Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Memoirs of a Walsh High Basketball Junkie - A Putnam Brother & Hayseed from Iowa

Go Gaels

You know there is a time and a place for everything and now that it has been a lot of years since the emergence of the Walsh High basketball dynasty of the 1960's I guess I can comment on what I know of the first half of the decade that laid the foundation for the dynasty.

First to address some background.  When Mike, Bob and I lived in Iowa City we had a basketball court in the attic of our garage.  Our dad played for Iowa City High School and graduated from the University of Iowa so we were hard core Iowa fans from birth.

In fact even after we moved to Ottumwa we returned to Iowa City every weekend for football games and cheered the Hawkeyes on to two Rose Bowl championships in the late 1950's.  When possible we also came back for basketball games, especially when Iowa was playing Ohio State and other legendary teams of the time.

When we lived in Iowa City we were supposed to go to St. Mary's High School and even our high school to be was a basketball powerhouse, thus increasing our desire to excel in order to make the team when we got to high school.

In fact after we moved to Ottumwa the Iowa City St. Mary's team won the Iowa State Class B high school championship in 1956 and 1957 and finished second in 1958, such was the quality of the players and organizations in our hometown.

Once in Ottumwa a different set of issues was involved as the Walsh Gaels had no legacy, in fact they even had no home as they played in the old Ottumwa High School practice court with the track overhead.

We joined the YMCA leagues in 7th and 8th grades where we played with and against the future stars of Ottumwa High School and together we made the All Star teams.  In other words, long before the so called bitter rivalry between Walsh and OHS which supposedly culminated in the 1963 District championship we were competitors and we were friends.

I think people perceived something that was never there.  We were fierce competitors in Little League, Babe Ruth and basketball but were always able to leave the game behind after it was over.  That was the nature of competition and sportsmanship.  If we had to lose in the tournament it might just as well be to OHS.

Of course we didn't really lose to OHS in that 1963-64 war did we?

Since Walsh never had enough students to mount a football team, my first love as a sport, we were also big supporters of the OHS Bulldogs and went to every home football game on Friday nights.

So along comes high school and Mike spent his freshman year at the old Walsh in South Ottumwa.  By the next year when I was a freshman we moved to the Airbase 12 miles away from Ottumwa into an abandoned building while work began on a new high school.

For basketball practice the team would have to get back to town and go to the civic auditorium basement, crawling through the city road vehicles and snow plows to a court, concrete of course, dimly lit, with no heat, and a steel girder directly over the baskets.

Needless to say there was no hot water for showers and in addition to having your shots blocked by freezing defenders you might have your vision blocked by the smoke pouring out of your mouth from the extreme cold.  Did I mention that the baskets were mounted on the coliseum walls so if you were charging to the basket for a lay in a second after the ball left your hand you crashed into the concrete wall?

In truth the conditions and the environment were far more suited for a Dicken's novel than for the foundation of a basketball dynasty.

Official games were played in the OHS practice gym with the running track above and you often had to strain to hear the ref when track runners were pounding overhead.  On one side bleachers pulled out from the wall and seated about 100 people (slight under-exaggeration).  The overflow had to stand on the track high above the game.

My freshman and sophomore years were spent commuting between the airbase, auditorium basement and practice court with the track overhead but something went right because we were 21-2 the first year I got to play varsity, in '61-62.

That was when I made a decision that Walsh had the potential to become good, really good, but no one would ever know around the state.  It became my mission to be the secret source of all Walsh basketball statistics for every major news outlet in the state.

Every week under a pen name from my sophomore year on I submitted weekly background for stories to the top newspapers, radio and TV stations from Des Moines to DubuqueDavenport to Iowa City about the achievements of the Walsh Gaels.  Sports writers and broadcasters were inundated with Walsh info and stats and a running update of the career statistics of my brother Mike.  These same people were the ones who voted for the top ten basketball teams in the state in each class.

Only two people really knew what I was doing those three years because I had to share the strategy in order to be successful.  One was my close friend and sports editor for the Ottumwa Courier Alan Hoskins because I knew the sports people from around the state would want follow up info from a local reporter.

