It was 25 years ago if it was a day, but Margaret Owens's recollection is vivid. She was in the middle of a phys-ed class in the little Waterloo school gym when the janitor picked up a basketball and strode to midcourt. Suddenly Orlyn Roberts, a wiry man in his 50's, let it fly through the rafters, nothing but net.
Imagine the Harlem Globetrotters. Now imagine them as five short, white, teenage farm boys. If you can't, then it's fair to assume you don't live anywhere near tiny Waterloo, in the southeastern corner of Ohio.
Ask people there about Orlyn Roberts or his cousin Wyman or their friends Stewart Wiseman, Beryl Drummond and Curtis McMahon—the fabulous Waterloo Wonders—and watch their memories unreel like an old highlight film, the images flickering by: graceful set shots from midcourt; hook shots from the corners; bouncing free throws; passes rifled crosscourt or behind the back or between the legs or snapped over the shoulder or bowled the length of the floor and right up the center's leg; a guard dribbling out one of the gym's exits and, a few moments later, dribbling in another; a forward stopping and, just to make a dull game interesting, handing the ball back to a hapless defender for an uncontested shot: and all the while, the shoulder-to-shoulder Friday-night crowd whistling and stomping its approval, fired up by ninetysomething Perry Brumfield, a Civil War veteran (Confederate side).
The story of the Waterloo Wonders is an unlikely one. Sixty years ago, five unprepossessing young men came out of the Ohio hill country to win back-to-back Class B (small school) state championships. You might say the Wonders were rather like their counterparts in Milan, Ind., whose 1954 heroics became the basis of the film Hoosiers. But while that comparison addresses the small-town, Cinderella nature of the Wonders, it ignores the full breadth of their accomplishments. In two remarkable seasons, Waterloo played nearly 100 games, winning all but three, most of them on the road against much bigger schools. In one stretch the team won seven games in nine days; it boasted a 56-game winning streak. That makes the Wonders more akin to the great professional barnstormers of that pre-NBA era.
Yet that characterization doesn't quite do the job either. What truly made the Wonders so, well, wondrous was not that they won, but the way they won. At a time when basketball was still in its formative, stand-around stage, with a center jump after each basket, the Wonders were like five Depression-era Bob Cousys, mesmerizing opponents and audiences alike with their ball handling, complex offensive schemes, trick-shot artistry and good-natured pranks. Says Harold Rolph, 87, who officiated at many of the Wonders' home games, "It was so pleasant to watch them play that I would often tell them at the [scorer's] desk, 'Don't worry about the clock. Just let it run.' "
Waterloo, a town of maybe 125 people, sits on a bend along twisty State Route 141, about halfway between Ironton and Gallipolis, and is surrounded by even smaller towns with names like Arabia, Aid, Lecta, Patriot (that's PA-triot, not PAY-triot) and Greasy Ridge. Waterloo is a depressed town in a depressed part of the state. There are no jobs to speak of, and many of the empty, weather-beaten frame houses appear to be standing mostly from force of habit. Waterloo High closed in 1960, robbing the town of an important part of its identity.
Sixty years ago Waterloo was positively bustling. It had 150 inhabitants, an inn, a barbershop, a granary, a mortuary, three stores, two doctors—and one miracle.
Stewart Wiseman remembers it all well enough. Now 77 and the only surviving member of the Wonders' starting five, he sits at the dining-room table of his comfortable house outside Athens, Ohio, reconstructing favorite plays. The fingers of both hands fly across the tabletop in intricate patterns. To the untrained eye the retired teacher seems to be playing three-card monte without a deck, but he is explaining this weave or that give-and-go, plays as fresh in his mind as they were when he was a handsome 17-year-old.
When Stewart and his teammates were coming of age in the late 1920s and early '30s, there wasn't a lot to do in Waterloo except farm, hunt and play basketball. It took fewer kids to get up a basketball game than it did to play baseball or football, and if you didn't have the right equipment, you could improvise.
"You'd play with a homemade ball," says Lee Drummond, 77, who still lives just outside Waterloo and was a reserve for the Wonders. "Take an old sock; fill it full of rags, shirtsleeves, whatever you could tear up and put in there; tie strings around it; and that was your ball." The young Wiseman gouged a primitive court for himself with a horse-drawn grader. And when rain or nightfall interfered with their outdoor games, Waterloo lads retired to a barn loft and played by firelight. By their mid-teens, when they got the chance to play basketball in a real gym with real equipment, the five principal Waterloo players were more than ready.
From Waterloo proper came Orlyn Roberts, 5'11", a quiet, deadly shooter, and his cousin, Wyman, 5'10", an extrovert and the team's Meadowlark Lemon, the instigator of some of the Wonders' most amusing pranks. The more disciplined Wiseman, a 5'7" bulldog and the team's defensive specialist, was from Sherritts, a few miles to the west. Play-maker Drummond, a slight 5'8", was a transfer from nearby Cadmus. The 5'11" pivotman, McMahon, came from Greasy Ridge. And the coach was a brilliant, elegant man with the grand name of Magellan Hairston, who left a Waterloo farm to become principal of the high school and, in his spare time, mold the most famous schoolboy team in Ohio history.
When Waterloo High opened in 1916, it had one boy and 16 girls. Of necessity, then, the earliest Waterloo basketball teams (coached by Wiseman's father, who taught at the school) were girls only. Eventually there were enough boys to form their own team, but even by the fall of 1933 the total number of boys in the school was only 26.
