By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Cameron Martinez is not done having fun in high school.
Martinez, MLive’s two-time Michigan High School Football Player of the Year, signed his national letter of intent to play football at Ohio State during a midday event Wednesday at Muskegon High School.
But unlike the rest of the Buckeyes’ incoming class, who are either specializing in only football or have already left their high schools and early-enrolled in Columbus, Martinez is playing a key role for the Big Reds’ state-ranked basketball team.
“I want to enjoy being a high school kid as long as I can,” said Martinez, who rushed for 6,491 yards and 145 touchdowns during his four-year varsity football career, with his first two years at Muskegon Catholic Central and the last two at Muskegon High.
“I really do enjoy playing basketball, and we want to make a long run. We still haven’t played our best game yet.”
Martinez is not the only Division I football signee who chose to honor his commitment on the hardcourt for Muskegon.
Billie Roberts and Jordan Porter, who both will play defensive line at Bowling Green, provide valuable muscle inside for the Big Reds, who are ranked No. 7 in Division 1 in the latest Associated Press poll.
Muskegon is 10-1, with its only loss coming Jan. 4 against visiting Chicago Curie, the top-ranked team in Illinois. In addition to being perfect in Ottawa-Kent Conference Black play, the Big Reds have pulled out tight nonleague wins over Rockford, East Kentwood, Ferndale and, most recently, Saginaw on Saturday at the Redhawk Showcase in Grand Rapids.
Muskegon coach Keith Guy, who also happens to be the stepfather of Martinez, shudders at the thought of not having the three Division I football recruits on his team.
“We do things a little different around here,” said Guy, explaining the symbiotic relationship between the Big Reds’ football and basketball programs. “I am thankful that these guys play football. They bring physical toughness, leadership and just an expectation of winning.”
Martinez, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound guard, averages 3.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, but his big contribution is as the team’s defensive stopper. While in football he electrified the crowd with his offense (Exhibit A: His seven rushing touchdowns in this year’s playoff opener against Marquette), in basketball he brings the fans to their feet by locking down on the opponent’s best player.
“It’s a lot like playing defensive back, where you are guarding someone 1-on-1,” explained Martinez, who is projected as a defensive back and kick returner at Ohio State.
Roberts, a 6-5, 270-pound post player, has been slowed and often sidelined by a lingering stress reaction in his fibula, and is averaging just one point and one rebound per game.
Guy, who led Muskegon to the Class A championship in 2014, said his big man is starting to get healthier, which will be critical as the team chases its ultimate goal of another Finals title.
Porter, a 6-4, 240-pound forward, brings size and versatility off the bench. He averages 2.5 points and four rebounds per game.
“Basketball helps me so much,” said Porter, who is projected as a defensive end and hybrid lineman/linebacker at Bowling Green. “Obviously, it helps me conditioning-wise. But it really helps with footwork and moves.”
Muskegon High School gets more than its fair share of visits from college football coaches, and many ask to watch basketball practice to get better looks at their prospects’ athletic abilities. Those coaches especially like to see how well linemen prospects like Roberts and Porter can move.
“I got my first offer from Indiana in my sophomore year because of basketball,” said Roberts, who went 52-4 during his four-year varsity football career and played in four MHSAA championship games at Ford Field. “They knew I had good size, but they saw that I could run and move and I think that’s why they offered me.”
Roberts is starting to move better every day, according to Guy, and Guy said that’s a big reason for his team’s improved play of late. After a narrow win at Ferndale on Jan. 20, the Big Reds blew out four straight conference opponents before Saturday’s dramatic win over Saginaw.
Guy sported an Ohio State football T-shirt during Wednesday’s signing event, but his mind was on this weekend’s big back-to-back games – Friday at Grand Rapids Union and Saturday at home against Grand Blanc.
He expects Muskegon’s historic Redmond-Potter Gymnasium to be rocking and rolling Saturday, when Grand Blanc, 10-3 and an honorable mention in Division 1, rolls in with standout 6-5 sophomore Ty Rodgers.
Muskegon will counter Rodgers with a veteran team, including five senior starters and one of the state’s best backcourt duos in Jarvis Walker and Vernon Nash III. Walker, a Mr. Basketball candidate, averages 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, while Nash averages 14.8 points.
The X-factor in Saturday’s showdown might be the Big Reds’ “football guys,” who Guy hopes will give his team a physical and mental edge.
Roberts can’t wait.
“There’s nothing like high school,” explained Roberts, flashing a big grin. “I could have early enrolled, but I didn’t want to miss my senior basketball season and prom and all that. I want to stay a kid a little bit longer.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon’s Cameron Martinez, right, walls off a Chicago Curie ball handler during their teams’ Jan. 4 matchup. (Middle) The Big Reds’ Billie Roberts works to gather a loose ball. (Below) Jordan Porter makes a move to the basket. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)