For a while the Missouri Valley Conference had perhaps the best basketball in the country. In the late '50s and early '60s, during the post-cold-war and pre-UCLA days, it couldn't be beat.
If you lived in Peoria, Ill. and you were a kid, you knew this. Older people knew it, too, but they reacted in a more subdued manner. As 10- and 12-year-olds, we were not subtle. We dribbled our basketballs to school each morning, down the road—poing, poing, poing—over the sidewalks—fwap, fwap—across the gravel path—crunch—and through the big front doors. The polished tile gave a nice resonance to the chilled balls—whack-a, whack-a, whack-a—as we bounced them around little girls and up the steps. One bounce per stair, careful of edges. In the hall you might pass a buddy going the other way. Both of you would be humming the Bradley University fight song.
"Good morning, Chet," he'd say, meaning Chet Walker.
"Easy does it, Al babe," you'd say, meaning Al Saunders.
December 16, 1974
"Big O tomorrow night at the snakepit, pal. Cincinnati. Gotta have it," he'd say, dribbling on by.
"Yeah, the Big O. We'll stuff him, Al. Stuff him. Boom!"
Whack-a, whack-a. You'd continue on up the hall passing other friends with basketballs. You'd steal their balls, they'd steal yours. You'd pass, weave in and out, go one-on-one, ricochet the balls off the ceiling, dunk, hook and shoot free throws until the teacher came out. You weren't allowed to dribble in the halls.
They could take your ball away, but the images jumping in your head were untouchable. The words were there, important magic words: Cincinnati, Wichita State, Tulsa, Drake, Houston, North Texas State, St. Louis, Louisville and, above them all, Bradley. Your home team. With names that slipped off your tongue like pearls: Chet (The Jet) Walker. Joe Billy McDade. Bobby Joe Mason. Mack (The Knife) Herndon. Tim (The Rim) Robinson. Levern Tart. Al Saunders. The Bradley Braves were so good. Sometimes you could feel a directionless energy, almost a frenzy, overwhelming you as you sat at your desk thinking. "Teacher," you wanted to scream, "give me my basketball!"
You knew that the Missouri Valley was the roughest league anywhere. Cincinnati was the only team consistently better than Bradley. The Bearcats would win or tie for the conference six years in a row, and in 1961 and 1962 they would win the NCAA championship. All the kids you knew hated Cincinnati as much as they hated Communism.
Monday mornings we demolished the papers searching out and memorizing every scrap from Bradley's weekend games.
"How many did The Jet have on Saturday?"
"What was the attendance?"
"Wrong. It was 7,980."
"O.K. then. How many guys dunked during warmups?"
"Fifteen. Every guy on the team dunked."
"Fourteen. Max Sanders is only 5'8". He did not dunk."
"Fifteen. My uncle was there. He saw him."
"He saw him. I told him to watch. The crowd went crazy. Max Sanders dunked the ball!"
"He did not."
"HE DUNKED THE BALL!"
Whack! The teacher's ruler on the back of the head. Basketball was a topic not allowed in class.
About this same time a lot of us were deeply involved with religion. Though we went to a public school, there were quite a few Catholics among us. On Sundays our parents took us over to St. Thomas Church for catechism class, then we came home and hit the courts. It was easy to combine doctrines of similar intensity. When the bishop came to church one day to bless our missals, rosaries, etc., one boy held up his autographed Bradley basketball program. Another wore his gym shoes, hoping that some of the holy water would be absorbed into the canvas. We believed prayer should be used primarily to win basketball games.
Eventually your dad would take you to a game. You had done something good, more than likely shoveled the snow from the driveway after a big storm. He knew as well as you did that you had done it only to clear off the court under your basket, but he took you anyway.
Inside the gymnasium you sat quietly. Warmups were going on. The organ played. Right-handed dunk. Left-handed dunk. Twenty-five-foot jumper. Baseline dunk. Nonchalant over-the-head dunk.
"Dad," you'd ask, "do you think I could go stand by the court for a couple seconds and watch the warmups?" "Don't get lost," he'd say, and you'd walk down to Bradley's end. It was much brighter there. The sound of the basketballs on varnished wood and the squeak of Converse All Stars were very loud. Fwoom, fwoom, swish. Very few shots missed. Chet Walker stood casually, palming a ball.
You were excited. Suddenly a basketball was coming right at you, bouncing, then rolling across the yellow wood and into your hands. It was brilliant orange and warm and large in your hands. It smelled of Tuf-Skin mixed with leather. It was beautiful. You couldn't move. In the distance there seemed to be a noise, someone yelling at you. A Bradley basketball, you had never expected this. Then someone appeared. "Gimme the ball, kid," yelled the bespectacled manager, and it dropped from your hands.
The Braves were tough at home. From 1956-1966 they lost only 12 games in Peoria. Away games were another story. During five of those years their record was 69-8 at home but 22-29 on the road. During the 1962-63 season Bradley was 14-0 at home and 3-9 away.
