewhere in the stands with 15,000 other fans was a young Martinsville high school freshman, there to see his older brother play in Friday’s late first-round game against Muncie. But John Wooden might not have stuck around after watching Maurice “Cat” Wooden and his Martinsville teammates lose that opening-round game, 26-22. Two years later, the younger Wooden led Martinsville to the state title.

Not all of them knew at the time they were watching the future of the game Naismith had invented, but they were. The game was different then, of course—much more akin to Naismith’s 13 rules than the game now seen every night on multiple cable channels. There was a jump ball after every basket. There was no line at center court and no 10-second backcourt violation. A controversial strategy used by one of the state’s more successful and disliked coaches—everyone called the guy “Slick” because he was always looking for some kind of edge—was a full-court stalling tactic that put a player in each corner of the court and a ball-handling guard a midcourt, lobbing passes to kill time.

Still, it was the best show on earth to these basketball pioneers.

“It was the greatest exhibition of athletics in the United States that I have ever seen,” said Meanwell, Wisconsin’s head coach. “I don’t understand how we have ever beaten any Indiana basketball team. Those boys shoot better than any man on our varsity team, and they begin to play basketball where we leave off.”

Everett Case in 1925
So what did Naismith see? A 25-year-old coaching phenom named Everett Case, leader of the Frankfort Hot Dogs, a team that had traveled the 45 miles south to Indianapolis for the state finals in each of the last five seasons but had not yet brought home the coveted shield that went to the winning team. It went all the way to the finals in 1924, but lost to Murphy's Marion High.

When the regular season ended, Case and his Hot Dogs were all but written off because the team’s star player, Robert Spradling, had been exposed to small pox and needed an emergency injection of cow pox vaccine that caused his arm to swell to twice its size.

It turned out that Frankfort didn’t need him. In the sectionals, the Hot Dogs won three easy victories by scores of 40-4, 46-23 and 58-10. In the regionals the next weekend, it had wins of 49-11 and 38-12. Spradling returned for Frankfort’s only real test of the entire tournament, against Gary’s integrated Froebel High School in the first round of the 16-team finals. African-American center Andy Smith scored Froebel’s last six points, but Frankfort held on for a 25-23 victory.

The next day, March 21, 1925, Frankfort won all three of its games, beating Muncie, Washington and, in the 10 p.m. title game, fan-favorite Kokomo for the first of Case’s record four Indiana high school championships.

Case’s team was lauded for its “power, durability, wisdom, grace and grim determination, a quintet of qualities that made Frankfort a tournament team in every way, shape and form.”

When the final game was over, late on a cold Saturday night, Naismith came out of the stands with Trester to present the championship shield to Case, to shake the coach’s hand and to hang the championship medals around the necks of the players.

The Frankfort Hot Dogs, coached by Everett Case (top row, far left).
The Hot Dogs were declared the best of the state’s 673 teams.

It was the only time Naismith ever attended the Indiana high school tournament, which Case won again in 1929, ‘36 and ’39 before enlisting in the Navy for World War II and then coming to NC State as head basketball coach.

Case never really spoke of the day he met the inventor of the game. His closest confidante, Indiana native Vic Bubas, said “In the years I knew him, he never talked about it.”

Case came to Raleigh in 1946, won 10 Southern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference championships and introduced the passion of college basketball to the southeast by insisting that conference champions be decided by a postseason tournament, which was not the norm at the time. He finished off his own show place, Reynolds Coliseum, in 1949 and is honored to this day every time the ACC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player is handed the Everett Case Award.

He also joined Naismith, Meanwell, Barry, Murphy, Trester, Taylor, Wells and dozens of other Indiana basketball pioneers in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame when he was posthumously inducted in 1982.

Everett “Slick” Case—known around the ACC as “The Old Gray Fox”—kept good company.

