'Retro' Award Rewards 1st Hoops Legends

January 4, 2017

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

Before the start of the MHSAA’s 2009 Boys Basketball finals, Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan director Tom Hursey stopped by my seat at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center to say hello. 

Our chat would alter a decade of my Michigan winters.

Somewhere between hello and goodbye, our chat included conversation on one of my favorite BCAM ventures.  In 1981, the Michigan High School Basketball Coaches Association, as BCAM was once known, named its first “Mr. Basketball.” I was two years out of high school when Lansing Eastern’s Sam Vincent edged Eric Turner of Flint Central for that first award. Designed to honor the state’s top senior, the award was named in honor of Detroit Free Press writer Hal Schram. “The Swami,” as he was nicknamed, Schram began covering high school sports for the newspaper in 1945.

The 2009 selection was 6-foot-9 Derrick Nix of Detroit Pershing. I mentioned my affinity for the Mr. Basketball program to Tom, but stated that I always thought it a crime that the award didn’t start years earlier, at least when Michigan hoop fans became infatuated with a kid nicknamed “Magic.”

Earvin Johnson prepped at Lansing Everett and was the talk of the state in basketball circles before becoming a household name during his time at Michigan State and with the Los Angeles Lakers. Earlier this year, ESPN named Johnson the greatest point guard to ever play the game. Tom noted that “Magic” was really the inspiration for the “Mr. Basketball” award. 

Then I posed a question to Tom. 

What about creating a “new” award, designed to honor those greats from the past?

As my hobby of researching the history of high school sports in Michigan and beyond had grown over the years, I’d found the Great Lakes state had always produced shining stars on the basketball court. The crime was that the “Mr. Basketball” award hadn’t been launched many years before.

Harry Kipke, was perhaps the state’s first true basketball star. He won 12 varsity letters at Lansing Central and guided the basketball team to the semifinal round of the state tournament in 1920 as a senior, before heading to the University of Michigan where he earned letters in football, basketball and baseball. After stops at the University of Missouri and Michigan State, Kipke would serve as Michigan’s football coach, guiding the Wolverines to two national gridiron championships.

As a junior, the basketball antics of Grand Rapids Union’s Royal “Red” Cherry captured the state’s attention when he led Union to the state basketball championship. Considered the best all-around player of the tournament, Cherry led the team to a second consecutive title as a senior. He, too, attended Michigan, earning laurels on the basketball court and the baseball diamond.

Many other legends of the hardcourt populated Michigan’s past: Saginaw’s Ernie Thompson; the Burton brothers, M.C. and Ed, of Muskegon Heights; Detroit Pershing’s Ralph Simpson and Spencer Haywood; Dave DeBusschere of Detroit Austin Catholic; Willie Betts and Blanche Martin of River Rouge; Ron Kramer of East Detroit; Benton Harbor’s Chet Walker and L.C. Bowen.

After a few weeks of research, discussion and thought, Tom agreed, and over the next several months the framework for the “Retro Mr. Basketball” project was developed

The idea was to try and mimic the current model. Only seniors, and their high school basketball careers, should be considered. While any “senior” player would be eligible, a ballot of the state’s elite would comprise the candidates for the award. Like their modern-day equivalents, where the events of life that would follow high school graduation had yet to occur, post-high school life would be disregarded as much as possible for “Retro” candidates.

Finally, the program would follow a 10-year arc, kicking off in the spring of 2010. This December marks my eighth year of research tied to the mission. Two more will follow.

Since the Schram “Mr. Basketball” award began in 1981, the “Retro” award would honor basketball players from the years 1920 through 1980.  That first year, a ballot comprised of players from the years that ended in zero - 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970 and 1980 – was created. A senior for each year would be named the winner of the “Retro” award. That meant with the selection of “Mr. Basketball” and the six “Retro” winners for the years 1929, 1939, 1949, 1959, 1969 and 1979, scheduled for the spring of 2019, BCAM would be able to point to a combined list of Mr. Basketballs totaling 100 of the state’s finest.

