All-Century team evaluations, Era Two (1948-1975)

It is a difficult if not impossible challenge to vote for the Illini's All-Century basketball team. There are 83 players on the list, and all deserve to be included. At least, there are far more than 15 who deserve special mention as the most elite of the elite. So how do we make these decisions?

I have seen most of the players in the last two eras play, so I thought I would share my recollections to aid the voting process. However, I really don't want to make recommendations. I am no authority, and you have a right to your own opinion. I don't want the responsibility of seeing a deserving athlete excluded from the top 15 due to my personal memories and preferences.

So instead of making it easier for you, I hope to make it more difficult to choose between the many deserving athletes. At least, this way they will all get at least some of the accolades they so richly deserve.

I am basing my discussion primarily on my memory, and memory does tend to diminish over time. I apologize if I make a mistake or two along the way. I hope to be fair to everyone and not let my personal bias influence my judgment. And I will not just sugar-coat past records. If I remember a negative modifier to a player's career, I will mention it. After all, the more information at our disposal the better to distinguish one star from another. But I apologize if I offend anyone since my purpose is to be factual. I love all Illini stars and don't wish to cast aspersions on anyone.

The years 1947-1957 were magical. Led by Harry Combes, the fast-breaking Illini were the scourge of the Midwest, and their list of top players is impressive. They won three Big 10 titles in the first five years under Combes, and each of those teams was ranked in the top five in the country. The next four teams were all ranked in the top twenty. What a run!

One need only spend a short time examining those years to realize it was the era of the guard at Illinois. After all, it was the guards who scored most of the points off the fast break. Illinois had quite a reputation for guards back then, including a number of players on our All-Century list.

I didn't see the following guards play from 1947 to 1954, but they all received post-season accolades: Bill Erickson, Don Sunderlage, Rod Fletcher, and Jim Bredar. Dike Eddleman, Ted Beach, and Irv Bemoras all received awards for their forward play, but from what I understand they were basically interchangeable with the guards on their teams. Beach, Bemoras and Bredar were all 2nd team All-Americans, and Erickson, Sunderlage, Fletcher and Eddleman were all first team All-Americans.

Everyone has heard about Eddleman's multisport accomplishments, so he has the name recognition to be one of the top 15. But was he really significantly better than these other players? He could probably jump higher, but the problem for each of these players is their similarity to each other. When there are a number of outstanding choices, it is hard to choose just one or two from the many who are deserving. Eddleman is deserving, but so are the others.

I didn't see Bob Peterson, a center from the early 1950's who made Honorable Mention All-American. And I didn't see Bruce Brothers, an Honorable Mention All-American in 1954 at a forward spot. But I saw the others play, even if my memory is limited due to my youthfulness at the time.

Bill Ridley, Paul Judson, Don Ohl, Roger Taylor and Manny Jackson all were guards from the 1950's who compared favorably with the guards mentioned earlier and continued our reputation for turning out great guards. If I remember correctly, Don Ohl was among the first players to use a one-handed jump shot rather than a two-handed kiss shot. Don made 2nd team All-American in 1958, and I remember watching him make Illinois proud while playing professional basketball.

Harv Schmidt was a 2nd team All-American in 1957. He was a slender but aggressive 6'-6" with a good shot. He was also a great leader and captain who later had several successful seasons as the Illini's head coach. It has been forgotten by now, so few realize how close Harv came to creating an elite program at Illinois. For awhile, he had the top recruits coming in, national notoriety, and a rabid fandom that actually gave him a standing ovation every time he entered the Assembly Hall. Harv's downfall is the subject of a separate article, but he is one of my favorite Illini even if he doesn't make the All-Century team.

George BonSalle was a rarity for Illinois. He was actually a talented center with the size to compete against other top centers. Illinois has historically had difficulty recruiting top centers in quantity, but George was a notable exception. He was much improved and on his way to an All-American senior season when he went ineligible after the first semester.

The Illini that year were becoming a challenger for national prominence, being rated as high as 5th. But the loss of BonSalle not only took away his size and scoring, but it also took away the team's confidence. If you just look at the overall season record, you will have no idea how good that team almost was, or how much George BonSalle meant to it. I saw John Wessels play for the Illini, and he was an honorable mention All-American 6'-7" center who followed BonSalle, but I apologize that I don't remember his game.