What the boys' team lacked in depth and size it made up for in talent. When Waterloo was on offense, the ball seldom touched the floor. Having been weaned on rag balls that couldn't be dribbled, the starting five were accustomed to passing and passing until the ideal shot presented itself. By the 10th game or so of the '33-34 season, it was apparent that something special was happening in southeastern Ohio. Waterloo—whose team's nickname, playing on the town's Napoleonic connection, was the Little Generals—wasn't just beating other schools, it was destroying them by football scores: 52-14, 40-14,69-9. At some point a local sports-writer tagged the boys the Wonders, and the name stuck.
Yet they remained a local phenomenon until March 1934, when they walked into Columbus's cavernous Fairgrounds Coliseum—unbeaten, true, but largely unknown and unrespected. Three victories later the Wonders had a 34-0 record and a state championship. Now everyone in Ohio knew who they were—and wanted to play them.
The Wonders took on all comers. Hairston was as savvy a promoter as he was a basketball coach, and during the 1934-35 season Waterloo barnstormed through a brutal schedule that would be unthinkable today. Up to five times a week, as soon as classes let out, seven people (the coach; his assistant and scorekeeper, Kenneth McCauley; and the five starters) would pile into Hairston's Ford V-8 sedan. "There were three in the front seat and four in the back," says Wiseman. "Three of us would sit on the backseat, and Beryl—Beryl was the lightest—he'd lay down across our feet there. That was his place to ride." (Reserves went only to league games, usually within 20 miles. Most games were nonleague.)
The Wonders probably played more than 60 games that season—records were not the life-and-death matters they are today, so no one knows the exact number. They were usually away games, and it was a long drive from Waterloo to anywhere, let alone Columbus or Cincinnati.
One day Hairston set off with his team for Painesville, outside Cleveland, 200 miles away. Halfway there it began to snow, and the weather worsened at nightfall. When Hairston called the opposing school to say his team wouldn't get there by tip-off time and might not make it at all, he was urged not to give up. The Wonders didn't arrive until after 11 that night—and the gym was still packed.
On another occasion, due to a scheduling mix-up, Waterloo found itself playing two different schools on the same night. Rather than cancel one game, Hairston had his starters run up a big halftime lead in the first contest, then left behind his subs to mop up as the starters took off for the nightcap. Waterloo won both games.
The Wonders played to full houses everywhere, and Hairston eventually negotiated a deal to get 50% of the night's gate to cover the team's meals and weekend hotel bills. Part of the Wonders' considerable charm was that for all the excitement of their first exposure to such big-city marvels as automatic elevators and sit-down restaurants, they never really left the farm. On Friday overnight trips they often took along their 5 shotguns and rifles to get in a little hunting the next morning.
And how the crowds loved them. The Wonders were like the Globetrotters not just in their skills and trick-shot artistry but also as pure entertainers. It was during their second season that the Wonders introduced their most outrageous pranks. Usually Wyman would start the mischief—conspicuously eating popcorn or a hot dog on the bench, or pretending to pass out on the floor—and the others would follow suit. Three Wonders might walk off the court and pitch pennies on the sidelines, leaving the game to two teammates. Sometimes the Wonders played marbles in the midcourt circle. If a loudmouth in the stands hollered, "Shoot!" the Wonders might just toss him the ball.
Today such behavior would be read as the most contemptuous dissing. But the Wonders weren't trying to denigrate the competition. They never acted up unless a game was so well in hand that it was threatening to bore fans. Hairston tolerated the high jinks because his players were otherwise highly disciplined. "He just told us what he expected, and he meant to have it that way," Lee Drummond says. "I remember seeing him one evening, I don't remember the school we were playing, but the game was tight. The Wonders went back in the locker room, and Wyman Roberts—he was a pretty good cutup—said something, and old Magellan just popped him right in the head."
But that was uncharacteristically direct action for the cerebral Hairston. More typical was the occasion when Wyman broke a training rule. The coach huddled with the other four starters about an appropriate punishment. Wyman, never one to break a sweat on defense, was assigned to cover the next opponent's top shooter; if his man outscored him, Wyman was gone. Wyman responded with 17 points—and held his opponent to 16. "You've never seen a more frantic basketball player," Hairston would recall years later.
"He had a lot of help," says Wiseman, recalling the game with a laugh.
After the Wonders capped that furious 1934-35 season with a second state championship, college coaches were salivating. Dozens of schools offered scholarships, and Kentucky's Adolph Rupp expressed interest in recruiting the whole Waterloo team. Yet of the five starters, only Wiseman, the teacher's son, went to college—first to nearby Rio Grande College, where he was co-captain of the basketball team, then to Ohio University, where he played recreational ball.
The four other starters eventually turned pro and barnstormed as the Waterloo Wonders, playing such celebrated teams as the Globetrotters, the New York Renaissance Five (better known as the Rens) and the Philadelphia Sphas, and incorporating more gags into their routine. In 1937, after two narrow losses to the dominant pro team of the day, the New York Celtics, the upstart Wonders beat the Celtics in a third game, 47-39, before a crowd of 7,000 in Cleveland.
World War II closed out the Wonders' basketball careers, but the players never really gave up the game. They played a few exhibitions and sometimes fired off an occasional trick shot just for the hell of it—and because they still could.
Last year the people of Waterloo were able to get a stale historical marker erected to honor the Wonders. It sits smack in the middle of town, in the shadow of the unpainted plywood steeple of the Waterloo Outreach Assembly of God Church.
Like thousands of other rural American towns, Waterloo has dwindled to almost nothing, its tenuous survival due mainly to the stubbornness of families rooted there for five and six generations. For them the Waterloo Wonders are a touchstone. After all, says McCauley, "How many little country villages have experienced something like that?" How many indeed?
Thomas Kunkel's book on Harold Ross of The New Yorker will he published in March.