When NBA, Globetrotters visited Huntingburg

Herald file photo
Some of The Daily Herald carriers were treated to a professional basketball show at Huntingburg’s gym on the night of Dec. 23, 1954, and then had their picture taken with three of the Globetrotters’ stars — ace dribbler Leon Hilliard, left, former Indiana University center Bill Garrett, right, and clown prince of basketball Reece “Goose” Tatum, obscured in the rear. Due to an injury, Garrett was unable to play, but he suited up and was introduced with the Globetrotter squad. The Goose played the pivot most of the way, and kept the folks roaring with laughter.

By COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

Imagine LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard taking their talents to Huntingburg and playing in an official NBA game at Huntingburg Memorial Gymnasium.

It seems outlandish, doesn’t it? As we celebrate the season — and, remember, parents will inevitably quarrel with their children about the existence of Santa Claus — the thought of a husky, white-bearded man in a bright red suit coming into our homes through the chimney to give us all goodies may sound more plausible than some of the biggest names in basketball playing in this area, of all places. If somebody wrote a screenplay or novel on it, what production company or publisher would go along with it?

Yet, Huntingburg indeed was the hotbed for basketball 65 years ago on Dec. 23, 1954. Anytime somebody walks into the 68-year-old venue, they are walking into a place of history, thanks in part to that date. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and Philadelphia Warriors squared off for some bonafide NBA action. This wasn’t an exhibition game, mind you. This was part of the regular season. Fans in attendance that evening were treated to the presence of the Pistons’ George Yardley, a Hall of Famer who was the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in a season, as well as the Warriors’ Paul Arizin, another Hall of Famer, who was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996. Yardley notched a game-high 22 points that night in Huntingburg, while Arizin paced the Warriors with 17 points as the Pistons prevailed, 92-82.

It was an experience all too surreal for Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Alan Nass, who was 13 years old when he saw the game.

“You’re at an age that sports are really becoming an important part of your life,” Nass said, recalling the historic night.

Nass vaguely remembers some of the players, but Arizin stood out to him because he had a jump shot that was unique at that time. Nass went on to star at Huntingburg High School, scoring more than 1,000 points in his career. He had a 30-point performance for the Happy Hunters his senior year, which set a single-game record. Nass averaged 18 points and 20 rebounds per game en route to helping his team to a sectional title as a senior, and later played college basketball at Georgia Tech.

The future Yellow Jacket remembered asking his father, Chester, to get him a ticket for the Huntingburg game. Television wasn’t as prominent then as it is now, so Nass discussed newspaper articles and magazines like Sport. He saw the players as coming to life from the pages of those magazines, but seeing them in person taught him something.

“You realize how far you had to go as far as being able to play, and it made you practice harder and longer and actually expanded your game, [and] it showed you that if you played center, that you could do just like Goose Tatum,” he said.

The NBA wasn’t the sole attraction that night, however. Hall of Famer Reece “Goose” Tatum and the Harlem Globetrotters were the real reason the gymnasium was packed, as the ‘Trotters faced off against their perennial rival, the Washington Generals. It was actually that game, and not the Pistons and Warriors, that was billed as the main attraction. The Globetrotters and Generals followed the NBA game. Indiana University product and Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Garrett was a member of the Globetrotters back then. He did not play that night due to an injury, but he did suit up and was introduced with the rest of the team.

“I can’t recall specifics of the game, but to see the maturity of play that they had as far as their skill sets and the entertainment value that the Globetrotters not only were tremendous basketball players, but were exceptional entertainers,” Nass said. “The professional game, it had an air about it of ‘This is the top. This is where you go when you reach the top of the basketball ladder.’”

Ken Morgan is a 1957 Huntingburg graduate who was a sophomore when he was at the gym that night. He does not have a recollection of the NBA game, but can recall the Globetrotters being there, and had seen them perform before.

“You’ve got to appreciate the era and the time,” Morgan said. “Back then, it wasn’t like you could stay home and see about a dozen basketball games on TV. A lot of people didn’t have TVs. My mom and dad didn’t have a TV then. So, if there was something big going on at the gym — like almost anything — that was the place to be for a young kid. That was the thing going on that night, and they made a big deal out of it —the Globetrotters coming to Huntingburg.”

Morgan, like Nass, can’t recall specifics, but was excited to see the Globetrotters a second time after they put on a show the first time he saw them. He marveled at how the Globetrotters could shoot the basketball. Morgan also remembered their ability to dunk, even though dunking wasn’t as common back then as it is today.

“They were just real good showmen,” he said.

Morgan laid his phone down when talking to The Herald on Dec. 16 to search for a program in his personal archives. Minutes pass, taking him longer than he thought it would. Sure enough, he reads the following: “Abe Saperstein’s Fabulous Harlem Globetrotters, 28th season.” The 28th season was 1954-55. The program has a yellow background with a large depiction of Uncle Sam sitting down holding a basketball, and illustrations of different players sporting a Globetrotters uniform performing different basketball moves. He said the programs were in good condition, considering their age.

“Back then, I was a pack rat,” Morgan said. “I must’ve went around after it was over and picked up three copies, because I’ve got three here, and I’ve got two other. So, I think at one time I saw [the Globetrotters] at Louisville. I know I saw them in Evansville, and then I saw them in Huntingburg.

“I probably hung around after people left and picked up the copies that was left in the seats,” he later added.

The Globetrotters won, 75-64, in a Huntingburg facility with a capacity listed by The Herald at 6,092. It was just one of many nights of basketball in the historic venue.

“To me, it told you about what the community envisioned in the future so that we could go thank our parents and grandparents that they provided us with a facility so that we had opportunity to see a professional game, and that was a big deal at that time,” Nass said.




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