The late, great man in black, Johnny Cash, sang about seeing country legend, Hank Williams, in the song, “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.” During the 1950’s, Elnora had its own celebrities come to town, but they brought basketballs rather than guitars.
It should come as no surprise to us folks in Hoosierland that basketball is king in Indiana during this time of year. This was even truer back in the early to mid-1950’s when there were well over 700 high school teams competing in the state tournament. Unfortunately for the Elnora Owls whose old “cracker box” gymnasium was no longer adequate to host games above the 7th and 8th grade level, all of their “home” games had to be played on the basketball court of the Owls’ greatest rival, the Odon Bulldogs.
The first high school game I ever saw was played by the great 1951 Elnora Owls’ team which reached the finals of the Wabash Valley Tourney that year. Some of the players on that team were Jim Barley, Junior Courtney, Jack Gaultney, Dale Rader, Gordon Scott, Jack Shaffer, and Frank Tomey. One night my dad asked me if I wanted to “go for a ride” with him and we wound up at the Odon gym watching the Owls in action. I remember very little about the game, but the one thing that impressed me the most was the sheer size of the basketball floor. To a six-year-old, it appeared to be absolutely huge.
Although I now had basketball fever, following that winter day in 1951, I saw very few high school games until Elnora finally built its own new gymnasium which was ready for the 1957-58 school year. The gym, with a large stage at the east end of the basketball court, was part of a new addition constructed on the south end of the existing Elnora school building. Also included in the new expansion were concession areas, locker rooms, athletic office, band room, classrooms, machine shop, and rest rooms.
When the new 1,200 seat basketball palace was ready to host its first action, it was announced that the dedication game would be played by none other than the fabulous Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum, and the rest of the Harlem Magicians basketball team. Haynes had been a member of the world famous Harlem Globetrotters, leaving the team in 1953 due to a contract dispute to form his own squad. The Magicians were a carbon copy of the Globetrotters and played the same brand of high energy, comedic basketball. Marques Haynes was known as the best dribbler in basketball and Goose Tatum was the “clown prince” of the Magicians just as Meadowlark Lemon was known as the “clown prince” of the Globetrotters.
The Elnora gym was packed the night the Harlem Magicians came to town to take on their overmatched rivals, a team similar to the Washington Generals who traveled with the Globetrotters. Although I was only a freshman, I was fortunate enough to sit at the scoring table and help record the game’s statistics. I only wish I had kept my program from that game so that my recollection of the events would be clearer in my aging mind. However, two of the highlights of the evening included one of the Magicians drop-kicking the ball into the basket from the mid-court line and, of course, the famous bucket of “water” (which turned out to be confetti) tossed into an unsuspecting crowd near the end of the game.
I’m sure for most of us in attendance, the evening ended all too soon. A few years later, all was forgiven and Marques Haynes rejoined the Globetrotters. He finally retired from basketball for good in 1992 at the age of 66 after 46 years of playing professional basketball. During the peak of his career, he turned down offers from the Philadelphia Warriors and Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA. Marques Haynes is the only member of the Harlem Globetrotters to be elected to the basketball Hall of Fame.
Now that the Owls finally had their own court again, their basketball fortunes improved to the point where wins finally began to outnumber losses within a couple years of opening the new gym. However, no contest at that venue in my limited memory drew as large a crowd as that first night when the Harlem Magicians came to town.