Govoner Vaughn and Manny Jackson were special to me. They were talented players who were exciting to watch. Manny was a shooter, and Govoner was a jumping jack warrior who took his 6'-3" frame and battled opposing centers significantly bigger than he was. Any Illini fan had to love how hard these two gentlemen fought in every game.

But what really set them apart in my mind was their ability to graduate from school, complete outstanding athletic careers, and still withstand the difficulties of being the first black players to do so at Illinois. There were worse places for black athletes to be than Illinois, but there was certainly some prejudice. I am grateful for their courage and perseverence through those difficult times. And they both continued to achieve success after graduation, with Manny now being the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters.

The recruitment of Dave Downey, Bill Burwell and Bill Small in 1960 heralded another golden time for the Illini. Downey was a strong-willed scoring machine (at times), and he was named a three-time Illini MVP. He was aggressive on the boards although he was a little short for the forward spot at 6'-4", and he had a fine shooting touch. He got into the "zone" against Indiana in 1963, setting an all-time Illini record of 53 points in one game. Sadly, Indiana won that game as defense wasn't either teams' forte.

Bill Burwell had the size we needed at 6'-8", and he gave us three excellent years. He arrived at Illinois out of Brooklyn Boys High School in New York, and he later returned there as a school principal. He was named an honorable mention All-American one year, the same as guard teammate Bill Small. Small was an excellent athlete and shooter, and he complimented the others well. People also remember Bill for his sons Andy, who lettered in baseball at Illinois, and Mike, a golf letterman who joined the pro tour and now coaches the Illini men's golf team.

Think about this. The 1962-3 Illini basketball team had six players on it who are now nominated for the All-Century team. Downey, Burwell and Small were seniors, and Duane "Skip" Thoren, Tal Brody and Bogie Redmon were all sophomores. And yet much talk at the time centered around a phenom drawing rave reviews on the freshman team by the name of Don Freeman.

Freshmen couldn't play varsity at that time, but there was still plenty of talent available. This team won the Big 10 championship and defeated Bowling Green with Nate Thurmond and Howie "Butch" Komives in the first round of the smaller-field NCAA tournament. Sadly, they had to play the eventual National Champion Loyola Ramblers in the next round. Led by Jerry Harkness and Vic Rouse, Loyola had a magical season that wiped out all opponents impressively. We were a great team that encountered an absolute buzzsaw in Loyola.

Many people remember with fondness the play of Tal Brody. Originally from New Jersey, Tal came to Illinois with a group of freshman teammates who I feel was one of our best ever recruiting classes. Tal was quick, he was an excellent ball handler and shooter, and he could penetrate and dish. He was our last two-handed kiss shot artist. He did it only rarely as a senior, but he brought me out of my seat when he hit several long bombs as a freshman playing against the varsity in an exhibition. It was a sight to behold. Tal eventually made 2nd team All-American.

But a player who had even more success and more accolades was the 6'-9" Skip Thoren. Skip was our last true post player to have an extended pro career, playing in the old ABA. He was agile, fluid, and an excellent all-around player. He had a devastating hook shot that was unstoppable, and he averaged double figure rebounding throughout his three years with the varsity. Thoren was named a first team All-American his senior year.

Bogie Redmon had a fabled high school career and was perhaps the high school equivalent of Jerry Lucas, who later starred at Ohio State and with the New York Knicks. Bogie Redmon was a 6'-6" center at Collinsville who led his team to an undefeated championship season his senior year of high school. He was quick, strong and aggressive, and he was unstoppable at that level. Illinois has a history of recruiting players and then trying to convert them to other positions, and Bogie was too short for center at the college level. He was still a good scorer and rebounder as a forward, and he did make honorable mention A-A one year, but he never had the same degree of success at the college level as he did at Collinsville.

Don Freeman was a great player and great person, and his high school and college careers suffered only in comparison with Chicago Carver's and Michigan's Cazzie Russell, who was the same age. Don was an inside player at 6'-3". He could score from outside, but his fluidity, quickness, jumping ability and smarts allowed him to score between, around and over much taller players. He eventually was converted to a guard in the ABA, where he had a successful career, but he was most comfortable closer to the basket. Don's 27.8 single season scoring average is tops in Illinois history, and he made first team All-American in 1966. Don was special.

