Through the Trifocals

Through the Trifocals

Illinisports reminisces in today's column about the Illini basketball recruiting class of 1961. He considers it his favorite class and wonders whether there was ever a better one.

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 basketball team.

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 time).

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 basketball.

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 two-handed shots.

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?

Go Illini!

Illinisports

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