I always find it fascinating how seemingly mundane events can lead to exciting
or memorable results. It seems the best things that happen in life occur when
we least expect them. Such was the case last weekend when I went for the first
time to a local eating establishment in Champaign.
It is a small fast-food place with a bare-bones approach to decorating. They do
much of their busines by drive-through or carry-out, so one wouldn't expect
there to be anything fascinating on their walls. But there were several
laminated pages from local newspapers hanging there, and one caught my immediate
attention. It just so happened to be the sports page from the "News-Gazette"
for November 27, 1963.
Three major events were discussed on that one page that flooded my mind with
memories. One, it was just five days after the assassination of President John
F. Kennedy. Two, it was the day before the Thanksgiving day make-up football
game between the Illini and Michigan State to determine the Big 10 Champion and
Rose Bowl representative. And three, there was a report from the previous
evening's freshman-varsity basketball game featuring our Fighting Illini
The two sporting events discussed in that day's newspaper were important in
themselves, but they reminded me of basketball and football recruiting classes
that were, in my opinion, the best that we have had in my lifetime. I will
devote today's column to the 1961 basketball recruiting class and next week's
column to the 1962 football recruiting class.
I moved to Urbana in the summer of 1961. Prior to that time, I had never heard
anything about Illinois recruiting. I had attended two home football games, I
had walked through Huff Gym once, and I had seen a small handful of Illini
basketball and football games on television. But moving to Urbana opened up a
whole new world for me. Getting to read about the Illini daily in the
"Champaign-Urbana Courier" and "News-Gazette", I got to find out specifics of
Illini recruiting. I have been in love with the study of recruiting ever since.
It just so happened that the basketball recruiting class for the fall of 1961
was extremely special. They were so good, in fact, that they were scheduled to
play the varsity two times that season, and both games ended with narrow
victories for the varsity. That varsity team starred Dave Downey, Bill Burwell,
Bill Small and Bob Starnes, four fine players who became the senior leaders on
our 1962-1963 Big 10 Championship team. But they had all they could handle with
their own freshmen teammates (who were ineligible for varsity play at that
The first basketball game I ever saw inside Huff Gym was the first of those two
freshman-varsity games in November, 1961. The place was sold out. We were lucky
to obtain tickets behind one of the support columns in the balcony, which
blocked my vision considerably. Even on a cold evening, everyone was sweating
in that tight, old building because there was so little air circulation and we
were all packed in like sardines. The only windows were high above the balcony
on each side, and the only way to open them was to take a long pole and reach up
to unlock and pry them open. The little bit of circulation provided did little
to cool off the fans or players.
But it didn't really matter, at least to me, because I was witnessing a special
history that I can remember vividly to this day. Our first time of doing
something special is always most memorable, and this was my initiation to
big-time college basketball. It just so happened that the collection of
freshmen athletes paraded out that night was so spectacular that I would have
been content just watching the warmup drills.
Leading that parade was 6-9 Duane "Skip" Thoren. I remember seeing him do
reverse dunks without even needing to jump much thanks to his long arms. He
could shoot hook shots with both hands, he was an excellent rebounder, and he
was a smooth all-around player. Skip was our tallest player, freshman or
varsity, as the 6-8 Burwell was considered tall for a center in that day and
age. And Skip remains one of the few quality centers Illinois has ever
recruited, even to this day. Thoren had a nice career in the ABA after
graduation from Illinois.
Bogie Redmon was the star of the previous season's Illinois state basketball
tournament. Standing 6-6 and built like a tight end, Bogie led Virgil
Fletcher's Collinsville team to an undefeated season and state championship.
Combining with Fred Riddell, who received a scholarship to Iowa, and 5-7 Bobby
Meadows, who walked on to play with Redmon at Illinois, that Collinsville team
remains one of the all-time best teams to ever play Illinois high school
Bogie was extremely quick for a high school center, and I remember watching him
drive around smaller opponents for easy layups during Collinsville's
championship run. He also had a good pull-up jump shot and could shoot over
most anyone. Bogie was a rugged rebounder, and he was also smart, winning
All-Academic honors while at Illinois. A little undersized to play center at
the Big 10 level, Bogie played what we now call power forward. He was a quality
college player, although he never reached the same pinnacle in college that he
did during his All-American high school days.
The other starting forward for the freshmen that night was Jim Seeley, a 6-4
rebounding demon out of the Quad Cities. Although a little undersized, he
seemed like a machine to me, pulling down one rebound after another. Jim was a
roll-player, but he looked like a sure bet for significant playing time with the
varsity. However, if I remember correctly, he left Illinois after the first
semester because he had the chance to fly with the Air Force Academy. I never
heard what happened to him after that, but we could have used him, I am sure.
Another tall front line player who could have started for almost any team but
this freshman team was 6-7 Larry Bauer out of Springfield. A high school
All-Stater, Larry provided excellent depth on the front line and was a rugged
inside player who could also shoot a high percentage of free throws. He could
not have beaten out Thoren for a starting job, but he was one of the few big men
Illinois had at the time. So it was a tough blow when Bauer flunked out of
Illinois half-way through his junior year.
