Hoffman helped Jasper to 2 semistate berthsJune 15, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
John Hoffman describes himself as a “basketball freak.” Anyone who visits his house and tours the hallways can see framed photographs, newspaper articles and even artwork relating to relatives of the 1957 Jasper graduate.
“My entire life has been basketball,” Hoffman said. “I started in grade school playing basketball, and it was mostly because of my family. My father (Robert) is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. My uncle Paul is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.”
His father refereed high school and college basketball games for 24 years. John remembers going to many of the games his dad refereed when he was a kid. He remembers tagging along with his father into the dressing room at halftime. Robert refereed games involving the University of Evansville and also Western Kentucky University. John attended hundreds of games with Robert when he was a kid.
“Coach Arad McCutchan, he’s the legendary coach at Evansville, would let me sit at the end of the bench so that I would not have to sit up in the stands,” John said. “I was not even in high school yet, and we’d go down to Western Kentucky, and another legendary coach, Ed Diddle, he would let me sit down at the end of the bench.”
Robert gained enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in 1980, but John himself had a career that took him places, and the Wildcats went far in the tournament when he played for them. They went to semistate in 1956 and 1957 in his junior and senior years. The 1956-57 Wildcats squad had a starting five of athletic seniors who were all known by a J letter: Hoffman, Jerry Birge, Jim Eckerle, David “Jody” Giesler and Edwin “Junie” Schnarr.
Four of the five Js played together before they got to high school, with Schnarr being the exception, as he was previously from Boone Township.
“The difference that I see between today’s basketball and the basketball back in the day is fundamentals,” John said. “All of us — all five of us — had been playing basketball for so long. In grade school, you had a guy by the name of Joe Rowekamp, who also coached the freshman high school team that just drilled you in fundamentals and fundamentals. You didn’t have to think how to play defense. You were taught how to play defense, and by the time you are a senior in high school, it is automatic.”
John had concerns going into his senior year as center Dick Persohn wasn’t back for the Wildcats, but the five Js filled the void. John played center on the jump, while Birge was the center on the fast break offense the Wildcats implemented that year. He added that Wildcats coach Nip Wuchner often changed defenses on the fly during games.
Jasper got off to a 5-0 start, though sporadic losses came and The Herald referred to the 1956-57 Wildcats as “erratic,” according to a Feb. 27, 1957, edition. John found it especially tough to lose to Dale during the holiday tournament.
“What was so funny was we prepared to stop (Bob) Reinhart,” he said. “That’s what Nip prepared us before the game was to control Reinhart, and we were beaten, and (Roger) Kaiser ends up beating us, but that hurt, that hurt.
“We went into a funk in January and then, near the end of the season, we got back to where we were at the beginning and then went straight to the tournament,” John continued. “Now, if that’s what they call erratic, that’s what I would say is the erratic part.”
The Wildcats finished the regular season at 14-6, a shade off the previous year’s 15-5 record. John noted that they weren’t favored to win the sectional that year, with West Baden instead getting the nod. The Wildcats and Sprudels were pitted against each other in the title game after Jasper downed Ireland and Spurgeon, and West Baden got by Huntingburg and Winslow to make it.
The Sprudels received a 30-point performance from Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Marvin Pruett in the championship game, but Jasper’s ‘J’ power showed its might that night. Giesler notched a game-high 32 points. John had 15, Eckerle 14 and Birge 12 to lift the Wildcats to a 77-63 championship winner.
“I think we probably could’ve adjusted to beat just about anybody that night,” John said.
Jasper wasn’t favored to win regional either, John noted. The Wildcats met up with Washington, hoping to avenge a 34-30 loss to the Hatchets during the season, and the Wildcats got their payback with a 59-51 triumph.
To win another regional championship, though, the Wildcats would have to find a way to get past Sandborn big man Larry Banks, who went on to play at Vanderbilt University.
“Nobody was giving us a prayer to beat them with this big giant in the center,” John said. “During warmups, he would go in and he would dunk the ball in his right hand. Then he’d come in and he’d dunk the ball in his left hand, and then they’re high-fiving and they’re laughing and they’re carrying on.
“We’re warming up at the other end of the floor, and when I talk about the personality of Jody and these guys, we were laying the ball up and Jody came over to me and he said, ‘We’ve got to stop this,’” he continued. “He says, ‘Can you go in and do your thing?’”
John himself did a dunk before the game, prompting cheers. He walked past Banks without saying a word, and Sandborn stopped.
