Friday, March 23, 2012

The Definitive Sports David and Goliath Tale

The '52 Hebron Green Giants and their coach ride in one of the many parades where they were honored.

I didn’t get to it, but yesterday was the 60th anniversary of a sports upset so astounding it enrapt a state and got the attention of a nation.  Here in McHenry County, Illinois we know the story well.  But you likely haven’t heard it.  Even if you are not a sports fan, sit back, put your feet up and enjoy.

America was a different, dimly remembered place in 1952.  Despite a pesky, almost forgotten war in far off Korea and a national kerfuffle over the red menace under the bed, most folks got through their days undisturbed by those events.  The flush of the Great Prosperity was just picking up full steam.  Folks whose lives had been disrupted by decades of Depression and war were going about the business of finally living their lives.

Television was the great new thing.  But away from the bigger cities most folks couldn’t yet pick up a station and most Americans did not yet own a set.  People found their entertainment and amusements in their communities.  Fraternal organizations and social clubs flourished.   People got up and got out, went to movies, played in the park with their children, mingled with their neighbors on front porches and stoops.

Small towns across the country were not yet by passed by the Interstate.  The train still pulled up to the depot.  The shopping center at the edge of town was something folks mostly read about in Life or Look—it may be coming but wasn’t there yet for most.  Downtowns were busy, thriving places.

I don’t mean to paint this as a Utopia.  People had problems.  There was conflict.  Folks were expected to stay close to carefully assigned gender, race, and class roles, to shut up, get with the program, and not make waves.  It was just a different time.

The vital center of interest in many of the medium sized cities, towns, and even rural villages was the fate of the local High School athletic teams.  Things had been disrupted some by the mobility caused by the War, but a lot of folks stayed in or near the towns where they grew up.  They were loyal to the schools they attended and that their children still attended.  People knew each other, knew the players on the teams or at least some of their kin folk.  And on any given night there was nothing more exciting to do in town than to turn out to cheer the boys—and they were all boys then—on.

In Illinois basketball was the big thing.  Maybe it didn’t reach the legendary mania of neighboring Indiana, but it came damn close.  Of course football was exciting and where it was played bleachers were filled.  But it required huge squads and expensive equipment.  A lot of small town schools could not afford the expense or muster enough players for a team.  Baseball was great, but it was far too cold in Illinois to play much as a varsity sport.  People followed local semi-pro or American Legion teams.

But basketball only required 5 guys in their underwear, a ball and a gym floor.  Every school had those.

The biggest annual sporting event in the state, bar none, was the annual Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Basketball Championship played in an elimination tournament before packed houses at the University of Illinois Huff Gym in downstate Champaign.  Games were broadcast to wide audiences on the radio.  Every newspaper in the state from small town weeklies to the mighty Chicago Tribune dispatched their top sports writers and photographers to capture every exciting detail.

In those bygone days the IHSA had not yet divided schools into separate classes by size.  Every school big and small competed head to head.   Winners of conference championships and regionals  headed for Champaign on an equal footing.

Which brings us to Green Giants of Hebron High School. 

Hebron was a farming village in northern McHenry County, not far south of the Wisconsin border in the heart of a rich corn and dairy farming region.  The Village of Hebron boasted about 700 souls and the whole of Hebron Township, from which the High School largely drew its student body, about double that.  Hebron High had 96 students, 36 of them males eligible for the varsity basketball team.

That was up a tad over previous years.  The one-room school house district of even tinier neighboring Alden had been closed the year before and its handful of high school age students came to the school for the first time in the fall of 1951.

Despite its small numbers, Hebron had a proud basketball tradition.  It frequently led or was close to the top of its conference.  Back in 1940 the Green Giants had even made it to the State Championships.  They didn’t win, but 12 seasons later the community was still talking about it.  All of the boys on the team grew up hearing about it even though they had no memory themselves.

In 1948 Russell Ahern took over the team from the beloved long time coach who had led that 1940 squad.  Ahern’s only coaching experience was in baseball.  But the social studies teacher who had majored in psychology threw himself into his new assignment and studied the game.  He also studied motivation.  And he had serious ambitions for his team.

He had the nucleus of a very good squad in 1951.  Four junior were going to be returning seniors.  Twins Paul and Phil Judson were the heart of the team.  They had been playing together all of their lives and were said to have “one mind.”  They anticipated each other’s moves and fed the ball to each other with uncanny accuracy.  Also on the team were two other seasoned players, Kenny Spooner and Don Wilbrandt. 

The team didn’t make the Finals in ’51, but Ahern took his juniors to Champaign anyway.  They watched games together from nosebleed seats, high up so they could follow the action.  Ahern wanted the boys to get a feel for the atmosphere of the playoffs and see the caliber and style of play of the big teams that dominated the contribution.

The final piece of the team puzzle walked into the school for the first time in September.  Farm boy Bill Schultz was one of the kids from Alden.  He never played basketball in his life.  But he stood 6 foot 10.  Ahern had found a center—if he could teach him how to play.

That season in addition to conference opponents Ahern scheduled contests with many large teams to get his squad used to playing in big noisy gyms and high level players.  Likely many of those opposing coaches thought they were agreeing to a gimmie game against the tiny school.  Boy were they wrong.

The team went 35 and 1 for the season, the only loss being to Crystal Lake.  As the momentum of the season picked up, so did notice, even from big city papers.  The team was ranked No.1 in the state almost all season by both the AP and UPI polls.  Tickets to their home games in a tiny gymnasium were almost impossible to get.  Local fans followed them to the big schools they played.

The Green Giants came to Champaign as one of the Sweet Sixteen.  One by one they knocked of big powerhouse schools.  They beat Lawrenceville and then Rock Island to advance to the finals against Quincy, the number 1 seed in the tournament.  The Quad City school boasted of an enrollment of over 1,200 students.

The two teams met on March 22.  It was the first IHSA championship broadcast on television to an estimated audience of over a million.  Many times that number were glued to radios across the state to follow the action.

It was a tight, fast paced game, tied at the end of regular play.  The Green Giants busted it open in overtime wining 64-56.  Astonishingly the five starters played almost every minute of the game except for a few plays which Phil Judson, who had fpour fouls, sat out.

The game captured headlines across the state.  It was splashed across the top of the Tribune sports page dwarfing a mention that the University of Illinois had made it into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.

Crowds lined the streets in towns all the way from Champaign to Hebron to cheer the unlikely champions.  The reception back home was never to be forgotten.

No other team from such a small school ever won the Championship under the old system.  Even when schools were divided by class, the record stands in the small school division.

Hebron has never stopped celebrating.  Drive to the town today and you will see from all directions the globular water tower painted to look like a basketball and proclaiming Hebron the “Home of the 1952 State Champions.”  Businesses in town are named for the team.  One whole wall of the local tavern is dedicated to photos and memorabilia.  The owners report that it is still a destination of pilgrimage for former Hebronites or for anyone inspired by the legendary team

The McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union features a permanent exhibition about the team and its players.  It may be the museum’s most popular attraction.

The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield has an exhibit with photos of the team, coach, and cheerleaders and a game ball.

The team’s accomplishments were celebrated in a 2002 documentary Becoming Giants and in a book, Once There Were Giants by Scott Johnson and Julie Kistler.

The team has regularly assembled for anniversaries of the event.

Coach Ahern died in 1976.  All of his players came to his bed side before he passed. 

Amazingly four of the five starters were alive this year to gather at what is now known as Alden-Hebron High School this past Sunday for a 60th anniversary celebration.  Team Captain Wilbrandt died in 1998.

For them and their town, the thrill has never gone away.

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