Basketball's Butterfly Transforms
The game matures into high-flying, lightning-fast media magnet
Players: 1950 - today

 Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on the history of high school basketball in the Times-Union coverage area. This week the author will highlight some of the area's top players through the final four plus decades 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. Many of the featured players were nominated by a special panel of former players, fans and coaches. 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

When the 20th Century reached its halfway point, the basketball butterfly was nearly squeezed free of its cocoon. James Naismith's invention no longer slogged along at a caterpillar's pace. Underhanded set shots were replaced with jumpers. Slam dunks became the sweet nectar that attracts "March Madness" fans back into gyms every spring like hyperactive bees to flower fields.

The game was becoming faster, higher scoring and requiring more athletic ability than ever before. As the 1950s began, a new breed of butterflies stepped on the court.

"We played most of our games in the old armory (present location of new Zimmer building)," remembers former Warsaw Tiger William "Whitey" Bell. "I used to love to play there because it had a balcony and you could look up and see all the fans when you were shooting foul shots."

It didn't take long for Bell to become a star at Warsaw --and a liability to other teams. "During my first year at sectional time when Warsaw was hosting the tournament, there were some fans that came down to my house and onto the porch. "Bell said the fans were trying to intimidate the Warsaw star into not playing in the sectional. "We had even gotten letters on toilet paper," chuckled Bell, a North Carolina probation office supervisor. "Me and my best friend Jim Armington stayed in the armory until the tournament was over. We lived in there."

Bell went on to be Warsaw's scoring leader, a record he held until the arrival of Mr. Basketball Jeff Grose in the mid-1980s. From Warsaw, Bell was recruited by North Carolina State where he starred for four years in two year stints. From 1954-1956, Bell served in the military and continued to play basketball. He represented the world's armed forces on the Conseil International du Sport Militaire (CISM) team, competing on the Goodwill Tour during his military term and returned to N.C. State from 1956-1958.

From college, the Warsaw native played two years with the NBA's New York Knickerbockers, followed by three years in the ABA with franchises in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. He is now the head of North Carolina's State Probation and Parole Department in Winston Salem, N.C.

Bell remembers an experience during his high school days that was as sweet and as sour as anything listed on a Chinese food menu. "We had gotten a new coach," said Bell, "and I came from a family that didn't have a lot of money. "I went to the coach to ask if I could have new shoes. I had set new county records the year before, but he looked at me and said, "You haven't made my team yet."

Not far away, Warsaw football coach George Fisher heard what was said and called the young cager over. "He was kind of mad, and took me over to the equipment room and gave me some new shoes. I never forgot that." Fisher was a long-time coach of the Warsaw Tiger football program and also served as basketball coach for many years. His cage coaching years included a stint that began in 1944 when head coach Wendel Walker was drafted along with Tiger star Virgil "Sugerfoot" Risner to fight in World War II.

When looking back on a basketball career that left an imprint on the minds of every basketball fan that ever saw a Tiger game in the 1950s, Bell attributes his success to Fisher and several others. "I give a lot of credit to my mother and Pete Thorn, as well as Curtis "Gabby" Garber," said Bell.

The North Carolina native admitted he still has a soft spot for Garber, the lifelong Warsaw native who served for decades as sports writer for the Warsaw Daily Times and later the Times-Union. He did some articles on me when I was young that people said would go to my head. They never did," said Bell. "I always thought he was one of the greatest sports writers who ever lived."

The feelings are mutual. "He (Bell) was about as good as they come," remembers Garber. Whitey was about as good as I saw until Grose came along. Bell finished at Warsaw with 1,331 career points. Bell was sometimes taunted by opposing fans because of his ability to lead Warsaw to victory. But a pair of former stars in their own rights, Tom Sittler of Silver Lake and Dan Anglin of Atwood, respected Bell. "People always ask me who I thought was the best player ever to come out of Kosciusko County," said Sittler. "And I always say Whitey Bell.

Anglin remembered the last year Bell played for Warsaw in the county tourney. "It bothers me to this day about the lack of sportsmanship shown by the people in this county, because that whole gym was on Whitey Bell," said Anglin. "Carl Burt (Warsaw superintendent) said, "This is the last year Warsaw will compete in the county tournament." Although not immediately, Warsaw did eventually remove itself from the tournament.

