Ball Joins Dad, Uncle Among Elk Rapids Scoring Elite

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

February 26, 2021

Riddle 1: How can a ball get passed from another to another and go through the bottom of the net resulting in three points and three of them appearing on a list on a school banner?

Riddle 2: How can three Balls from Riddle 1 represent one-third of the list?

Answer: Only one ball is a basketball. The other four Balls are all related to each other. They are Kevin Ball, Jeremy Ball, Preston Ball and Spencer Ball.

Kevin and Jeremy are brothers who played basketball during the 1990s for Elk Rapids High School. Kevin is also currently coaching the Elks. Preston and Spencer are also brothers playing today for the Elks. And, Kevin is the father of Preston and Spencer. 

As a result of the basketball being passed by Spencer to Preston in a win over Boyne City last week and Preston subsequently burying a 3-pointer, Preston became the Elks’ ninth member of the 1,000 point club joining his father and uncle.

“It is really cool,” the four-year Elk Rapids starter said of joining his father and uncle. “Three Balls on the list ... I really can’t put it into words ... it’s incredible.”

Elk Rapids boys basketball 2His father agrees.

“As a family we’re very blessed and been very fortunate to have all of our kids have success in athletics,” said the proud father of three children raised with his wife Charlotte. “So to have Preston join us is awesome. 

“We’re excited that Spencer has been a part of it as well,” he conditioned. “To be able to play with his brother is pretty special. With my brother being four years apart, we didn’t have that opportunity until after we graduated.”

Spencer and Preston have also teamed up on the soccer pitch for the Elks, who reached the Division 3 Semifinals this fall. Preston led the Elks in scoring all four years amassing 86 goals and 41 assists. Spencer assisted Preston’s final career goal and the Elks’ only goal in the Semifinal shootout loss to Grand Rapids South Christian.

And Spencer’s very first goal for the Elks was assisted by Preston.

Spencer had hopes all along he’d be the one getting the assist on the 1,000th point. It was on the sophomore’s mind as Preston neared the mark entering the game with the Ramblers. But it didn’t cross his mind in the game until play was stopped to recognize the accomplishment.

“I wanted to, but our whole team wanted to do the same thing,” Spencer noted. “They all wanted the assist on it.  

“I guess it just fell in place.”

And Preston is thrilled it did come from his brother.

“It was pretty cool the way it all turned out,” he said.

Preston currently ranks ninth among the school’s all-time career scorers. Kevin’s 1,188 points are second, and Jeremy is third on the list with 1,171. The senior is not likely to pass top scorer Luke Morrison, but topping his father and uncle may be in reach.

Elk Rapids boys basketball 3Preston recalls watching Morrison join the 1,000 point club. 

“Luke Morrison was kind of the guy I looked up to a lot,” Preston said. “Watching him throughout his career kind of inspired me.

“My dad and uncle being in the 1,000 point club was also something I wanted to join them in and coach (Brett) Graham also in the 1,000 point club,” he continued. “All three of them had a tremendous impact on my game and my life.”

Graham coached the Elks when Preston began his varsity career. Kevin was the JV coach and was happy to see his son move up to the varsity right away. Kevin took over the boys varsity last year when Graham stepped down.  

Kevin wasn’t and still isn’t sure how far Preston would go, but he knew there was a good chance Preston would join him in the 1,000 point club the day he started on the varsity. Preston’s summer camp display proved to coach Graham that he could play varsity, his father said. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

“Once he made (varsity) and once he was in that position to be a starter as a freshman, I knew he had a shot (at the 1,000 point club),” the coach said.

Both coach and son are glad to put the accomplishment behind them and move on. The Elks are 8-1 after Friday’s win over East Jordan.

“I tried to think about it as little as possible,” said the senior who is averaging nearly 20 points, five assists and five rebounds per game. “It felt really good to get past that benchmark.

“Hopefully people kind of stop talking about it for a little bit and I can just focus on the rest of season, play my game and just enjoy it.”

The Balls’ younger sister, Mattea, is an eighth grader. She is expected to carry on the Ball family tradition next year playing basketball for Elk Rapids.

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Preston Ball (3) went over 1,000 career points last week against Boyne City, on a basket assisted by brother Spencer (24), to join the school’s 1,000 point club with father/coach Kevin Ball (far left) and uncle Jeremy Ball (far right). (Middle) The school’s 1,000-point scorers banner will soon include Preston as well. (Below) Preston Ball brings the ball upcourt this season. (Group and banner photos courtesy of Charlotte Ball. Action shot courtesy of the Elk Rapids boys basketball program.)

Longtime Coach Researches Photos to Tell Story of Grand Rapids Sports' Past

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

September 16, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Bob Schichtel always pauses when he comes across the ancient black and white photo long enough to ponder whatever became of the two youngsters adorned in Grand Rapids Union basketball uniforms.

The posed shot shows two players facing each other in a local gymnasium in a photo apparently taken four days after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that launched the country into World War II. Only a handful of fans today would recognize the players' striped, ultra-short shots and simple sleeveless shirts with "Union" emblazed across the front as recognizable basketball uniforms. One holds a battered-looking basketball, while the other looks on. The two players, whose uniform numbers are "4" and "9," aren't really smiling, but still seem as close as any teammates, whether 81 years ago or today.

In fact, it's the look the youngsters share that intrigues Schichtel, whose thankless, pro bono job it is to identify the two players.

