Throwback: MHSAA historian discusses Retro Mr. Basketball

April 20, 2012 in Cover Story, High School

Surprisingly, the state of Michigan has only been giving out the Mr. Basketball Award since 1981. Anyone who follows basketball in this state knows that many iconic Michigan high school athletes missed out on the opportunity to be called Mr. Basketball as a result.

Spurred on by research by MHSAA historian Ron Pesch, the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan sought to rectify this problem three years ago and began awarding ‘Retro’ Mr. Basketball awards. The project, which is being unveiled year-by-year over a 10-year period, awards one player from each decade between 1920 and 1980 each year. The final awards for that time period will be given out in 2019.

This year’s winners were announced in the winter and can be read about here. All of the previous winners to date are listed here. Here is a recent interview with Pesch explaining the award. I also invited him to write a bit of background on the inspiration behind it for BallinMichigan. His post is below. If you’d like to contact him with names, suggestions for future awards, or other historical information, e-mail peschstats(at)comcast(dot)net. — Patrick Hayes

Ron Pesch

By Ron Pesch

The original thought on why BCAM should consider creating such an award came from the fact that Magic Johnson is not a Michigan Mr. Basketball. The award simply didn’t exist at the time Johnson was a senior in high school.

As time has rolled forward, and generations pass on, the names and histories of so many great ballplayers have faded or nearly disappeared.

But stories like these — 1951 winner Webster Kirksy, 1962 winner Ernie Thompson and 1921 winner George Haggarty, for example — help to bring them back.

In Indiana, the historical hotbed of high school basketball, the Mr. Basketball award dates back to 1939.

That list includes many recognizable names. But, I’d argue, that if Michigan had such a list, there would be just as many. The Retro award should help to show that.

For me, the beauty of the Mr. Basketball award, past and present, is that it recalls the moment when the world offers nothing but promise. Life after high school is not a consideration.

Few will recall that this year’s 1972 winner, Larry Fogle, went on to lead Canisius, and the nation, in scoring with a 33.4 average. Or the promise then fall of Bubbles Hawkins, a runner-up to the 1972 award. This Sports Illustrated story discusses Hawkins’ promise. In 1993, Mike Conklin discussed his fall in the Chicago Tribune:

This may be difficult to grasp today, but 21 seasons ago the two most exciting college basketball teams in the area were Illinois State and Northern Illinois. They met once that 1972-73 campaign in De Kalb, and the showcase player was ISU senior Doug Collins. In all deference to Doug, most spectators came away from that contest, broadcast by radio play-by-play man Jim Durham, raving about two other players seemingly destined for NBA stardom.

One was NIU’s Jim Bradley. He was a 6-foot-10-inch basketball genius of his day, who played only two seasons of college ball because freshmen weren’t eligible and going to class became an annoyance for him. Simply put and without exaggeration, Bradley did all the things Magic Johnson made famous a decade later. Jim was the Huskies’ tallest player, but he scored, rebounded, assisted, brought the ball up the court and routinely recorded triple-doubles before anyone knew what they were. His credits included a victory over Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers. Against ISU that night, he scored 31 points and had 21 rebounds.

Northern won that shootout 92-88 in overtime, and the other player who stirred spectators was Bubbles Hawkins, a guard brought in by new ISU coach Will Robinson. On this night, Robinson’s precocious rookie scored 21 points, only one less than Collins. Durham recalled that later in the season, when Doug was honored for his many accomplishments by the school before his final home game, Bubbles, who eventually would set the school’s single-game scoring mark of 58, failed to pass to Doug as they raced down the court on a 2-on-0 fast break.

Hawkins was in the news this week. You may have read that, following a spotty career that never lived up to the early promise, he was found murdered-at age 39-in a crackhouse. Bradley? In 1982, Jim, whose pro career also was checkered, was found dead at age 29 in a Portland, Ore., alley. He had been shot in the back in what police said was a drug-related deal.

If there is a lesson, I’m not entirely sure what it is. But on that night 21 seasons ago, two talents crossed paths for a night, and now they are both dead before reaching 40. What a waste.

The lists contain similar stories:

  • Tim McCormick can be seen on Fox during the MHSAA broadcasts of the state finals.
  • Campy Russell works with the Cleveland Cavs.
  • Frank Tanana, of course, was the father of Frank Jr., the Major League baseball pitcher. Frank Jr. was a candidate for the 1971 Retro award, but failed to make the final cut. Frank Sr. served as on-court player-coach during the St. Andrews back-to-back title run. The team’s regular coach, Nap Ross, a scout for the Cleveland Indians, missed the final rounds of the 1952 championships as he left the team ten days previous to join the minor league training camp. It is said Frank Sr. gave up a promising shot with the Indians to return home to take care of young Frank. (In reality they were not Jr. and Sr. – their middle initials differed.)
  • Larry Savage played football and baseball at Northwestern. It appears injuries cut short his career. He later served “city government in Milwaukee, Cheboygan, Saginaw, the city of Grosse Pointe, Traverse City and Farmington Hills. The mainstay of his career was the time he spent as City Manager of Traverse City.”

There are so many more. There’s great stuff in the story behind the story.