Sittler, Anglin and Beaver Dam's Donnie Butts went on to stellar college careers after making their mark in the prep ranks. Sittler tallied 1,317 points for the Ramblers, while Anglin finished his Greyhound career with 1,100 points. Going into the 1952 County Tourney, Butts was sporting a 23.4 point-per-game average including a (then) record 44 point showing. Anglin and Butts played for the Manchester Spartans, while Sittler played at Valparaiso from 1952-1956.

During his junior and senior year at Valpo, Sittler played against such powerhouses as Indiana, Purdue and Louisville. The Silver Lake resident continued to make contributions to coaching as a high school coach at Hinckley Big Rock High School in Illinois, Atwood, Pierceton, Warsaw and Manchester. During an extended career at Warsaw that included the freshman and junior varsity teams, Sittler led the freshmen to a 30-1 mark over two years. At Manchester, Sittler led the Squires to their first sectional title in 10 years.

Sittler has many philosophies about basketball and its players. "I was never much on stats," Sittler said. "How do you rate a guy that when you win by two, he gets 20 and when you win by 20, he gets two points. Now that's the kind of guy I want on my team."

"It's a cliche now, but like they've said, some players make their teammates better. When you make your teammate better and you help improve his stats, it doesn't go on your stats. Its pretty hard to measure heart. It's pretty hard to measure guts." Anglin also likes to dabble in Plato's livelihood. "I really enjoy the game and enjoy everybody out there," said Anglin. "I think a true fan is that person who can look at an opposing player and realize that player has a mom and dad, a brother and sister."

Sittler and Anglin recently sat down and talked about the good old days -- playing in college, controversial calls, the ol' Silver Horseshoe. "You had the horseshoe and we were going to take it back to Atwood," said Anglin to Sittler, remembering a game when he stepped out of bounds (allegedly as Sittler pointed out) and lost to the Ramblers. "What ever happened to the Silver Horseshoe?" asked Anglin.

Efforts by the Times-Union to located the unofficial trophy that was passed around by numerous county schools were unsuccessful. {Transcriber note: The prized Silver Horseshoe was located a couple of years ago and now hangs prominently displayed in the Old Jail Museum in Warsaw}

For Butts, coaching led him to North Webster where he served a stint as coach for the Trojans. Butts had set all the scoring records at Manchester College before many of them were shattered by Dick Harris. "Then I got into the coaching racket," joked Butts.

The great players kept coming and going. Milford had players such as Billy Orn and Johnny Ausberger in the 1950s, followed by Tom Holderread, who graduated in 1964 with 1,060 points. The Triton system gave the game Rich Rhodes from the late 1960s and early 1970s; Max Schuh, who scored 1,049 points for the Bourbon Comets; and Devon Davis, who scored 1,084 points for the Tippecanoe Police Dogs by 1956.

Rhodes scored 784 points for the Trojans, went on to play at Grace College and eventually wore the jersey of the Chicago Bulls. Whitko coach Bill Patrick has nurtured a number of standout players such as Sidney's Jerry Walther; 1874 Whitko graduate Jeff Peters (1,150 points), 1987 grad Mike Kline (1,046 points); 1988 Wildcat graduate Jim Juillerat (1,016 points) and 1989's Chad Christman (1,153 points).

In 1991, the Wildcats were led to the Final Four by Patrick and senior guard Steve Nicodemus, who now plays for Michigan State. Another Whitko feeder, South Whitley, produced 1969 graduate Terry Zorger, who finished his high school career with 1,000 points.

The Manchester Squires enjoyed the play of 1978 graduate Chris Brandenburg (1,015 points) and 1990's Andy Holderman (1,455 points).

Before it disbanded, Wawasee prep contributed Sylvester Allen, who tallied 1,445 points. The lone Talma Tiger to amass more than 1,000 points was 1963's Barry Peterson (1,234).

Over the years, the Akron Flyers were graced with several cagers who left indelible marks on area basketball. There was 1956's Jim Jones (1,163); 1967's Ken Weaver (1,191) and Steve Henson (1,624); 1968's Jeff McFarland (1,175); 1970's Bob Bryant (1,291) and 1975's Ron Dittman (1,461).