Rich Jones' career was cut short by the Slush Fund. With freshman ineligibility, Rich had only one season and a small part of another to show his ability. But what great ability he had. He was a first-five All-American out of high school in Memphis, and he deserved that ranking. Attracted to Harry Combes' fastbreak offense, the 6'-7" Jones was a sleek greyhound who loved to run.

Please remember that it was rare to find someone as tall as Rich at that time, so to find someone as fast and agile in a tall body was a rare treat. I will always have a vision of him running the wings of our vaunted fast break, beating everyone else down the floor. He could also shoot the outside shot and the turnaround, so he was quite versatile. He made honorable mention A-A, but he might have been a first team A-A as a senior had he been able to complete his career at Illinois. He also played in the ABA.

Jim Dawson and later his younger brother Jeff Dawson were scorers. They loved to shoot, and they were good at it. Jim took responsibility as a senior for the scoring load after the Slush Fund hit, and he was named Big 10 MVP and honorable mention A-A as a result. He sometimes took ill-advised shots trying to keep us in games, but he did score often. That was an unusual situation, so perhaps he should not be faulted for trying to put the team on his back. Jeff transferred back to Illinois after breaking Harv Schmidt's recruiting heart after high school, so he played only two years at Illinois. But he also was an excellent shooter who made honorable mention A-A one year.

Dave Scholz was placed in a unique situation. He was part of a recruiting class that included Steve Kuberski and Dennis Pace, and he was getting only mop-up work with the varsity as a sophomore prior to the Slush Fund. A high school center at around 6'7", he was being converted to forward, and he was competing with some outstanding talent on a team that won at Kentucky and had national aspirations. Suddenly, the Slush Fund hit, and Dave Scholz was the only big body left on the team.

The game against California in Chicago right after this devastating change started a new cycle of success for Dave. Playing the center spot, Dave used his turn around jump shot to score valuable points and help us claim an unexpected victory. If Jim Dawson was the MVP that season, Dave Scholz was irreplaceable playing his role. This early success gave Scholz the confidence boost to make him a go-to player in future seasons.

When Harv Schmidt arrived the next year, Dave was still required to play center. But Harv knew he had to have his offense revolve around Dave, so he gave him plays to get open shots. How often do you see a center cutting past a double screen to get an 18 foot shot? You do if your best and most experienced scorer is also your center. Dave eventually got to play power forward the next year when Greg Jackson took over at center, and Dave sacrificed some of his scoring to feed the post. But he still scored enough to become the Illini's career scoring leader before his career ended, and he was named a first team A-A.

Mike Price was one year behind Scholz, and he was somewhat of an enigma. He had excellent athleticism, a high-percentage left handed jumper, and he hustled. He had an excellent career culminated with an honorable mention A-A award and a first round draft pick by the NBA. But for some reason, he never had the consistent success that others wished for him, and it is hard to know why. Still, he was an excellent talent and deserving of the accolades.

Rick Schmidt had a history similar to Scholz. He was at the right place at the right time to become a go-to player. And he matured from a small-school star at St. Joseph to an honorable mention A-A and a first team Academic All-American. Unfortunately, the team had to revolve around him because of a lack of talent to support him. Like Scholz, Schmidt may never have blossomed on a team of great players, but he had the talent to score 20 points a game in the rugged Big 10 once he was given the opportunity.

Last but not least in the era from 1948-1975 is Nick Weatherspoon. The 6'-6" "Spoon" averaged over 20 points a game for his three-year career, the highest career average of all Illini, and he was named a first team All-American in 1973. He also holds the highest career rebounding average among all Illini. These are the types of statistics that make him deserving of the All-Century team. Weatherspoon was aggressive on the boards and a quick jump shooter who could get his shot off in traffic over taller players. The one thing about Nick that might reduce his vote totals was a rumor that he was, at times, a disruptive influence on the team. This may have been an unfair rumor, but he didn't seem to fit in with his teammates or find happiness in the team effort. Of course, that was a difficult time in our nation's history, and perhaps some behavior issues must be understood from that perspective.

An article on Era Three (1976-Present) will follow shortly.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories