TERRE HAUTE —
Perched along the bleachers’ top, old Bees and Black Cats reminisced with Purple Eagles, watching tomorrow’s old-timers play on a snowy day.
The 13th Annual Wabash Valley Pizza Hut Classic was under way Saturday afternoon, and fans were still talking about the Friday night fourth-quarter upset where Robinson’s Maroons toppled defending champ Terre Haute North, 63-58. The 500-student Illinois school’s win over the 2,200-student strong Patriots had the sauces flowing, as did Monrovia’s 65-43 win over Owen Valley.
And for those who lived Hoosier Hysteria in the 1950s and ‘60s, amid Ford Fairlanes and poodle skirts, the 16-school, single-class tournament bounced a little nostalgia across the floor. The gym inside host Terre Haute South Vigo High School was more than half full around 1 p.m., a good crowd by all accounts.
But nothing like the tournaments played out half a century ago.
Bob Decker, a 1954 graduate of Honey Creek High School, played forward for the Bees, and recalled earlier incarnations of the Wabash Valley tournament brought back to life by Terre Haute businessman Gary Fears 13 years ago.
“Back then, we had 16 schools in the county,” he said, adding the tournament usually took up the second week of January and multiple locations.
Honey Creek typically played its games inside Wiley High School, he said, rattling off the names of other intra-county rivals such as Blackhawk, Pimento, Riley and Concannon.
But it was a different culture then, one without 24-hour television programming, and the retiree said crowds packed into those old gyms for weekly games.
“Oh, yes,” he said of the attention drawn. “They all backed their local teams.”
At various points throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, upwards of 126 high schools played in the Wabash Valley tournament before consolidation melded the mascots of old into modern Vikings, Patriots, Braves and the like.
Jack Smith, a 1954 graduate of Gerstmeyer Technical High School, played guard for the Black Cats, ranked No. 1 in the state throughout 1953 and 1954. State runners-up in 1953, the Black Cats lost out in the 1954 tournament to Milan High School, which ultimately won that year after defeating Muncie Central High School, some 10 times its size, in a season made famous in the 1986 film “Hoosiers.”
“This tournament was the second largest in the state,” he said, explaining the territory reached as far south as Vincennes and east to the Blue Devil country of Clay County’s Van Buren High School, where a young Pete Chaolos coached before becoming Terre Haute’s longest-serving mayor. “This area around here was basketball country.”
Smith and Decker said the Robinson Maroons have been fun to watch this year.
“Robinson looks like a pretty good team, but you never know,” Smith said when asked for his thoughts on who might end up victorious.
This year’s Maroons, he said, seem to play like the old days with lots of teamwork on the floor and fundamentals.
Decker described Robinson’s matchup against Terre Haute North as “a terrific game,” and the kind he enjoys watching. Crediting Fears and Pizza Hut’s sponsorships as instrumental, he said the single-class action makes for a great time.
“It brought the interest back for me,” he said.
Lenny Zwerner, a 1954 Garfield High School Purple Eagle, recalled how hundreds of schools fielded teams of kids who’d grown up playing ball together.
“I was always out some place, shooting baskets,” he said.
Small neighborhood schools were the norm in those days, most within walking distance. Gaggles of kids would be at the basketball goals year-round, shooting hoops from early childhood through high school.
That sense of community helped foster the rivalries still evident as the old players ribbed each other about their ages and teams. The move away from single-class basketball dampened a little of that spirit, he said.
“It took a lot away from it,” he noting, recalling his peers from Milan and the energy of 1954.
Smith, who retired from the Vigo County School Corporation, volunteered as a coach at the Terre Haute Boys Club for a number of years, and remarked that bigger schools mean less kids get to be involved.
“There are a lot of ballplayers not getting to play today,” he said, pointing out the raw math involved in 16 Vigo County teams as opposed to three high schools today.
And the sheer volume of players helped draw the crowds of families and friends. Smith recalled lines of fans standing along North Seventh Street to get into Wiley High School’s gym.
“We won this tournament three years in a row,” he said. “A lot of good memories. They can’t take that away from me.”
And while today’s high school basketball focuses a little more on the 3-point shot and a little less on teamwork, Smith and others said much remains the same.
“They’re still kids. They do the best they can. There’s a winner and a loser,” Smith said.
The big tournament sort of dissolved in the late 1960s through ‘70s, he said, and others said the last tournament with more than 100 teams was in 1960.
Bucky Whitlock, a guard on the 1978 and 1979 Terre Haute South Vigo High School Braves team, recalled that by the time his class was blazing up the state rankings, the Wabash Valley tournament was defunct.
“No. There was no classic at that time,” he said, explaining his team played a holiday tournament in New Albany back then.
Banners hung from the middle of the Braves’ gym, denoting the boys’ final four entries in 1977, 1979, and 1991, as well as their runner-up status in 1978. In 2002, the girls team won the Class 4A state championship.
Whitlock said that given their success in the late 1970s, the Braves played in front of some large crowds. Attendance at this tournament has been good, something that’s good to see, he said.
“Single-class basketball is where it’s at in Indiana,” he said as the hometown Braves played on against Monrovia.
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or email@example.com.