Wooden Was City's First Professional Star
John Wooden has been adequately recognized for his high school and college playing careers, and lavishly praised for his college coaching career. He's a legend in Indiana for the former, and a legend across America for the latter.
There's another segment of Wooden's basketball life, however, that is unknown to most fans and underappreciated by many of the remaining ones, yet it's one that is no less indicative of his talent and love for the game. He was a standout professional player, too, making it that much more appropriate that he'll be recognized when the Pacers play Milwaukee in the next Hickory Night game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Jan. 8.
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Wooden, in fact, was Indiana's first professional basketball star, the centerpiece of the first pro team that lasted a significant length of time within the state. He was a part-time player performing a part-time job, but he was the primary reason the compensated version of the game took hold in a state that had caught on early to the hysteria it could inflict.
Wooden was the best high school player in Indiana at Martinsville, which played for the state championship all three of his varsity seasons and won it his junior year in 1927. He went on to become the first player to be named a first team consensus All-America all three of his varsity seasons at Purdue, where he set the Big Ten Conference's career scoring record and led the Boilermakers to a consensus voted-upon national championship as a senior in 1932.
The challenge of appreciating Wooden's playing career is posed by the lack of visual evidence. Purdue has a scrap of film that shows him dribbling the ball toward the camera in a non-game setting, but there's nothing of him actually playing. Newspaper articles, statistics and awards are all we have to reveal his talent.
It doesn't help that he played virtually all of his career in an era when a jump ball was conducted at center court after every made basket, limiting the scoring opportunities of the best players, and lessening the impact of their athleticism. Seasons were shorter, too, and a shot clock and 3-point line weren't yet a figment of anyone's imagination. He scored just 351 points in his three varsity seasons at Purdue, including a record 154 as a senior.
Still, Wooden is widely regarded as one of the greatest guards in the first half of the 20th Century. He was a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame's second induction class in 1960 as a player, four years before he won his first NCAA championship as UCLA's coach and 13 years before a second induction into the Hall as a coach. But while his playing reputation was based almost entirely on his collegiate career, he didn't stop playing upon graduation from Purdue. He was back in uniform the following winter as a member of the Indianapolis Kautskys.
Frank Kautsky, proprietor of a grocery store on South Madison Ave, owned and managed the team. He had begun sponsoring an amateur team the year before, which surprisingly to him won a state tournament at the end of the season, which left him flushed with enthusiasm for taking on bigger challenges in the fledgling world of professional basketball.
While at Purdue, Wooden set the Big Ten's career scoring record (Photo: Pacers)
His decision likely was based at least in part on his ability to woo Wooden. He had competition, however, as one would expect given Wooden's national status as a college player. Wooden led a team of former Purdue players in exhibition games against George Halas' Chicago Bruins professional basketball team in the Spring of his senior year at Purdue, and there was talk of playing for the Bruins the following season for $100 per game. The New York Celtics also offered him $5,000 per year to join their elite barnstorming team, at a time when some school teachers were earning less than $1,000 per year.
Wooden was tempted, but had been an honor student at Purdue, ranking 19th in his class of nearly 5,000 students. He had studied to become a teacher, and wanted to coach as well. His coach at Purdue, Ward Lambert, convinced him to follow up on those plans, rather than selling out for an uncertain pro basketball career that wouldn't allow him to utilize his education. He ultimately accepted a job at a high school in Dayton, Ky., for a starting salary of $1,500 per year.
That allowed him to play for the Kautskys on weekends, and when he was able to make the 115-mile drive to Indianapolis. His payment of $50 per game was more than he made per week at his day job, where he was athletic director, assistant football coach, head basketball, baseball and track coach, supervisor of the physical education department for grades 1-12 and, oh yeah, an English teacher.
Wooden had lost his life savings - $909.05 – when the banks collapsed under the weight of the Depression, so he was starting his financial life from scratch after he married his high school sweetheart, Nell in the summer of '32. He didn't have a car when he began his teaching career, so at first he caught a ride to the Kautskys' games with a friend, and paid him for his trouble. Wooden recalled receiving travel expenses on top of his per-game payment, and working on lesson plans in the car.
Every dollar he got from Kautsky was vital.
"We could really use that $50," he said in later years.
The Kautskys, who were members of the nearly-formed National Basketball League, played their first game on Thursday, Nov. 24, Thanksgiving evening, against the 66ers in Kokomo. The Kautskys won, 37-18. Wooden scored seven points and, according to Indianapolis newspaper accounts "played a good floor game." Kokomo was led by future Indiana University coach Branch McCracken with six.
The Kautskys didn't make their home debut until Sunday, Dec. 11. About 1,000 fans showed up at what was then called the National Guard Armory at 711 N. Pennsylvania, filling it to roughly one-third capacity to watch them defeat the Fort Wayne Firemen, 31-17. Seats sold for 40 cents on the portable bleachers and 25 cents in the balcony, although children under 10 were admitted for free. It was a humble return to action in his native state for Wooden, who probably found the competition less challenging than at Purdue. He scored 15 points, the only player to reach double figures, and "showed spectacular form in dribbling and scoring," according to one newspaper account.
Wooden took a teaching job at South Bend Central High School for the 1934-35 season, lured by a salary of $2,400. The drives to Indianapolis stretched to 150 miles, but the income was still meaningful, and he still enjoyed playing. It wasn't as fun or as organized as college basketball had been, but he was playing against some of the best players in the country, particularly when the Kautskys took on the touring "Negro" teams, such as the New York Rens and the Savoy Big Five out of Chicago.
It's difficult to compare Wooden's performance to others of the era because statistical averages were not kept in most of the seasons in which he played. Leagues came and went, and there were no all-star games or all-league teams to identify the elite players. The only evidence of his talent are box scores and minimal newspaper accounts of some of the games.
Wooden, for example, scored 19 points in a 62-40 victory in Toledo one night. The newspaper account mentioned that his "speedy play bewildered the home team." He once scored 18 points in a 44-43 victory over the Big Five in a benefit game in Martinsville. Another time, he scored 14 of his team's 30 points against a team from Dayton.
Kautsky eventually paid him $100 per game, and once awarded him a bonus of $100 for hitting 100 consecutive free throws over the course of two seasons early in his career with the team. The streak, which ended at 134, reached 100 in a game in Indianapolis. According to Wooden's memory, Kautsky stopped the game and presented him with a $100 bill at midcourt. The newspaper accounts didn't record it, but Wooden was definite in his memory of it and Kautsky's children recalled it, too.
"It was in my hands for about one second before Nell took it from me," Wooden joked in later years. No wonder. That bonus exceeded two weeks of his salary.
Wooden barely got to experience a major change that would have enhanced his scoring ability. The jump ball rule was eliminated for the 1937-38 season, meaning the ball was taken out of bounds after made field goals and awarded to the other team, drastically increasing the pace of play. He switched teams that season, joining the Whiting Ciesars, a northern Indiana team named after owner Eddie Ciesar, an auto dealer. The long drives to play for the Kautskys were taking a toll on his body and work schedule, so he opted for convenience.
He led the Ciesars with 14 points in a victory over the Kautskys in December that season and went on to lead his new team to a 12-3 record by averaging 11 points, second in the league. He averaged 16.5 points in two playoff games, best in the league.
He didn't last long with the Ciesars, though. During semester break the following season, Wooden and teammate Bill Perigo drove through a snowstorm to get to a game in Pittsburgh that was to be the first of a three-game road trip. The travel conditions prevented them from arriving until halftime. The two led a comeback victory, but after the game Ciesar insisted on paying them only half of their game salary. Wooden held out, saying he and Perigo had risked life and limb to get to the game and wouldn't play in the next two unless they were paid the full amount, including travel expenses. Ciesar relented, but after returning to South Bend, Wooden quit the Ciesars and rejoined the Kautskys, who by now had dubbed themselves the "All-Americans."
Only briefly, however. He scored 13 points in a 44-33 victory over the Ciesars on Christmas Day in 1938, and followed the next night with 10 points in a 68-48 victory over the barnstorming New York Celtics before an estimated crowd of 4,000 at Butler Fieldhouse. He then scored 13 points in a 52-38 win over Sheboygan before 3,500 fans at Butler on Jan. 2, a game which propelled the team into first place in the re-formed NBL. He suffered a pulled muscle in the game, however. His name appeared in just two more box scores, scoring a free throw in one and a field goal in the other, and then disappeared.
Without fanfare, without even a mention in the newspapers, his professional playing career had ended. He was 28 years old at the time, and immersed in his teaching and coaching position in South Bend. The miles – on his legs and cars – were adding up, and were becoming a questionable sacrifice to make for a part-time gig. Two years earlier, Kautsky, in a newspaper column, had quoted Wooden as saying, "If I had known pro basketball is as tough as it is, Frank, I'd never have come into the game."
A new life in basketball was just beginning, however. He left his job in South Bend to join the Navy in 1943, then took a coaching and teaching position at Indiana State in 1946. Two years later he became the coach at UCLA, where he would win 10 national championships, including seven in a row, before retiring in 1975.
All in all, he was the best high school player of his era, the best college player of his era, and the best professional within the state boundaries. He also was a highly successful high school and college coach in Indiana before moving to California.
If Hickory has a face, it surely resembles Wooden.
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