Another Tippecanoe Valley consolidation school, Mentone, featured such players as 1957 graduate Tom Hoover (1,382); 1963 grad Bill Nellans (1,578); 1968's Rex Bowser (1,078) and 1969's Dennis Meyer (1,061).

At Wawasee, Steve Zurcher scored 1,132 points by 1970, while 1972 grad John Hamilton netted 1,035. 1982 graduate Jeff Long tallied 1,053 points and Tim Manges capped his career in 1987 with 1,030.

The two most noted players to come out of Claypool may have been 1965 graduate Coye Conley, who finished with 1,005 points and scoring machine Charlie McKenzie, who played three years for the Knights and finished up at Warsaw.

McKenzie was recently at his home on Packerton Road, swapping basketball war stories with his brother Larry. "I was just showing him how I outscored him. My memory is a lot better than his," joked McKenzie. McKenzie was recently reminded of his own cage prowess in the 1960s while watching the success of sons Jason (Indiana All-Star now playing at Butler) and Chad, a starter for the No. 20 Tigers.

Until the boys started playing, I just really didn't give it much of a thought," said the 6-foot, 7-inch McKenzie. Jason's bid to the Indiana All-Stars took the senior McKenzie back more than 20 years, to his own days as an Indiana All-Star. The towering center netted a career total of 2,145 points, good enough for ninth in Indiana high school basketball history.

"I think the kids nowadays with the weights and everything, have made even high school a lot more physical," said McKenzie. "If you sit right under that basket, there's a lot of pushing and shoving. Back in those days, you didn't want to bulk up because you thought you couldn't shoot the ball. But I think a lot of the kids today have proven you can."

Warsaw has produced enough stars to provide each flower in a greenhouse with two butterflies. The list wouldn't be complete with the Niles brothers --Mike and Ben. The brothers were honored by the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame by being named to Silver Anniversary Teams.

Mike Niles, who amassed 1,230 points, was named to the 1991 team, while Ben, an Indiana All-Star with McKenzie, was added in 1992.1970 graduate Kim Essenburg tallied 1,181 points, while 1977 grad Steve Reed accumulated 1,238 points and played with the Indiana State Sycamores along with the legendary Larry Bird.

In 1981 Ron Brandenburg concluded his career with 1,149 points, while 1984 grad Marty Lehman finished with 1,004. Warsaw graduate Rick Fox, who was named ineligible by the IHSAA during his senior year (1987), was named as a senior to the Indiana All-Star Team. He went on to North Carolina and now plays in the NBA with the Boston Celtics.

The area has been full of talented players --Randy Heisler, Brian and Dan Elliott and Matt Horin, all of Warsaw; Eric Alspaugh of Tippecanoe Valley; Mark Simpson and Neal Frantz of Wawasee and David Snep of Whitko.

But everyone agrees no player has made more of an impact than Jeff Gross, the area's first Mr. Basketball. "Looking back on it, it's something I'm really proud of," said Grose, who helped lead the Tigers to the State Championship in 1984. "I'm really happy with the things we were able to accomplish. We're still good friends. In fact, (Steve) Hollar and I are going to go watch the regional this weekend. I look at all those guys and what they did for me, and it's that old thing. 'There's no 'I' in the word team."

"Nobody was out to look for what they could get for themselves. It was a team and we all benefited from it."

Grose and McKenzie both agree that by doing everything they could at the time, they left no margin for future regrets. It was their guarantee that the vibrant colors of their basketball wings would never fade.

Over And Back
Stepping back across history's time line

Last week's installment of "Hoosier Historia" featured memorable basketball players from the area during the first five decades of the
20th Century. In documenting the superb athletes who graced area courts from 1900 to 1950, one noteworthy cager was inadvertently overlooked.

From 1940 to 1944, Virgil "Sug" Risner wowed basketball fans as an area standout --a noted freshman year at Etna Green and three years wearing the uniform of a Warsaw Tiger. He averaged 17.1 points during a dramatic senior year.

Risner, best known for a patented side-body set shot, went on to Tulane University where he earned all-conference honors and scored 1,200 points. "Sug" Risner was named to the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame's Silver Anniversary Team in 1969. Risner's high school [sic: college] cage career was cut short when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II

Warsaw's Jeff Grose became the highest-scoring Tiger in school history.

Warsaw Times Union Saturday March 12, 1994