BAINBRIDGE, PART I: The Pointers who belonged to us all

Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Several former Bainbridge basketball players met this fall to discuss their time spent as Pointers.
Jerry Sutherlin photo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was originally published in the Indiana Basketball History Magazine in November of 2017. Today’s installment covers Bainbridge basketball through the 1966 season; the article will conclude on Friday starting with the 1967 season.

Putnam County, Indiana, is longer than it is broad, a loose collection of farming communities 30 miles west of Indianapolis with Greencastle as its seat of local government. A Monon train approaching from the south would enter Putnam County at Cloverdale and rumble its way north through Putnamville and Greencastle until the engineer spied the Tree of Hope, rising like a sentinel along the main line just north of Brick Chapel. The next community—first in the vastness of the Tipton Till Plain, where the tracks met Big Walnut Creek—was Bainbridge.

In the late fall of 1965, Bainbridge was a community of slightly more than 600 Hoosiers, with U.S. 36 as its main thoroughfare. It featured, among other enterprises, a grain elevator, a diner, a barbershop, a grocery store, a gasoline station . . . and a high school. The school’s purple-and-gold athletic teams were called the Pointers, after the hunting dog that sniffs out game and points toward it with his nose, often with one front paw raised. Their boys’ basketball team—there was no girls’ team in those pre-title IX days—was on the verge of something special, but few people besides their young coach knew it.

His first Pointers’ team had struggled, managing only six wins out of 20 starts. But the Bainbridge B-team emerged as conference champions, and with a few holdovers from the varsity, 24-year-old Pat Rady knew that good times were likely ahead. He doubted, though, that he was experienced enough to do justice to the task, and considered resigning. But principal Glen Steele, Archie Chadd of the school’s Advisory Board and school trustee Jewell Blue, all expressed their confidence in the young coach, as did members of the team. So Rady agreed to stay. “I spent that summer talking to coaches,” he recalls. “I talked to coaches who had won the State. I asked them how they got their teams ready for the tournament. Not so much Xs and Os, but how they handled their kids.” Thus, a foundation had been laid for one of the most successful coaching careers in the state.

What emerged in the next two years was like the proverbial comet streaking across the night sky. Borrowing the words of an Indianapolis News sportswriter, the Bainbridge Pointers belonged to all of us. Their story included a cast of 16 small high schools that no longer exist, swallowed by consolidation; Bainbridge High School itself, with slightly over 200 students, closed in 1969. But it is also the story of a charmed hoops life in Putnam County, a two-year period when the eye of the basketball hurricane stretched from Bainbridge to Cloverdale, and in 1966 included Fillmore and Greencastle for good measure.

It was a success story, to be sure. But it wasn’t an isolated success story. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, for success on the court was no stranger to Bainbridge. Today no fewer than five members of the Hall of Fame, including Archie Chadd, have a Bainbridge connection. Ask fans old enough to remember and they will tell you about Jeff Blue, the All-Star who went on to play for Butler University and the Boston Celtics; the 26-0 regional champs team he starred on in 1959 was gleaned from a student body of 146. There were a total of 12 sectional and 11 county tourney champions in the school’s history, in addition to a champion of the 1932 Wabash Valley Tournament, a mid-season, interstate, two-week playoff with a massive field of teams—125 at its zenith—second only to the state tournament itself. (That particular club played through the grief they felt over the untimely death of a teammate named Lyman Boohr.) The successes sprang from the environment, nourished and encouraged by the citizens of the town and the people of Monroe Township. Their coaching ranks included not only Pat Rady but also Elbert Allen, L.F. Lonsbury (of the Wabash Valley champions), Frank Pruitt, Dick Cummins, Ed Longfellow (of the unbeaten 1959 regional champs), and Kurt Grass, to name a few. Their fans knew and appreciated heads-up play. In a way that’s increasingly rare today, even in the state of Indiana, Bainbridge had a love affair with the game of basketball.

That love came to full flower repeatedly, and it happened again in the late fall of 1965. It was a period captured in grainy black-and-white home movies, a time when neckties were stylishly thin, eyeglasses were either tortoise-shell or black horn-rimmed, and young ladies wore bouffant hairdos, stiff with hairspray. Hair length among the players was still above the ears, crew cuts and flat tops. Telephone party lines were common. The war in Vietnam was escalating, and seniors everywhere wondered how world events would affect them after graduation. But the gymnasiums were packed with fans, friends, and family; the air smelled of sweat and popcorn, and hoop dreams were alive. At game’s end Bainbridge fans flocked to the Bon-Ton Diner (where challenger-seeking wrestler Gorgeous George once made an appearance) for hamburgers, chili, and cherry Cokes, then rehashed the action next morning at McCall’s Barber Shop, where players got free haircuts—provided the team had won. Like most small schools, the gym at Bainbridge had no balcony. It featured a large, wooden cut-out of Clem, the pointer dog mascot, high along the wall to one side of the stage, where kids sat cross-legged at the edge and the pep band beat out popular tunes while the teams warmed up. It was crowded and loud, even when the home team struggled. (“There was very little parking at the school,” former player Jim Hanks remembers, “so people parked on the streets in town. The streets were packed with cars.”) But November 1965 ushered in a new season, and the next two years would be very different.