As good as the frontline players were, it was my view that the guards were even
better. Tal Brody is well-known for his fine career at Illinois and his
subsequent success with the Israeli Olympic team, both as a player and coach. A
6-2 guard out of New Jersey, Tal was quick, smart, and an excellent shooter and
passer. I had never heard of him before that night, so I almost jumped through
the roof when I saw him take the first of his several two-handed "kiss" shots
from about 25 feet. There was no 3-point line back then, so it is hard to
estimate what Tal could have done with that option. But he was deadly on those
Jump-shooting had become all the rage by the time Tal Brody came to Illinois,
but two-handed set shots were still common back on the East Coast. Tal gave me
a chance to witness something that was like a dinosaur come back to life. Tal
shied away from using the "kiss" shot as he got older, possibly because of a
need to get his shot off quicker, or possibly because of all the teasing he
received. But Tal was special even without the unique shot.
The other starting guard that night left an indelible impression in my mind.
Darius "Pete" Cunningham was a 6-2 guard out of Chicago Carver who had once
scored 90 points in a high school game. I know I am biased because this was my
first set of memories, and maybe my mind has exaggerated his exploits by now.
But Pete impressed me more than any of the other players. He was dominant and
aggressive, and he hustled on defense as well as offense. At that time,
Illinois didn't play much defense, but Pete was a whirling dervish on both ends.
He could shoot from outside, he could drive, and he could dunk over the top of
taller players. I believe he averaged 30 points for the two freshman-varsity
games that year.
I was literally devastated when I read that Pete Cunningham had flunked out
after his first semester. I remember him saying in the newspaper article that
he tripped up on a Rhetoric class. Whatever happened, and no matter how good
the other players were or became, I always felt a loss without Pete Cunningham
playing basketball at Illinois. We have had many great players over the years,
and perhaps some of them were better, but no Illini player has ever excited me
more than Pete Cunningham. And one must wonder if Illinois' failure to help
Pete succeed academically contributed to our recruiting loss of another great
Carver player the following year, Cazzie Russell.
Those were six of the freshmen that night, but they weren't the only ones. A
walkon for that team was Bill McKeown out of Clinton. Another 6-2 guard, Bill
later became a starter by his junior year and a captain his senior year.
Still another player on scholarship that year was guard Trenton Jackson out of
White Plains, New York. Trenton ended up winning varsity letters in track,
football and baseball, so most people don't realize he came to Illinois on a
basketball scholarship. Trenton didn't do much that night, but he sure
impressed me with his athleticism later. In fact, Trenton ran with Bob Hayes
(the "world's fastest human" and later Dallas Cowboy All-Pro) on the USA's
gold-medal winning 4X100 relay team in the 1964 Olympics. And he added great
speed to our football and baseball teams. He had a son who was recruited to
play basketball at Ohio State.
There may have been better recruiting classes at Illinois, but I am most fond of
this one. Of course, we were not limited to five or fewer scholarships back
then, and we had an ample supply of quality walkons whom I have not mentioned.
But even without Seeley, Bauer and Cunningham, the nucleus of this team blended
with Downey, Burwell, Small and Starnes to produce our great 1962-63 team that
won the Big 10 Championship and made the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament
(limited at that time to 16 teams) before losing a close game to eventual NCAA
Champion Chicago Loyola.
Getting back to the newspaper article described at the beginning of this
article, Skip Thoren, Tal Brody, and Bogie Redman were then juniors playing
starting roles. And they were being joined for the first time by sophomore
sensation Don Freeman. Despite the loss of Downey, Burwell, Small and Starnes,
and despite Harry Combes' public concerns about how the team was progressing,
Illinois was ranked 16th in the preseason.
They did have a question mark at the second guard spot, with the late Bill
Edwards of Windsor getting the starting spot that night over Bill McKeown, who
had not yet come into his own. And they were concerned about a lack of size
since they admitted to an inability to recruit tall players for two classes in a
row (of course, Thoren and Redmon might have scared some of them off).
There were only 2700 people in attendance in the Assembly Hall the night of
November 26, 1963, in part because many were still in mourning over the Kennedy
tragedy, and in part because many fans were still too excited about the football
team to divide their loyalties. But those who went saw an exciting game that
ended with the score 112-81 in favor of the varsity. Both Thoren and Bauer
played with both sides due to the absence of freshmen big men.
The box score was fascinating in itself. Skip Thoren's combined totals were 14
of 20 shots for 28 points, and he added 16 rebounds. "News-Gazette" writer Ed
O'Neill bragged that Thoren was ready to take on star billing. Bogie Redmon had
18 points and 7 rebounds. Tal Brody had only 11 points but was praised for his
"fancy passing" (assists were not routinely kept as a statistic in the box
score). Don Freeman added 14 points and six rebounds, and Bill McKeown was
listed with 13 points and 6 rebounds. Larry Bauer added 22 points and 15
rebounds while playing for both sides.
The freshmen that year were outmatched, but they had some highly-rated players
as well. The best two players were 6-4 Bob Johansen, the Geneva star who led
his team in the state tournament, and Elmhurst York's 6-1 Jim Dawson. Johansen
ended the game with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Dawson totalled 18
points. Deon Flessner and Preston Pearson were walkons on that team and made
minor contributions in the game. Bob Brown (the High School All-American in
both basketball and football from West Frankfort who later became an assistant
coach under Harv Schmidt), Jim Vopicka, and Larry Hinton, classmates of Don
Freeman, all played but made did not distinguish themselves either.
In a separate column in that same sports page, Coach Harry Combes was quoted as
saying he had two straight years without recruiting a big man, but that this was
a priority for the upcoming recruiting class. For your information, that next
class included 6-7 Rich Jones, a first-five All-American out of Memphis, and 6-9
Ron Dunlap of Chicago Farragut. It is also rumored and thought to be true that
we got an official visit from Louisville's 6-8 All-American Wes Unseld, who went
on to an All-Pro career in the NBA.
Isn't recruiting fun?