"Once you start," said Schichtel, a former longtime Grand Rapids basketball coach, "it's like looking down a deep rabbit hole."

Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. Schichtel works as a volunteer for the Grand Rapids Public Library trying to identify mostly former Grand Rapids City League basketball players from approximately 1938 through the early fifties. The online photos are mostly from the Robinson Photo Studio Collection taken in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Herald newspaper. The library says the unique collection spans some 950 basketball negatives from the entire Robinson/Herald collection that totals well over 900,000 Grand Rapids photos.

While the work – which amounts to a ton of patience combined with a detective ability – can be exhausting, it's still what Schichtel describes as a labor of love. For example, there's the shot of the two still-unidentified Union players. Schichtel looks at the photo and can't help but wonder whatever happened to the kids. Were they exceptional athletes? Did they leave their marks on Grand Rapids history, whether it was in education, politics, business, industry, the arts or another field? He doesn't even know, as in many photos from this era, whether the two entered the military and thus even survived World War II.

Schichtel has searched everywhere for the answers, but has come up short. Too many times, in fact.

Which isn't to say he'll quit looking or chalk up his research as inconsequential. Schichtel said the foremost reason he spends hours on the project is that many of the athletes he identifies deserve the recognition for achievements far beyond basketball. In many cases former City League basketball, football, baseball, track and tennis athletes became the foundation on which Grand Rapids was built. If Schichtel can uncover an old photo which depicts these youngsters during their high school careers, so much the better, he said.

"It's important to recognize Grand Rapids sports history, and I don't know if we've given enough attention to their past," Schichtel said. "They are what got us here, and I'm a firm believer they need to be recognized for it."

Figuring out that history, however, ranges from, at the least, extremely time consuming to – in too many frustrating cases – virtually impossible. The City League was formed in the late 1920s and featured original schools Grand Rapids Central, Creston, South, Union, Ottawa Hills, Catholic Central and Davis Tech. The league was eventually folded into the Ottawa-Kent Conference in 2008. 

"It was a long, evolving league," Schichtel said.

Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. The identification tools available to Schichtel are actually more numerous than most would suspect. For starters, he's formed an impressive database of information by pouring through old City League yearbooks and programs, photos from other collections and microfilm of old newspapers, And then there's also the knowledge gathered by Schichtel himself, a 1968 Grand Rapids Catholic Central graduate. After playing in many old City League gymnasiums, Schichtel went on to compile a 389-197 record in 27 years as the Cougars girls basketball coach. He uses countless City League contacts as both a player and coach to identify athletes. In all, Schichtel taught in the Grand Rapids school system for 34 years.

He also uses the game itself to identify the photos. For instance, he can pinpoint some photos simply by the styles of the uniforms worn by players. He also figures out who is who by other clues such as what the players are doing in the photo. If a player is taking a set shot in the photo, it's likely pre-World War II. The beginnings of the jump shot, or what Schichtel calls "elevation while shooting," is probably mid-1940s. In addition, Schichtel can identify photos through pure basketball athleticism. Players can look a bit awkward in shots from the thirties as compared to players from the late 1940s who were beginning to play with a more obvious flare.

Put all the information together and Schichtel, who has uncovered more than two dozen personal connections to subjects in the photos, believes he has a reasonable shot at identifying them.

Since he signed on with the project, Schichtel figures he's identified about 10 percent of the photos he's viewed. Among the City League athletes he's found shots of Central's John Lavan, who was born in 1890 and played Major League Baseball during the Babe Ruth era and became a military hero who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Creston basketball player Roger Wilkins, an assistant United States attorney general during the Watergate hearings; Art Spoelstra of Godwin, a former NBA player and member of the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame; and Grand Rapids native Bill Cutler, who turned a chance post-World War II meeting with then-American League president Will Harridge into a position as commissioner of the Pacific Coast League,

Schichtel said gaining information through photos on the people who became the bedrock of Grand Rapids should be celebrated.

"I think it's a great approach for the community; they shouldn't be forgotten," Schichtel said. "Who else is going to do this? Why do I do it? I see a certain, for lack of a better word, a nobility. These kids played for the love of game, and they became the “Greatest Generation.” These kids did great things. It's not just, 'Well, there's No. 58,’ in a photo.

"You want to know more about them. That's the real intrigue for me."

Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. Tim Gloege of the Grand Rapids Public Library said the collection of photos – and their identification – is continually growing. As more people log onto the library's website, more people want to either add to the collection or have information that leads to an identification. The library estimates about 1,200 photos are searched monthly. But as time grows, many of the original photos are disintegrating. The library is in a constant state of preservation, Gloege said.

"It's a massive project, and we're working to get as many photos online as possible," he said. "The numbers (of photos) we have are rising pretty significantly as people post them on social media.

"When you think of the past and now, you need to realize these are people, kids who used to play basketball and did other things. The work is hard and very time-intensive, but it brings a whole new dimension to history."

Schichtel said he's "kind of picked the low-hanging fruit" on many of the easy photos to identify. But the work will continue.

"Yes, it can be frustrating," he said. "There are limitations if you want it to be accurate. Sometimes you look at a photo and you know it's not going to happen, and you move on. But this a chance to learn about people who made Grand Rapids what it is. That's important to me."

PHOTOS (Top) Two Grand Rapids Union basketball players stand for a photo taken Dec. 12, 1941. (2) Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. (3) Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. (4) Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. (Historic photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.)