The Pointers posted consecutive records of 23-3 in 1966 and ‘67. They lost six players to graduation in 1966, twice as many as Milan lost in 1953. And they did more than rebuild. They reloaded. The players were not especially tall—freshman center Fred Cox stood tallest at 6’6”—but they were fast and smart. And they were tenacious. In the words of their coach, retired now after 51 seasons coaching at six Indiana high schools, “We started pressing (1-2-1-1, full court) as soon as we got off the bus.” The other team either broke the press repeatedly or they did not. Most often they did not.

Take, for example, the 1967 sectional semifinal game versus North Salem, reported by The Greencastle Banner-Graphic: “Larry Steele was the big man in the first quarter for the Pointers as, taking his favorite shot from along the side line, he connected for 12 points.… Ron Rossok, working well under the bucket, chipped in with 9.” The press produced an 8-1 lead that became a 27-11 score at the end of the first quarter. Bainbridge won going away, 111-47.

A lot of points, you say? Yes, even by Bainbridge standards. But their two-year average was slightly over 87 points per game—20 more than the 1959 outfit—with a single game high of 123. If you gave the Pointers an opportunity to score, they usually obliged. But effort was the key for Coach Rady. “I don’t look at the score,” he says. “I look at the effort. And, boy, you better be giving us some effort.” The Pointers seldom let him down. “We always worked harder in practice than we had to in games,” Norm Steele remarks. “Coach always said that if we could survive the practice the games would be easy. . . . We were a fast-breaking team and I believe we wore most of our opponents out. Our main offense was fast breaks.”

And the North Salem game was typical not only in its frenetic rhythm and prodigious point total, but also in the level of competition the Pointers faced. “Bainbridge’s disadvantage is in not playing a major league schedule,” wrote Dale Burgess of the Associated Press in 1959. Like everyone else, it played other small schools nearby, such as Russellville and Roachdale, two arch rivals from the northern part of the county and members of the Big Four Conference (which drew its name from the four member counties). Though well-known to bigger schools—it made a believer out of East Chicago’s John Baratto, who drove 160 miles to Montezuma to watch the Pointers play a road game in ’67—Bainbridge never over-scheduled, even failed to get sectional host Greencastle onto their schedule. “We tried,” Rady explains, “but Greencastle would not schedule county teams at that time.” Not that it mattered: Bainbridge took a first-round victory (93-71) over the Tiger Cubs in 1966 and the championship game (94-85) the following year. Regular season schedule notwithstanding, they proved eager to play big schools in front of big crowds, and they were destined to do exactly that. Their style, rugged and fast-paced at both ends and buttressed by a deep and dependable bench, made Pointers games a tough ticket. “If you didn’t show up 90 minutes early,” says former cheerleader Bobbi Canada, “you didn’t get a seat.” Some without a ticket braved the cold, set up ladders, and took turns watching through the gym windows. Such was Pointer passion.

The 1966 Pointers dropped their regular season tilts with Fillmore (61-69, featuring 6-10 center Wayne Bright) and Cloverdale (76-87) before Christmas in 1965. But they rebounded nicely, taking the Putnam County Tourney with wins over Roachdale (74-56) and Cloverdale (79-73), handing the Clovers their only regular season loss. Young Larry Steele proved himself something of a prophet, predicting both the champion and the margin and winning a $10 contest sponsored by the Banner-Graphic. But the Bainbridge victory created a local quandary: Who should be considered number one in the county? Banner-Graphic sports editor Frank Puckett Jr. ranked them this way: Greencastle (12-2), Bainbridge (14-2), Cloverdale (14-1), Fillmore (11-3), Roachdale (7-7), Russellville (7-7), and Reelsville (5-8). Yes, but what about the rubber game between Bainbridge and Cloverdale? That would have to wait until the sectional, right? Wrong.

Struggling always to maintain tournament balance, the IHSAA assigned the two Putnam County rivals to separate sectionals. Bainbridge was assigned to Greencastle, while Cloverdale—sandwiched between U.S.40 and SR42—went to Brazil. Fine. Then they’d play each other in the regional, right? Not exactly. The winner at Brazil went to Terre Haute; the winner at Greencastle to Covington, the same place the Pointers won their first regional in ’59. Semistate, then? Nope. The Terre Haute winner would go to Evansville, the Covington winner to Lafayette. If Cloverdale and Bainbridge played again in 1966 it would be in front of a live television audience at Butler’s massive Hinkle Fieldhouse . . . in the state championship game! And this wild scenario came deliciously close to playing out.