Banks had a game-high 17 rebounds, though Jasper out-rebounded Sandborn as a team, 37-32, and Banks was limited to one board in the final quarter. The Blue Jays made it close, largely due to Banks’ 18 points, but the Wildcats, leading by four with 1:35 to go, went on a 6-0 run to hold them off, 47-37, and another regional championship.
“By that time, our confidence was up,” John said.
The Wildcats met Evansville Lincoln, whom John thought very highly of. He was mostly concerned with the Lions being just as fast as they were.
He finished with six points, fouled out and couldn’t remember what caused the foul trouble.
However, his teammates managed to make things happen. Eckerle tied for a game-high 24 points, Birge scored 10 and Giesler notched 22 points, with his final two points being the biggest.
The Wildcats and Lions played to sudden-death double overtime when Giesler stepped to the free throw line with the game knotted, 67-67. He made both free throws and he was mobbed after winning the game for Jasper.
That game took a lot out of a tired Wildcats team, whose reward was a chance for payback against Terre Haute Gerstmeyer from the year before in the semistate championship. Gerstmeyer eliminated Jasper in the 1956 semistate, and had some gifted players back then. Howard Dardeen was the runner-up for the 1957 Mr. Basketball award and played at the University of Kentucky, while Charlie Hall played at Indiana University.
John totaled 16 points that night, and the Black Cats didn’t walk over the Wildcats in that game. They made it close, trailing Gerstmeyer, 61-58, before the Black Cats went on a 6-0 run and pulled away, 75-66, eliminating Jasper once more.
John desired to go into engineering and weighed where he wanted to go to school and continue his basketball career. He had it narrowed down to three choices: Purdue University, Georgia Tech and the University of Miami.
“I didn’t go to Purdue because, number one, they wanted me to play both basketball and football, and my parents (Robert and Theresa) didn’t want me to do that. They wanted me to get an education,” he said. “Number two, my uncle (Paul) was assistant coach up there, and I did not think I wanted to play under a relative. Miami was just way too far. So, I ended up going to Georgia Tech.”
The Yellow Jackets had a Southern Indiana flavor to their squads around that time. John joined Kaiser on that team, and they were roommates at one point. Alan Nass, a 1959 Huntingburg graduate, was a teammate with both of them, and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Kaiser continued to be a prominent scorer in college, while John was a defensive captain. His athletic ability enabled him to play any position on the floor for a program that demanded a greater commitment than high school basketball did.
“You got a lot more personal responsibility,” he said. “In high school, we were always in shape because we were playing sports all year long, but that’s not true with everybody that plays basketball. So, there is a period that you have to get in shape in high school. Look what they do in football to get you in shape for the first game. In college, when you step foot on that campus, or whenever the first practice is, you are expected to be in shape without them having to worry about you, and if you want to get on a coach’s bad list, show up out of shape sometime.”
He got into the habit of less sleep, with classes in the morning, lab assignments in the afternoon, followed by practice and eating in the training room. John couldn’t study until the evening, and did so until midnight, with the same thing all over again the very next day.
“The move now is to pay college athletes some money — they should’ve done that 50 years ago,” he said. “You’re doing this for the benefit of the school. Yes, you are getting a college education, but look how much money they are making off of you, and you are working your butt.”
The Yellow Jackets made it to the NCAA Tournament during John’s junior year in 1960. They won their first game, 57-54, against the Ohio Bobcats.
“Although I was a starter at guard in my senior year, I probably got more minutes as the sixth man in my junior year,” John wrote in a follow-up note to The Herald. “Again, because I could play any position, I was always the first player off the bench.”
Georgia Tech finished as the Mideast Regional runner-up with an 86-69 loss to Ohio State University.
He noted Georgia Tech ran a slower game, and he would’ve picked Purdue if he just went to school to play basketball, but his mother pushed for him to attend Georgia Tech.
“I went to Georgia Tech to get an engineering degree, but I really wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “Lo and behold, my wife (JoRean) in my senior year had season tickets next to a man by the name of Patrick Henry, true name. Mr. Henry was a patent lawyer in Atlanta. I did not know a patent from toilet paper, but he kept telling my wife all about patent law. She would come home after the game and tell me about it until Mr. Henry invited me to his office and I found out that I could practice law with an engineering degree, and that’s how I ended up at Indiana University.”
He graduated from law school at IU in 1964 and spent many years practicing law in Chicago before moving back to Jasper about two decades ago. John received an Alumni of Distinction honor from Jasper, and identified as a positive success on May 11, 2001, which he called “one of my prized accomplishments.”
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