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Boilermaker Memories

by

Cliff Johnson

 

The late 1950s were pretty good basketball years for the Purdue Boilermaker teams, their student supporters, and their fans.  Our total win-loss record for the years 1956 through 1959 was 60-28, primarily against stout Big Ten competition.  Most of the squad members during those years were high school grads recruited by Coach Ray Eddy from the many competitive basketball teams throughout Indiana.  I was lucky enough to be one of his recruits.  Although on the basketball and track teams for only two years and not getting in much varsity hardwood playing time, I was nevertheless thrilled to be associated with the high-caliber players and enthusiastic boosters we had during that period.  Since over fifty years have now passed, many of the names have been forgotten.  The younger generation has probably never even heard of most of them.  But it might be of interest to some basketball history buffs if I re-introduce a few of those guys again, to the best of my recollection.  After all, the publication you’re now reading is geared toward history so you might well have that interest.

 

Joe Sexson:  I’ll begin with the player who made the greatest impression on me during those years.  6-4 Sexson was a graduate of Indianapolis Technical high school in 1952.  He carried the Green Wave to the final game of the state tournament his senior year, scored 44 total points in his two final games, and was the recipient of the Trester Award (for mental attitude) that year.  Shortly afterward, the title of Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” was appropriately bestowed upon him.  But it was only after I had the opportunity of watching firsthand his ball handling, teamwork, passing skills, caginess, rebounding, and FG accuracy during Purdue ballgames that I fully appreciated the overall extent of his talent.  He was expert at playing any position.  In my personal opinion, Joe was the earlier archetype of a Larry Bird.  During his three seasons of play for the Boilers he averaged 16.6 ppg, and 1095 total points, both school records up to that time.

 

Lamar Lundy: From Richmond high school and one year younger than Sexson, Lundy, at 6-6, was as proficient a basketball center as he was an offensive end for our football team.  He was a favorite target of Lenny Dawson, the Boilers’ quarterback.  Both Lamar and Len were inducted into the Football Hall of Fame after long separate careers in the pro ranks.  Lundy’s rebounding skills at basketball were probably the best in the Big Ten Conference during his years at Purdue.  His muscular frame at 226 pounds was a major factor, as he could not be pushed around in the keyhole and steadfastly held his position for rebounds.  In watching him play, you’d readily notice that he was exceptionally lithe and smooth in spite of his size & strength.  He was also an adept scorer, ringing up 686 points in his three college seasons.  I can vividly recall during a scrimmage session once that I was picked off and became temporarily mis-matched defensively against Lundy while Sexson had the ball in the backcourt.  Lundy towered over me, and Sexson, never missing an opportunity, whistled a no-look pass at the nine-foot level next to the rim for an easy touch/tip-in by Lamar.  That pass & catch combo was a thing of beauty and undoubtedly the slickest move I ever fell victim to.  They used it often against our opponents, too.  While with the Red Devils at Richmond, Lundy, along with Wayne Van Sickle, were the scoring leaders of a team that reached the final four in 1953.  Van Sickle and Lundy together scored 25 of their team’s 40 points in an 8-point afternoon loss to Terre Haute Gerstmeyer and the Andrews trio of Arley, Harley, and Harold (not Patty, LaVerne, & Maxene).

 

Willie Merriweather:  One of Crispus Attucks’ all-time greats, 6-5 Willie was somewhat overshadowed in high school by his teammate Oscar Robertson (but who wouldn’t be?).  Attucks had powered its way in 1955 to a 31-1 season record, losing only to Connersville by one point toward the end of its scheduled games.  On its path to the state championship that season, the team averaged an overwhelming 2,316 points to its opponents’ 1,640, a differential of 21 points per game.  Amazingly, some of those games were semi-stalls conducted by Attucks’ opponents, to keep the scores down.  Merriweather, after his h.s. graduation, ultimately became a member of one the finest aggregations of court showmen that Purdue had ever put onto its fieldhouse floor.  Willie, along with teammates Jake Eison, Bill Greve, Bob Fehrman, Harvey Austin, and several capable backup men, were able to put on crowd-pleasing displays of ball-handling and court antics that were the talk of the Big Ten for three straight seasons, 1957-59.  One of the problems, however, was that Coach Eddy, by his innate persona, was a strict fundamentalist.  He would not tolerate Globetrotter-like antics.  Whenever a regular would “showboat”, even if it were a fancy assist or movement that led to a field goal, it became “bench time” for that player for awhile.  There were frequent substitutions and the lack of full cohesion between coach and players might possibly have cost the Boilers conference crowns for three straight years.  Merriweather was a mainstay on that squad and usually led the offensive assaults in scoring from a guard position.  The Boilers finished high in our Big Ten Conference in 1957 and as the close runner-up both in 1958 and 1959.

