To 1948, Wakefield’s greatest claim to basketball fame was a handful of famous visitors who earned a living through the sport. Wakefield might boast that Dean Smith grew up shooting baskets in town until his old man sent him off to Kemper Military Academy in Missouri. In the dead of the winter Dean could be found shooting baskets at the goal on the garage in his back yard. On one occasion Dean and I shot baskets till I was completely frozen. He didn’t seem to know it was cold outside. Dean Smith has since had 27 buildings named after him in North Carolina. One should wonder if this was the same Dean Smith, but his commitment to the game was certainly right.
Forrest C ‘Fog’ Allen spent one night in the Settles home while on a speaking engagement. He was immensely popular because of his willingness to visit every little town when asked. He was subsequently memorialized with Allen Fieldhouse for his leadership in basketball at Kansas University.
From 1948, John D ‘Blackie’ Lane was the high school coach. He had only recently come off student status at Emporia State Teachers College where he wowed the fans with his play in basketball. Blackie assumed his many sports responsibilities with great enthusiasm. Inwardly he must have harbored serious reservations about basketball in Wakefield at the time, and for good reason. Some history may illustrate.
Unnamed sources report that Dr. James Naismith made his only visit to Wakefield in 1902, shortly after developing the game of basketball. Prior to this visit he had developed eight rules by which the game should be played. After inspecting Wakefield’s Community Building he drafted the ninth rule: “Basketball should never be played in the Community Building in Wakefield, Kansas”. From the turn of the century for the next forty-six years, Naismith was right in every respect except one; that was precisely where we played basketball. That was where Blackie was supposed to develop his basketball program. It was an onerous chore.
This is the Community Building as it stood in 2001. Its survival can be explained only by the intervention of divine providence or a perverse streak in the Wakefield Historic Society.
The building’s one bright spot and only good source of light were the huge plate glass windows on either side of the double doors. They have been removed, in effect eliminating the only bright spot in the building. After the school burned in 1945, the Community Building became the school for activities like orchestra and band practice, school assemblies, music programs, class plays, and graduation. It served these purposes adequately, and it was only in basketball that it became such a miserable place.
Like a large mobile home, it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The front doors opened directly under the east goal. The west goal was preferred by the players, who knew it was better to bump with a cheer leader than run into a door. Vance Lumb used to practice bumping gently into cheer leaders. He knew they were the fairer sex, and agreed they had no business playing basketball on both ends of the court. His favorite target, Mariwilla Myers, spent her time with the cheerleaders. She and Vance disagreed about girls playing both ends of the court, but we all noticed when Vance was around she didn’t mind a little bumping.
A ceiling-mounted gas heater with blower was located in the southeast corner of the building. It blew hot air in your face going east and on your back going west. Making shots at the east end required you to calculate the wind direction and velocity prior to releasing the ball. There were no other fans for circulating air generally or for evaporating sweat or tears. Anything you might want, except fresh air, was located in the rear of the building.
The court featured five pairs of single bulb light fixtures with protective wire cages attached to the 14 foot ceiling. This provided illumination one level above that required for a dungeon. All shots taken from the corner or beyond the free-throw line with a reasonable trajectory had a 50% chance of hitting either the ceiling or a light fixture. Few authorities know that the three-point field goal originated in Wakefield. Any basket which first bounced off the ceiling was scored three points, and was a far more difficult shot than in today’s game. Most exciting of all, however, was the five-point field goal which had to bounce off a light fixture. Our opponents objected to this scoring system, claiming they had an inadequate opportunity to practice these shots. Vance thought you got three points for bumping into cheerleaders, and he may have.
As the court was surrounded by people, it was possible to run into anyone, any time, any place, when you least expect it. Refreshments, a water fountain, one restroom, and stairs to the balcony all combined to make the building a complete pain in the rear. It was necessary for the teams to come pre-dressed for the game and leave sweaty when it was over because there were no dressing rooms, no lockers, and no showers. Like the cowboy’s horse, we knew what it was like to be “rode hard and put up wet”.
Another notable visitor to the area was basketball official ‘Pesky’ Eaton, who could draw a crowd to a bad basketball game. Had he seen our facility in advance, he might have refused to officiate. Pesky was best known for his distinctive style of officiating, particularly following flagrant fouls. On seeing an egregious violation, Pesky would blow his whistle, run across the court to the vicinity of the violator, then jump two feet into the air. On landing on both feet he would point directly at the violator, and shout “YOU CAN’T DO THAT”. With this public reprimand, whatever the violator had done, it was unlikely he would ever do it again.
On a recent visit to Wakefield I was startled to see the old Community Building still standing, and could not resist taking a picture of the building which brought back so many memories. Immediately thereafter the acutely painful experience playing basketball in the building returned. At that moment I remembered Pesky, and was compelled to follow in his footsteps. So I honked my horn, got out of the car and ran directly at the building jumping three feet into the air. On landing I pointed directly at the building and shouted “YOU CAN’T PLAY BASKETBALL IN THAT BUILDING”. Those watching were sure I was crazy. Those who were there in the 40s would probably agree.