Epilogue: You can see the hand-written notes Case took while learning under Meanwell during a summer stay in Wisconsin on the second floor of the newly renovated Reynolds Coliseum Walk of Fame and History. This notebook was given to NC State by alumnus and donor Jimbo Robbins, who acquired it by trading some landscape shrubbery years ago. He donated the black-and-white notebook to NC State’s athletics department for display.

And you can see the original copy of Naismith’s original rules of basketball in Lawrence, Kansas. They were purchased at auction by billionaire investment banker David Booth and his wife Suzanne in 2010 for $4,338,500 and gifted to the University of Kansas, where it now resides.

Reach Tim Peeler at

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Turkey Day with Chicken Pox

Thanksgiving, 1974. I had been looking forward to it for weeks. NC State was defending national champions in basketball and David Thompson was back for his senior year. Dave and Don Buckey were still playing for the Wolfpack, along with Stan Fritts and Ron Banther, for third-year coach Lou Holtz and my favorite NFL team, the Washington Redskins, were playing the Dallas Cowboys for the first time ever on Thanksgiving Day.

I woke up that morning with a fever and red spots covering me, a Turkey Day infected with chicken pox. I couldn't eat any of the big spread with all my favorites: canned cranberry sauce and sweet potato casserole and pie (in NC, you can't have too many dishes made with yams). We probably also had a turkey. I couldn't hold my head up enough to even fight with my sisters for a corner piece of dressing, an annual familial battle that was finally solved after I left for college when my mom found an eight-sided pan and we had enough corners to go around.

My one solace that day was that the Redskins were going to beat the hated Cowboys. In between fevers, I watched Mark Moseley kick three field goals and Billy Kilmer throw a touchdown pass to Duane Thomas to build an insurmountable 16-3 lead in the third quarter. Then, Mr. Perfect, Roger Staubach, suffered a concussion and all the Cowboys had was an unused rookie quarterback. The game was in the bag, and I could comfortably go back to throwing up in the trash can. I fell asleep about that point.

When I awoke, I found out that the Cowboys had taken the lead on a pair of touchdown drives by the unused quarterback, the guy who had to be reminded that his team was in white. Thomas scored again against his former team to give the Redskins the lead, then surefooted kicker Moseley kicked the ball right into Too Tall Jones' arms on a field goal attempt that would have given the Redskins a more comfortable lead.

I woke up at the two-minute warning and the Cowboys were deep in their own territory. All of a sudden the cold sweat I had wasn't just from the fever. The game was tight, with the Redskins holding on to a 23-17 lead. It seemed unlikely that the rookie quarterback could do anything in such a pressure situation.

My head was killing me and I could barely hold my eyes open, but I saw Drew Pearson work his way through the prevent defense and catch a 50-yard Hail Mary that won the game. (Your can read the Washington Post account here.) Until he hit Staubach in the lockerroom the two years later with a sucker punch, it was the only decent thing the guy ever threw in his life.

Clint Longley. Long before Bucky Dent took "effing" as his middle name, there was Clint "Effing" Longley. And at 9 years old, I didn't know what the eff that meant.

Happy Effing Thanksgiving everyone

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lessons From a Slingshot Marine

A sunrise from Mill and Lucy's front yard.
When we were kids, my cousin Scott and I often were volunteered to be unpaid labor for our grandparents, Mill and Lucy Peeler. It was rarely easy work, especially when our Wprld War II Marine grandfather had a project he wanted completed. (Our grandmother compensated by giving us shotgun biscuits, apple pies and Sunday school.)

Many of the things my grandfather taught us came flooding back today when I was with the kids of our church on a youth mission trip in Costa Rica. We were building a retaining wall out of tires. We had to move a lot of dirt with broken shovels, a couple of pickaxes, three wheelbarrows and some plastic five-gallon buckets—down a hill, by the river and fire-lined buckets full of dirt up the hill. It was unending, back-straining work, and they were about as willing to listen to my "suggestions" and words of wisdom as Scott and I were willing to do the things our grandfather told us.

Here are some of the things he used to say to us all the time that I heard myself saying today (except for No. 5—obviously).
The tree where Herkimer lives to this day.

