By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
If games are played as scheduled, this week will be a great appetizer for what’s on the way for Michigan high school basketball fans.
The weather isn’t exactly making it easy for the state’s boys teams to finish up their regular-season schedules. But the rewards are in full view now – league championships for some, league tournament titles as well, and for everyone a fresh start with the beginning of District play in two weeks.
Week in Review
The countdown of last week’s five most intriguing results:
1. Sterling Heights Stevenson 54, Roseville 45 – In the final game before the league tournament, the Titans avenged an earlier 10-point loss to Roseville and in doing so earned a shared Macomb Area Conference Red championship with the Panthers.
2. Mattawan 48, Kalamazoo Central 47 (OT) – This matched up the first-place teams from the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West and East, respectively, after Central finished first and Mattawan second in the former East configuration last season.
3. Belleville 89, Westland John Glenn 86 – A three-team race in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East might be down to just two with this Belleville win, setting up one of this week’s top matchups discussed below.
4. Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills 76, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer 71 (3OT) – Kenowa Hills likely fell out of the Ottawa-Kent Conference Black title mix by losing to Jenison in its next game, but this win over Reeths-Puffer reset the top of the standings for another of this week’s most anticipated games.
5. Kalamazoo Hackett 69, Schoolcraft 61 – Hackett can clinch the Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley title with its next win after finishing a sweep of Schoolcraft, which hasn’t lost to anyone else this winter.
With an eye toward March, here are two teams in each division making sparks:
• Detroit Martin Luther King (15-2) – The Crusaders shared the Detroit Public School League Midtown championship with Cass Tech, their only losses this season to the Technicians in their first of two meetings and then a month ago to now-clinched Oakland Activities Association Red champion Clarkston. King could see Cass Tech a third time in this week’s PSL Tournament final – but first faces West-Town champion Renaissance in the semifinal Tuesday.
• Linden (15-1) – From 5-16 to 9-14 to 13-8 and now this season’s success, Linden has been building. Friday’s 48-35 win over 2018 Flint Metro League co-champ Flushing gave the Eagles a share of this season’s league title – its first conference championship since 1996.
• Harper Woods Chandler Park (14-0) – The Eagles are among three undefeated teams left in Division 2 and won the Charter School Conference title outright after sharing the championship last season. A 51-37 win over 2018 Class C champion Detroit Edison last week cemented Chandler Park’s status as a team to watch over the next month.
• River Rouge (15-1) – The Panthers have won 14 straight since suffering their only loss, by three to King on Dec. 1. River Rouge has clinched a share of the Michigan Metro Athletic Conference Blue title, its third straight league championship and an anticipated first step as the team looks to build on last season’s Class B Semifinals appearance.
• Erie-Mason (12-2) – The Eagles clinched a share of the Lenawee County Athletic Association title Friday with an 80-52 win over reigning champ Hillsdale, and after finishing second to the Hornets last season. Erie-Mason has improved as well on last season’s overall 11-10 record, and with two more wins would tie its most for a season this decade.
• Unionville-Sebewaing (13-0) – The Patriots actually improved to 14-0 with a four-overtime win over Tri-Valley Conference West leader Saginaw Valley Lutheran on Monday. USA is one of six undefeated teams in Division 3 and atop the Greater Thumb Conference West standings as it works for a third straight perfect run through the league schedule.
• Adrian Lenawee Christian (11-3) – The Cougars do not play in a league, but should be intriguing once District play begins. Friday’s 13-point loss to Division 2 Michigan Center was a great game for postseason preparation – as were the other defeats against Division 3 contender Quincy and Ohio’s Toledo Christian. Ten of Lenawee Christian’s wins have come by double digits, with the single-digit victory a one-pointer over Division 1 Monroe.
• Pittsford (14-2) – The Wildcats can clinch the Southern Central Athletic Association East title with a win over second-place Camden-Frontier on Thursday, and after defeating two-loss Athens 64-50 on Friday. Since falling to Britton-Deerfield in the season opener, Pittsford’s only other loss came to still-unbeaten Bellevue.
Be on the lookout for results of these games coming up:
Tuesday – Muskegon (12-3) at Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (14-2) – This could end up deciding the O-K Black title; Reeths-Puffer won the first meeting 63-59 in overtime, and the Big Reds are 8-0 since that heartbreaker.
Tuesday – Belleville (11-5) at Wayne Memorial (13-3) – The winner will clinch a share of the KLAA East title with only one more league game remaining for both teams.
Tuesday – Detroit Martin Luther King (15-2) vs. Detroit Renaissance (14-3) at Cass Tech – Renaissance finished a perfect run through the PSL West-Town and is seeking to make the league tournament final after falling by two in last season’s semi.
Friday – Williamston (16-1) at Haslett (11-3) – With Williamston arguably the Lansing area’s best boys team, Haslett has been forgotten a bit but can move into a first-place tie in the Capital Area Activities Conference Red if it can avenge a six-point January loss.
Saturday – River Rouge (15-1) at Benton Harbor (16-1) – Division 2 has 12 teams with one or fewer losses this season, and these two certainly are in the mix to meet again next month at Breslin Center with the championship on the line. Benton Harbor beat River Rouge 60-49 during last season’s Semifinals.
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PHOTO: Negaunee's Drew DuShane (23) drives to the basket as Ishpeming's Jacob Kugler (44) defends during Friday's 56-48 Miners win. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)
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.)