|Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series on the history of high school basketball in the Times-Union coverage area. The author has researched for several months to give as detailed an account as possible on the 80-plus years of high school basketball from schools that are now, or eventually became part of, the Manchester, Whitko, Tippecanoe Valley, Triton, Wawasee and Warsaw school systems. The installments will be printed each Saturday with the final piece of the series appearing March 12. This series is dedicated to the decades of athletes who have blazed the trails for the cagers of today.||
by Phil Smith, Times Union Sports Writer
Today's basketball butterfly flutters from end to end, encompassing the hardwood with fastbreaks and slam dunks and displaying the colorful wings it received through decades of metamorphoses.
The game's caterpillars shot underhanded, dribbled on substandard floors and played under the hindering bind of low ceilings. They were the masters of the stall, spinning the slowdown into a cocoon that was gradually peeled away by a ten-second line, modification of the center jump and a 5-second limit on handling the ball. Some say the implementation of a shot clock will complete the butterfly's transformation.
The game Massachusetts physical education teacher James A. Naismith conceived in December 1891 was still in its infancy when Indiana began the state high school tournament in 1911.
Within 10 years of "Hoosier Hysteria's" debut, the local area would send a representative team to the state finals --the "Sweet 16" --in the old Indianapolis Coliseum.
A member of Syracuse's 1921 regional championship team, Emery Druckamiller, saw his team blaze the trail for other Kosciusko County teams by going to the State finals. He later enjoyed a four-year basketball career at Indiana University.
"If I had had the 3-point shot back then," said the 92-year-old resident of Angola, "it would have been duck soup."
Atwood followed Syracuse to the "Sweet 16" in 1922, one year after the graduation of center Russell Creighton, who still lives between Atwood and Warsaw. Creighton remembers the offensive prowess of Syracuse's first basketball standout.
"Druckamiller was the best dribbler I ever saw," said Creighton, who will be 92 in April. The Atwood graduate, still the tall, lanky man he was in the early '20s, was also a team-mate of another area basketball legend.
"Carl Burt and I went to school together," said Creighton. "I remember one time, there were three of us who went to practice in a horse and buggy. I had to sit on Carl's lap and he tormented me the whole way there."
Carl W. Burt later went on to a distinguished career at Manchester College. The college's football field is named after him. For Creighton, just having basketball practice was a challenge. Since Atwood High School had no gym in those days, the basketball team had to travel to Warsaw for practice.
Creighton remembers using his bicycle, a horse and buggy, a bobsled and even the train to get to practices or games.
"One night, we took the bobsled," said Creighton. "It got down to about 22 (degrees) below zero. I about froze and didn't get home until 2 a.m." The hard part was getting there. Once on the court, Creighton knew his job. At a lanky 6 feet, Russell "Bones" Creighton had the job of patrolling what is known today as the paint.
In the early years, a 6-footer was a commodity. "I stayed in close to the basket," said Creighton in a recent interview. "They'd feed the ball to me and I'd shoot it across my body like this. I guess they call that a hook shot now. It was just natural for me."
Although Creighton's hook shot was ahead of its time, the shooting style of the day was underhanded.
In 1923, Warsaw went to the state finals before being eliminated by Bedford 38-27. The score would be considered a low on in the high-flying, concussive action on the court today. But a score of 38-27 indicated potent offense in 1923.
During what many call the heyday of area basketball, local contests were played in the old Warsaw Armory, located where the new multi-million-dollar Zimmer building was recently erected. The armory was the site of Kosciusko County's annual County Tourney, which brought in 14 teams and always dominated the sports pages.
Several area basketball teams earned spots in the state finals, without success, until the Warsaw Lady Tigers captured the girls state basketball championship in its inaugural year of 1976.
The Lady Tigers repeated in 1978 and Warsaw boys earned the title in 1984.
The championship years introduced such stars as Judi Warren, the scrappy girl from Claypool who became Indiana's first Miss Basketball in 1976, and Jeff Grose, the area's first and only Mr. Basketball in 1985. The Tigers added Final Four appearances in 1981 and 1992 to their state crown.
Other area schools came close to state supremacy. Whitko, under veteran coach Bill Patrick, upset its way to the Final Four in 1991 and the Wawasee lady Warriors earned state runner-up honors in 1985.
A small school called Milan captured the imaginations of basketball lovers everywhere when it stoned Goliath Muncie Central 32-30 in the 1954 tournament. But two decades before Bobby Plunp sank the 15-footer to put Milan in the history books forever, a small lake community high school just northeast of Akron took the area basketball world by storm when it shot its way into the state finals two years in a row.
Gene Marshall of Akron was on both regional championship teams from Beaver Dam --in 1933 and 1934. He remembers all too well the difference between playing hard-core hoops at matchbox-sized Beaver Dam gym and the echoing vastness of Butler Field house where the state finals were played during his junior and senior year.
"There were birds flying around inside that thing," recalls the 78-year-old Marshall. "it was like shooting out in a big field. We were used to the baskets being right next to the walls of the gym."
Marshall's sneakers had barely cooled when basketball's highest mentors made some of the game's most significant changes. "Back when I played, you had to jump center after every score," said Marshall. "If you had a tall center, you could control the ball pretty well."
The game of basketball has undergone more enhancements than The Sphinx since Naismith first nailed peach baskets to the gym walls of YMCA College in Springfield, Mass. In 1937, two years before the death of Naismith, the center jump was altered to a game-opening jump, a tip-off to start each quarter and a jump to decide a tie-up between two players. It wasn't until recently that the alternating possession arrow was instituted.
In 1936, Indiana introduced semi-state tournaments, which changed the number of teams at the state finals from 16 to four. Physical play in the days of players such as Druckamiller, Creighton or Marshall was far more costly. Each player was allowed only four fouls before being disqualified, until the rule was changed to five fouls in 1944.
The stall, a strategic move exercised by many teams, had to be altered after the 5-second rule came into effect in 1967. Basketball, and the teams that played it, grew wings. The game became faster as a result of rule changes, and beginning primarily in the 1950s and continuing on through the '70s, school consolidations made teams stronger than ever.
No longer would the caterpillars of old carry the pride of tiny communities southward in hopes of a state title. The Mentones, Beaver Dams and Burkets eventually became Tippecanoe Valley. Warsaw welcomed in Claypool, Leesburg, Silver Lake and parts of Atwood not in the Jurisdiction of Valley.
Consolidations were happening everywhere in the 1960s, which gave teams like Warsaw Tigers added strength with the acquisition of Claypool's county scoring leader Charlie McKenzie.
Before McKenzie, Warsaw's most celebrated cager was William "Whitey" Bell. Bell, who went on from his days in a Tiger uniform in the 1950s to play at North Carolina State, also enjoyed five years as a pro, including two years with the New York Knicks. Bell, to this day, is considered by the "old-timers" to be the greatest player to wear the orange and black.
Triton pooled its resources with the consolidation of Bourbon, Etna Green and Tippecanoe to roll through the Plymouth Sectional and Logansport Regional in 1965.
South Whitley, Larwill, Pierceton and Sidney became Whitko. Former Sidney player and coach Bill Patrick took the reigns in the mid '60s and has yet to have a sub-.500 season.
There remain many of the players --the caterpillars --that filled the old basketball cocoon. They can be seen everywhere --at the supermarket, the post office, in a nursing home or gazing in retrospect from the bleachers of an area high school basketball game. Their game was almost always slower, usually lower scoring, but no less exciting.
Today's basketball butterfly bats its wings. The cagers of old remain proud for their part in its creation.
Warsaw Times Union Saturday February 19, 1994