In the Missouri Valley you were expected to lose once you left town. The paper continually referred to away courts as snakepits. As grade-schoolers we had no idea what a snakepit was; we never asked our fathers or someone who might know because it seemed vaguely possible we were using a dirty word. Most of us envisioned a snakepit as being something like a swamp with huge cobras and crocodiles slithering around amid bubbling black pools and vapors.
But 1960 was a good year for Peoria fans and it was the year that a lot of the religious basketball fanatics in our crowd made their Confirmation.
At mid-season there was a big showdown between Bradley and Cincinnati, the No. 1 team in the nation led by Oscar Robertson. Bradley was 13-1, having lost only on Cincinnati's court. The two best college teams in the country came on the floor in Peoria that night.
None of us went to the game. All the tickets had been gone since Thanksgiving and they couldn't be wasted on children. In our homes we prepared for the game. Radios were tuned. Some guys said their rosaries. A few worked on indulgences from the back of prayer books. Others sat on their beds and shot rolled-up socks through coat-hanger baskets on the wall. I remember dribbling a scrubbed basketball through the house.
It started horribly. Oscar Robertson was so good, and immediately the score was 21-12, Cincinnati. Bradley called time-out and regrouped. At the half the Braves had battled back to within three, 47-44. My palms were so wet I carried a dish towel with me as I dribbled.
The second half started. Throughout Peoria saints were invoked and people paced the floor. But one boy, one who was to sacrifice everything, lay face down on his bed in the dark.
Cincy and Bradley traded baskets. They traded fouls. The crowd screamed and the announcer for WIRL went hoarse. Chet hit two in a row from 20 feet away. Madness. The Big O hit from 15. Paul Hogue, Cincinnati's center, dunked.
Bradley came roaring back. Saunders floated in a rebound shot. Mason bombed from outside with two men on him. Aawoooohh.... The speaker rattled. Bradley was called for traveling. Booohaaa....
Time was running out. Bradley was down by one. The Braves got the ball and called time-out with less than two minutes to play. There was a chance, just a chance.
The boy began to pray for a miracle to equal the glorious pile of crutches at Lourdes. He began praying against Cincinnati. He wanted the Bearcats to die. He prayed for the roof to cave in on their heads. Silently, he cursed.
Bradley brought the ball in and fed it to Chet Walker. He took it to the hole and stuffed. Bradley was up by one. Cincinnati dribbled up the court. With one shot they could still win. The boy on his bed prayed for a steal, a turnover, anything.
The miracle happened; Robinson stepped out of bounds trying to drive the baseline on Mason, and Bradley got the ball.
Somebody fouled Mike Owens, Bradley's ball handler. It was one-and-one and everybody knew that if he missed Cincinnati would rebound, give the ball to Oscar and he'd score. Owens stepped to the line in silence.
The boy had been saving his biggest gun for the end, hoping it would not have to be used. But now he had to use it.
"My Confirmation means nothing to me," he said out loud. "Satan, give me a basket."
Owens shot. Swish.
"Beelzebub," the boy whispered, "give me another."
Robertson made a layup at the gun, but the radio had gone berserk: "Ninety-one-ninety! Bradley wins! Bradley wins!"
The next morning as the boy was confirmed he kept his eyes on the floor and felt the guilt well up and up till he wanted to run from the church. He was no longer in the state of grace. Sin, in the form of blasphemy and false idols, clung to him like stench to a fish. Other children seemed to eye him with disgust. He knew. And God knew. He won that basketball game.
When we found all this out, our first reaction was to treat him like a leper. His soul, no doubt, looked like a paper plate that had been hit with a direct shotgun blast. He quit going to Communion after that, and he didn't have the courage to go to Confession. He was shunned, but only for a while. We soon relented, recognizing him for the tragic hero he was. We realized his sins would not rub off on us and that they might enable us to avoid the same fate. Every weekend we persuaded him to perform his ritual again. He was a fallen man. We told him that one more log on a roaring fire could not matter.
Bradley kept winning. Our friend became a businessman, selling his soul weekly in exchange for victory. Bradley's record rose to 21-1; then, foolishly, we overlooked the Houston game. Only a few days before Bradley had routed Houston by 21 points. We were cocky, we did not pressure our friend and we could not blame him for the surprise 63-58 loss. Bradley won the rest of its games with routine precision, completing its best year since 1938.
At the end of the season our wan, silent friend was as close to despair as a 12-year-old could get. He spent the summer kneeling in mud puddles, riding his bike into thorn bushes, touching dead snakes. He was rehabilitating himself.
He deliberately exposed himself to flying dirt clods in our wars. He held burning matches till they fizzled out. He was always the first to go down poison-ivy-infested paths. He handled spiders and red ants and drank from the creek behind McMahon's house.
We never intervened. Penance, the church told us, is what purifies sinners.
The next season we tried to get him to perform again. He refused. Bradley played well, but for the first time in five years was not invited to the NIT.
Soon after that our friend's family moved to another part of town and we seldom saw him. A year later his dad was transferred to California, and we never heard from him again. The years went by and things changed. People grew up, went off to school and forgot about Chet and dunk shots and Bradley.
That's the way it is. Basketball is still a good game, still a great game. And for a while Peoria had the very best in the country.