To identify each year’s award winner, a committee of veteran BCAM members was formed to study a ballot of candidates and select a winner.

Technology, combined with scanning old-fashioned reels of microfilm, has helped with research of potential candidates.  In those very early years, personal statistics were rarely kept. Rather, an assessment of a player’s skills, tied to the position he played, often served as a means to identify an area’s top athletes. Tournament play was often the only time an athlete’s abilities were on display to a larger audience. Scouring newspaper articles for all-tournament teams and yearbooks for additional details and years of study helped uncover the state’s top senior players. Understanding the game and its evolution was important. The center jump after each basket emphasized the importance of a tall, skilled center in those games played before the winter of 1938-39.

Beginning in 1935, all-state teams began to appear in state newspapers. Eventually, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Times, the Detroit News, The Associated Press and even United Press International became involved in identifying the state’s top basketball players and naming all-state squads. Much work is involved in parsing the 15,811 names (not including honorable mentions) found in those lists. When duplicates are removed, the names of 8,430 prep players remain spread over the 61 years that mark the “Retro” field of possible candidates. 

Research to identify seniors, players named by multiple media outlets, and mini biographies are compiled for the top players. The field of candidates is then narrowed to 10 or fewer. Over state championship weekend, the ballots are brought to the BCAM committee for discussion, and finalists are named for each year. Finally, one player is named for each eligible season.

Like the modern day award, the selection may create some controversy. Some amazing ballplayers have landed on the finalist list, but were denied the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball award: Traverse City’s Dan Majerle, Roy Marble of Flint Beecher, Detroit Southwestern’s Jalen Rose, Detroit Northern’s Derrick Coleman and Draymond Green of Saginaw are among a few.

The same applies to the “Retro” list. Fennville’s Richie Jordan, Robert “Bubbles” Hawkins from Detroit Pershing, Dennis Bankey of Detroit St. Thomas, Bill Chmielewski of Detroit Redeemer, Highland Park’s Terry Duerod and Detroit Kettering’s Lindsay Hairston all have been honored on the finalist lists, but fell short of the top prize.

In many cases, Michigan was loaded with prep talent – it’s tough to name Roy Marble Mr. Basketball when Flint Northwestern’s Glen Rice was on the same ballot, or Rose the state’s best when Country Day’s Chris Webber was another candidate. While the “Fennville Flash” amazed the state with his eye-popping statistics in 1965, Bowen led Benton Harbor to back-to-back Class A titles. Named an all-state basketball player as a junior, Hairston grew an inch and improved his game as a senior, but Pontiac Central’s “Campy” Russell dominated headlines that season, and was the “Retro” Mr. Basketball selection for 1971.

In some cases, it’s a challenge to look at the final balloting results without judging selections based on future basketball success. That certainly is the case with 2008. That season, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award went to 6-foot guard Brad Redford, who posted incredible back-to-back high school seasons at Frankenmuth. Runner-up to the award that year was Saginaw’s Green. Considering Green’s success in the NBA, that’s hard for many to believe.

While the debates may never be settled, the beauty of Schram and “Retro” Mr. Basketball balloting can be found in the argument. With those disputes, people recall, research and learn about Michigan’s incredible prep basketball past.

The remaining three years of the “Retro” project will include many more legends of Michigan High School basketball, including, among others, DeBusschere, Walker, Haywood and Simpson.

This season, that “Magic” kid will be one of the names among the mix. Forty years after high school graduation, will he earn the honor that eluded him in high school, only because the honor didn’t yet exist?

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Everett’s Earvin Johnson drives around a defender during his celebrated high school career. (Middle) Grand Rapids Union’s Royal “Red” Cherry. (Below) Detroit Austin Catholic’s Dave DeBusschere drives to the hoop as an opponent gets in position to rebound. (Photos from MHSAA and Ron Pesch historical files.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)