By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Boys basketball is back and a bit earlier than usual this winter.
We’ll again begin every week with a “Breslin Bound” look at the most significant results from the week that was, a look at a pair of teams in every division that are making noise and then a quick glance at games to watch in the week to come. (Changes to keep in mind this season – in addition to the boys season starting and ending a week before the girls, the tournament is now organized by Divisions, 1-4, instead of the traditional Class A-B-C-D.)
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Benton Harbor 67, Dowagiac 66 – The reigning Class B champion held on in a rematch of last season’s Regional Final, which saw Dowagiac’s season end at 17-6.
2. Detroit Martin Luther King 54, River Rouge 51 – Hopes are high for both of these programs, as River Rouge made the Class B Semifinals a year ago and King was a Regional finalist in Class A; they now play in Divisions 2 and 1, respectively.
3. Grand Rapids Christian 60, Wyoming Godwin Heights 59 – These two likely will be ranked among the best in Division 2 when Associated Press polls begin, and the Eagles own the upper hand after avenging last season’s four-point loss.
4. Sterling Heights Stevenson 59, Clarkston 53 – The Wolves graduated a ton and saw one of the state’s winningest coaches retire after back-to-back MHSAA titles, but beating the reigning Class A champion to start the season still had to be huge for the Titans.
5. Ypsilanti Lincoln 80, Ann Arbor Huron 69 – Last season, Lincoln lost by 20 to Huron, which finished 16-6. But the Railsplitters enjoyed the upper hand this time in the high school debut of freshman sensation Emoni Bates.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
• Marquette (2-0) – The Redmen started the season with a statement, downing Brighton 63-58 in overtime on the first day of the Petoskey Tip-Off Classic and then coming back the next day to beat the host 53-31. Marquette was 15-6 a year ago after opening with a 17-point loss to the Northmen, who went on to finish 19-3.
• Portage Northern (2-0) – The Huskies finished 6-16 last season, with a pair of regular-season losses to Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West champion St. Joseph. Perhaps an upset of the Bears in the District opener was a sign of things to come; Northern downed Coloma (18-3 last season) in its opener 71-66 and then St. Joseph 61-48.
• Clare (2-0) – The reigning Jack Pine Conference runner-up looks to chase Sanford Meridian again after opening with a 58-56 win over Beal City and then taking a league win 53-48 over Roscommon. Clare reached its District Final last season, when it finished 19-4.
• Essexville Garber (2-0) – After closing last season with five defeats in their final seven games to finish 11-11, the Dukes are roaring into this winter. They started by avenging last winter’s loss to Saginaw Nouvel with a 61-53 win and then outlasted neighbor Bay City John Glenn 44-42.
• Ironwood (2-0) – The Red Devils, coming off a 12-9 finish last winter, edged Bessemer 54-52 in the opener and won more comfortably against Bayfield (Wis.), 71-58, to close the week. Both games had notable highlights – the first was won on a halfcourt shot, while the second saw Griffen Revoyr score 45 points (as reported by The Upbeat).
• Sanford Meridian – The reigning Jack Pine Conference champion opened with a 58-49 win over Division 1 Saginaw Heritage, and then started league play with an 81-21 victory over Gladwin. The Mustangs were 21-4 a year ago and reached the Class C Quarterfinals.
• Brimley (2-0) – The Bays are rallying right away after last season’s 20-4 finish and run to the Class D Regional Finals. They started last week by avenging that Regional championship game loss with a 71-49 win over Cedarville, and continued with an 81-49 victory over DeTour. That first win could make Brimley the team to beat in the Eastern U.P. Athletic Conference after finishing second to Cedarville a year ago.
• Engadine (2-0) – The Eagles have improved from two to 12 to 15 wins over the last three seasons, and they’re off to the right start as they try to build on last winter’s 15-6 finish. Engadine scored big in a couple of opening week wins, beating Rock Mid-Peninsula 89-50 and Newberry 91-73. The Eagles also play in the EUPAC.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Friday – Dansville (1-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (0-0) – The Central Michigan Athletic Conference is loaded with small-school contenders, and Dansville is a popular pick to go far in Division 3 – and beat the Pirates by a point in a Class Regional Semifinal when these two last met.
Friday – Iron Mountain (2-0) at Calumet (2-0) – These two both were league champions last season and are off to fast starts again; when they last met nine months ago the Mountaineers emerged with a 56-44 win and Class C Regional title.
Friday – St. Joseph (1-1) at Stevensville Lakeshore (2-0) – These two finished first and second, respectively, in the SMAC West last season with the Bears winning their games by five and 13.
Friday – River Rouge (1-1) at West Bloomfield (1-0) – The Lakers stumbled to finish last winter but could be back in the mix and show it by avenging last season’s two-point overtime loss to the Panthers.
Saturday – Holland West Ottawa (1-0) at Grand Rapids Catholic Central (0-0) – Last season’s Class A runner-up faces the runner-up from Class B in the 7 p.m. game of GRCC’s Winter Breakout.
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PHOTO: Lansing Everett and Shamar Howard (0) kicked off this season with a big road win last week at Grand Blanc. (Photo by Terry Lyons.)
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."
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.
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."
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.)