A field of eight teams and 3,000 fans packed Greencastle’s gym to the rafters in the last week of February 1966. Fillmore, Cascade, Rockville, and North Salem filled out the upper bracket. Roachdale and Russellville drew the third game, and Bainbridge faced tourney host Greencastle in the final game of the first round. Fillmore and Bainbridge advanced to the sectional finals, and on March 3, the Banner-Graphic reported, “Bainbridge Drops Fillmore, 89-75.” Fillmore led throughout the first half, but Steele scored 12 of his game-high 25 points in the third quarter to give the Pointers a 66-52 lead heading into the final stanza, and Bainbridge avenged its early season loss to the conference champion Cardinals. For Pat Rady it was a first sectional championship. (Fifty years later Rady’s son, Patrick, would coach his first sectional champions . . . at Cloverdale.) Larry Steele and Bill Judy made the All-Sectional first team; Ron Rossok and Larry Canada made the second.

Cloverdale, meanwhile, took the title at Brazil and benefited from an upset that helped determine the Terre Haute Regional field. Lynn Stephen’s 50-foot buzzer bomb lifted Unionville over tourney host Bloomington, and the following weekend Cloverdale erased Unionville at Terre Haute, 70-62, then coasted to the regional crown there with an 82-65 victory over Shakamak. Meanwhile, at Covington, Bainbridge prevailed handily over Fowler (90-70) then overcame Coal Creek in the fourth quarter (85-74), and for the first time in tournament history a single county had two teams alive at the semistate round. The Indianapolis press went mad for it. “Putnam County’s Pride and Joy: 2 In Semis,” read the headline of the Indianapolis News sports page on March 13, 1966, with team pictures printed immediately below. The Pointers’ next opponent, awaiting them in Game 2 at the Purdue Fieldhouse, was the 7th-ranked Senators of East Chicago Washington, the former state champs coached by the venerable John Baratto. Baratto already knew something about the downstate team his players were about to face. Or so he thought.

“Baratto sent his assistant, Sammy Esposito, to scout us,” Rady recalls. “Esposito went back and Baratto said, ‘Is the small school going to hold the ball on us?’ And Esposito told him, ‘Coach, I don’t think so. They’re going to run with you.’ Baratto said, ‘No small school is going to run with us. They’re going to hold the ball and we’re going to have to try and press them.’ And Sammy kept telling him, ‘Coach, you’d better not prepare for that. They’re going to run with it.’ ”

The game followed the now fabled opener between Lebanon and Logansport, in which Rick Mount tallied 45 points and the Tigers roared from behind for a heart-stopping 65-64 victory over the Berries. Then it was Bainbridge’s turn, and for B-team cheerleader Carol (Evens) McFarland, the sights and sounds of the Purdue Fieldhouse were a little overwhelming. “An ominous beat and roar from inside the gym sent chills up our backs and necks,” she recalls. “Our first sight was of the East Chicago Washington fan block, rising from the floor almost to the roof. The wall of emotion swayed and cheered to the lead of the 14-member cheer squad. That sight and sound was most intimidating. We knew that we had our work cut out for us that day . . . . We were in the big leagues!” And after three quarters of a foul-plagued contest—both Steele and East Chicago’s Trifunovich were saddled early—the Pointers found themselves in much the same position Lebanon had, down 61-50. Large segments of the crowd had already departed, but they were sadly premature: Bainbridge outscored Washington 24-17 in the fourth. In the words of Star sportswriter Max Stultz, “Ron Rossok, Bill Judy, and Larry Steele blew up a storm which caught the Senators with their overconfidence showing.” The comeback fell short by a final of 78-74, but might have succeeded save for a series of missed free throws down the stretch. Washington led the game in rebounds, 54-48, with Steele, Rossok, and Sutherlin getting 38 of the caroms for Bainbridge. Steele and Rossok were named to the All-Semistate team, and Bainbridge bid farewell to seniors Dick McFarland, Rich Branham, Bill Judy, Larry Canada, Steve Sutherlin, and Dick Evens.

Cloverdale was luckier, emerging from Evansville with wins over Vincennes Lincoln and North Vernon to secure for themselves a berth in the 1966 State Finals. These days, one can buy a ticket at the door for the Finals—all four of them—but not back then. “If you don’t have a ticket,” one newspaperman wrote, “forget it. There aren’t any available. All 14,943 ducats are distributed through the schools and there’s no doubt that the Fieldhouse will be full for the first time this season.” It proved to be the end of the line for the scrappy Clovers, defeated by Indianapolis Tech in the second afternoon game, 57-51.

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