The second was my principal once we moved into the new Walsh High School, Father Ryan, aka Mister Golden Gloves, famous writer, etc., etc.  Now Father understood the value of publicity and I needed to stay on his good side because I was constantly in trouble with teachers, coaches and priests.

Like the time we borrowed a truck with a crane to move a 3000 pound bell out of the backyard of some unsuspecting people and mounted it as a victory bell at the airbase to generate school spirit.  I just knew we were going to have a great team and wanted to do something for the school.  Of course we had no driver's licenses nor permission to take the bell and we were all sworn to secrecy so no one knew from whence it came.

That is until photographer Michael Lemberger showed up one fateful day and took a school picture for the newspaper with the entire student body surrounding the bell out at the airbase.  The rightful owners had reported it missing and we did intend to return it after the last game of our first winning season but one day they found their missing bell on the front page of the Courier and eventually the cops forced a confession from us.  Still, we did get to keep it until after the last game since we would not be returning to the airbase the next year.

As for my secret journalism efforts, by the time we moved into the new school in 1963 Walsh was ranked number 1 in the state in class B where we stayed for two years.  My brother was all state his junior year and All American his senior year and Walsh, well we went 21-2, 22-2, 21-2 and 20-5 the four years I was there.

Mike broke the career scoring record in Iowa basketball and from 1960-64 Walsh had one of the best four year records in state history at 84-11, all while having to play schools up to 12 times as large during the tournaments.  At least I had something to write about those years.

The power of the press paid off as it helped us get the top ranking and kept me from getting expelled.  Of course Alan Hoskins and Father Ryan protected my secret.  It also might explain yet another mystery at Walsh.

Through no fault of my own (of course) I had been kicked out of journalism class from November until I graduated my senior year yet I somehow remained on the staff of the Unitas newspaper and was co-editor of the yearbook with Maureen Dessert.  Then I got the outstanding journalism award at commencement.  Perhaps the years of ghost writing were secretly recognized.

But there is more to the Walsh story and this part few know about.  I mentioned this to my friend Doug Potter who does an excellent job keeping the natives informed and now I will share it with you.

There is a class issue regarding Walsh basketball that often goes unnoticed like most class issues.  We all recognize that a team is made up of five or more key players but it was rather unusual that three of us were brothers and were starters for two years.

In the past 55 years Iowa boys high school basketball had 49 split state champions (two or more classes) and 6 single state champions.  The single champions were from 1960 - 1966.  My brothers and I played from 1959 - 1965.  In other words we played in 5 of the 6 single state champion years, and every year more than one of us played together there was only a single state champion.

Walsh was ranked #1 in class B both years the three of us started.  The highest state tourney finish by Walsh during the single champion years was 1964 when we reached the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual state runner up Cedar Rapids Jefferson.

Ottumwa High and Cedar Rapids Jefferson who knocked Walsh out of the state tourney in 1963 and 1964 both were in the top 15 largest high schools in the state for enrollment with over 1,500 students.  Walsh ranked about 360th in enrollment in Iowa with about 125 students.  Both times Walsh lost to schools 12 times larger.

By the way, that Sweet 16 finish in the 1964 season when I was a senior was the first time I got to play back in my home town, Iowa City, and finally I got to play in the University of Iowa field house before 14,000 fans, a far cry from the few hundred just three years earlier.

A few other notes from my ghost writing days.

In my three varsity years we never lost a home game.

Our worst record those years was 20-5.

Every year after winning sectionals we played Class A or AA teams from much larger schools.

During the time we played there were 3 All Americans from Iowa, Mike Putnam, Jerry Waugh from Mt. Ayr and Jim Cummins from Cedar Rapids Regis.

Regis won the single state championship in 1962 and finished 2nd in 1963 and Cummins went on to become a famous NBC News reporter.

Walsh in 1962-63 played against both other Iowa High School All Americans during the season, Cummins once and Waugh twice.

There were a whole lot of scoring and other records and Mike was inducted into the Iowa High School Basketball Hall of Fame for holding the career scoring record for some time.

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