 

Wilson “Jake” Eison: Another 6-5 Indiana “Mr. Basketball” prior to joining the Boilermakers’ varsity in 1957, Eison was a complete player.  Slender and agile, at 187 pounds, he had all the moves and scoring abilities needed to help convert any ordinary team into a championship contender.  He was instrumental, along with Dick Barnett, in driving the 1955 Gary Roosevelt team into the final game of the state tournament.  He scored 25 points against F.W. North Side (and his future Boiler teammate, Charlie Lyons) in the afternoon and then finished off the day with a 31 point barrage in a losing 97-74 effort against Merriweather, Robertson, and their Attucks teammates that night.  At Purdue, Eison fell victim to academic difficulties in 1956 and 1957 and sat out one full semester before reestablishing his GPA and rejoining the team in the fall of 1957.  His final two seasons of play, however, were nothing short of superb at the center position.  He scored 701 points for a colorful and entertaining team also noted for its balanced scoring and team play.  He was the squad’s leading rebounder.

 

Bill Greve:  Another member of the late 1950s powerhouse, Greve was a 6-5 forward with an unerring eye for shooting two hand set shots from the edge of the court and grabbing more than his share of rebounds (479 of them over a three year period).  Very maneuverable and adept at setting picks, Bill could also effectively perform at a guard spot when needed.  He actually led the team in scoring and was second only to Lundy in rebounding, during his sophomore season.  A graduate of little Waveland high school, Bill took over the no. 1 spot on his school’s all time scoring list during his senior year, overtaking the previous high set by older brother Keith a few seasons earlier.

 

Bob Fehrman:  Yet another 6-5 performer who played a mean forward and crashed the boards by keeping his opponents at bay with sharp elbows and a hard-nosed determination to come down with the ball, Bob was an exceptionally fierce competitor.  He hailed from Aurora, near the northern bank of the Ohio River.  Not just a one-dimensional player, Bob also finished his three year varsity career by scoring a total that was just one point shy of the 500 mark.

 

Harvey Austin:  The shortest starter on this powerful team, at an even 6-0, Harvey was the dynamo and our key playmaker.  He was usually the fastest man on the court during any given game.  He was also exceptionally tricky with the ball, sometimes coming up with scoring and assist maneuvers that no one had ever seen before.  Although total assists were not recorded in those days, Harvey was a marvel at setting up teammates for easy FGs.  As a shooter, he was an unexcelled marksman, setting a percentage mark of .487 his junior year, an accuracy well above the standard for those days, especially for a backcourt man.  He had an easy-going and pleasant personality, and was a favorite companion of many of us.  His tendency to occasionally clown around on-court and often make opponents look foolish displeased Coach Eddy to the extent that Harvey was often called upon to warm the bench.  On every such occasion, however, bleacher fans routinely began clamoring loudly for his return to the court.  Harvey was a few years older than the rest of us, having spent three years in the U.S. Army after graduating from Emerson h.s. in Buffalo, NY.  He had been an outstanding player at the secondary level but his court skills were honed even further during his years of military service.

 

Richard Swank:  Often a promising basketball career can be disrupted by a turn of peculiar events or by a freak accident.  Such was the case with Dick Swank, a strong 6-5 rebounder and high scorer from Monticello, Indiana who as a Boiler sophomore looked poised to set all sorts of records for the team.  During a practice session at the front end of the 1957-58 season, Dick came down hard on his knee after capturing a rebound and then couldn’t rise back up.  After being helped off the court, later exams revealed that his patella had been severely damaged.  A tricky operation was deemed optional as recourse, but the chances for full recovery were thought doubtful and the kind of operation needed might actually have made things worse, i.e., a stiff leg for life.  His playing days were thus cut short and now we’ll never know how much more the Boilermakers might have benefited from his court presence during a remaining 2 ½ seasons of eligibility.  Dick, like myself, became a career university administrator.  He now lives in retirement near Eugene, Oregon and we communicate regularly by e-mail.