  1.  Follow the line of least resistance.
  2. Filling a bucket half full takes twice the effort.
  3. Point the wheelbarrow the direction you want to go when it's full, not the direction it's pointing when you bring it back empty.
  4. Never leave your tools unattended and always clean them thoroughly at the end of the day.
  5. Goddammit, not that way.
We got a lot out of those times with our grandparents at the wooden house where my dad, his two brothers and two sisters grew up, which featured an outhouse, an apple orchard and a 12-foot mythical guard snake named Herkimer.

My grandfather could name every species of tree in the woods and could perfectly mimic the whistle of the all-but-now-gone bobwhite. He always pointed out the poison ivy and poison oak—after we walked through it.

"That'll teach you little shitasses," he said.

The Peelers of Vale, N.C.
(That's Scott and me in the white ties. Lucy and Mill have babies on their laps.)

He gave us dozens of handmade slingshots from the Y-shaped branches he cut from trees with his pocketknife. My grandfather could hit a rabbit with a rock from 30 yards--and he always pulled from the hip.

He taught Scott and me to play poker—blackjack, five-card stud, seven-card stud and Baseball, where 3s and 9s were wild, 4s got you an extra card face-down and winning hands were often when seven aces beat six kings. Sometimes we stayed up all Saturday night playing cards with him and a jar full of pennies.

We always assumed we would go to Hell for skipping church to gamble the night away with a salty old Marine. Today, I was reminded that time with Mill and Lucy was God's gift to us and all our cousins.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

When UNC-CH and UNC-R meet...

Sunday's pregame scoreboard at Carmichael Arena (Photo from
In 1962, when NC State College expanded its graduate school offerings, it wanted to change its name to NC State University. The UNC Consolidated System, which governs all state-supported schools in the state, not only said "no," but told the school that it had to change its name to UNC-Raleigh.

1964 game program from Reynolds Coliseum.
It's what Governor Terry Sanford and system president William Friday wanted.

State College's campus was outraged and students, administration and alumni began to protest with the system offices in Chapel Hill and the general assembly in Raleigh. The battle raged on for almost three years, as both parties grudgingly accepted an awkward compromise, calling the state's second oldest institution North Carolina State of the University of North Carolina at Raleigh. That was the official name of the school from 1963-65, though old-timers stuck with "State College" and students of the time just said "NC State."

Eventually, thanks to student- and alumni-led protests to the state legislature, the name was changed to North Carolina State University at Raleigh in April, 1965. That's still the official name of the school today, though the "at Raleigh" is rarely used except in the school's wikipedia entry.

For years, NC State athletics has referred to North Carolina as UNC-CH at home events, on posters, on schedule cards and other places, because, well frankly, that is the abbreviation for the school's official name, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That was a staple anytime the Tar Heels visited Reynolds Coliseum, or any other NC State home venue.

It's always bugged Carolina. Just a few years ago, a UNC-CH athletics administrator got fist-poundingly angry about it during a men's basketball game at PNC Arena, demanding that the scoreboard be changed. It was, as a gracious gesture to the visiting team.

Sunday, the longstanding chaffed feelings popped up again when the NC State women's basketball traveled to Chapel Hill to play the Tar Heels at Carmichael Arena. They were greeted by a scoreboard that read on the visitors side: UNC-R.

My Facebook and Twitter lines lit up like closing time at Disney World. It was eventually changed, as a gracious gesture to the visiting team, at some point during the Wolfpack's 80-66 victory that completed the first regular-season sweep by women's basketball of UNC-CH since 1999-2000.

The whole thing is kind of humorous. Others are pretty up in arms, which is not surprising in our outrage society. Some State fans even said, "We have never been called UNC-R." That's not at all true. Thankfully, though, that name didn't stick for long thanks to the student and alumni revolt of the 1960s.

Some rivalries die hard. Some never go away. And some rise again from the dead 60 years later.

Though one does wonder: what will be on the scoreboard Wednesday when the North Carolina men's team visits PNC Arena to play the Wolfpack.