 

Coach Ray Eddy:  Ray was John Wooden’s Purdue teammate for one year during the early 30s and, like Wooden, was an outstanding player on outstanding conference championship teams coached by one of the greatest mentors of all time, Piggy Lambert.  As a coach, Eddy was a strong adherent to fundamental basketball and insisted that his players stick to the basics of what he believed to be the only key to winning basketball.  He had proved his case year after year as the high school coach for the always strong Madison Cubs.  His stint at Madison was culminated with a state championship in 1950 and as runner-up against the Jasper Wildcats a year earlier.  Immediately after 1950, he was offered a change of venue to coach the Kokomo Wildkats, a team that reigned supreme in the area where I grew up.  I actually had the opportunity of playing for Ray in high school by transferring into the city school but I didn’t really want to, partially because my Western teammates and I had beaten the Kats in the junior high county tournament for two years in a row.  As it turned out, Ray rejected the Kokomo coaching position anyway, once he was offered the Purdue job.  A strange sequence of events had preceded his decision when John Wooden was considered for the open spot at Purdue but because of some downed telephone lines from a severe snow and ice storm he didn’t receive the intended offer in a timely fashion.  Instead, during this critical timeframe, he opted to move to the west coast and coach at UCLA.  And so, as they say, the rest became history.

 

Ward “Piggy” Lambert:  Coach Lambert’s overall accomplishments as a Purdue head coach have never been surpassed.  He was one of the wisest hardwood coaches of all time, in my possibly unqualified opinion.  He had been a star high school and college player in Indiana during the maturation days of the recently devised Naismith game.  By the time I had enrolled at Purdue in the fall of 1954, Mr. Lambert had returned to the campus as freshman coach after serving a brief stint as Commissioner for the National Basketball League.  Before that, he had coached all but one of the Purdue teams from 1917 through 1945, compiling a win-loss record of 364-145 (72 %)--mostly against opponents from what was then regarded to be the toughest college basketball conference in the nation.  Eleven conference championships were garnered by Purdue during Lambert’s reign, many more than any other Big Ten school could muster.  During the early 1930s he was John Wooden’s mentor—what else need be said regarding his reputation as a philosopher of winning basketball?

 

Paul Hoffman:  Formerly an standout player for Cabby O’Neill at Jasper and gaining honors as an Indiana All-Star in 1943, Hoffman became a Purdue cager under Piggy Lambert, beginning in the fall of 1943.  At 6-3, Paul was an all-america selection for three years running.  After graduation, he donned the uniform of the Baltimore Bullets and became one of the best pro players in the NBL.  Known as “The Bear” because of his overpowering strength and size, he was appointed Purdue’s freshman coach beginning in the fall of 1955, just as our “cream of the crop” players were arriving and, under his tutelage, began shaping them into the formidable offensive machine they were to become for the next few years.  Paul was a master at producing small personal advantages on the court and would not hesitate to urge their use just as long as nobody (especially the game officials) could detect them.  A questionable mode of thinking perhaps, but it could prove effective in tight situations.

 

Joe Dienhart:  This coach served as the right hand man for Ray Eddy during the 1950s and was generally recognized as the most versatile member of the Purdue athletic staff during the 1940s and 50s.  He had been an assistant athletic director to Guy Mackey, served as assistant coach for the football team as well as in basketball, and was an eagle-eyed talent scout for both programs.  In his earlier years, Joe had been a major letter winner at Notre Dame in both basketball and football.  Many of us recognized him as the most ardent university supporter

of our Boilermaker athletic teams.

 

Johnny DeCamp: Known as the “Voice of the Boilermakers”, DeCamp displayed much of his talent at the microphone for the local WBAA radio station over the years.  Tuning in to his basketball game broadcasts (usually on Saturday and Monday nights) was a rather fixed yet always exciting routine for many Boilermaker fans who weren’t able to make it to the Purdue Fieldhouse or attend away games.  There was no greater fan or booster those days than Johnny who would also show up at open Boiler practice sessions and cheer us on during scrimmages.

 

While undoubtedly I’ve omitted other key personalities who contributed to the Boilermaker successes of the late 1950s, the ones I’ve mentioned above are those that are solidly fixed in my memory.  It’s my hope that these accounts bring back a few fond memories for you too.



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