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Monday, January 4, 2010

Eighth Wonder: The Fabulous Waterloo Wonders

The Bumbles'  Monday Movie Meme theme this week is Game On about favorite sports movies. I'm not participating, but the most-listed movie so far is "Hoosiers", a favorite of mine. If you haven't seen the movie, it is a great movie about a small-town basketball team taking on the big city teams to win the Indiana state high school basketball championship in 1954. There are great performances by Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper, as well the unknown actors playing the basketball stars.

The mention of that movie reminded me, as it always does, of the hometown heroes basketball team where I grew up in southeastern Ohio. The Waterloo Wonders.


The five main players: Stewart Wiseman, Curtis McMahon, Orlyn Roberts, Wyman Roberts and Beryl Drummond.


Waterloo, Ohio (Lawrence County), in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, was actually more bustling than it is today. It boasted an inn, a mortuary, two doctors, a barbershop, and three stores. Today there are very few jobs, but the people are a close-knit community of farmers and teachers. There are no movie theaters for kids to go to, no bowling alleys, no libraries, no malls in which to hang out with their friends. There is one restaurant and a post office. In fact, Waterloo High School (later Waterloo Elementary) no longer functions as a school, though it is still standing.

But in the mid-thirties, Waterloo had something to brag about. Their basketball team. The Waterloo Wonders. It consisted of five players (with three subs) who grew up dirt poor. They didn't even have a real basketball when they learned to play on backboards made out of baskets nailed to the barn door. They wound rags that they begged from their mothers' rag baskets until they had something comparable to the size of a regulation basketball. When they could get time away from working on the farm, they played basketball. And boy did they ever play!

In 1933, under the brilliant coaching skills of Magellan Hairston, this team came out of the woodwork to win the Ohio state high school championship. And then they did it again the next year. The story of how they accomplished that is the stuff that legends are made of. "In two remarkable seasons, Waterloo played nearly 100 games, winning all but three, most of them on the road against much bigger schools. In one stretch the team won seven games in nine days; it boasted a 56-game winning streak. That makes the Wonders more akin to the great professional barnstormers of that pre-NBA era." (Sports Illustrated)



At that time, basketball was a very static sport. Players weren't in constant motion as they are today. After every basket, the ball was returned to center court for a jump shot and most shots were made with feet firmly planted and with two hands. When the Wonders came on the scene they wowed the audiences with their trick shots (running hook shots) and ball passing. In fact, the ball rarely ever touched the floor. The boys learned to play with those rag balls and rag balls don't bounce, so they were continually passing. The other teams soon found themselves bumfuzzled and feeling out of their league. The Wonders "wasn't just beating other schools, it was destroying them by football scores: 52-14, 40-14,69-9". (SI)

Their schedule was grueling, sometimes playing five games in seven nights, and most of them weren't at home. "On (one) occasion, due to a scheduling mix-up, Waterloo found itself playing two different schools on the same night. Rather than cancel one game,  (Coach) Hairston had his starters run up a big halftime lead in the first contest, then left behind his subs to mop up as the starters took off for the nightcap. Waterloo won both games." (SI)  Another time, the boys got held up by a bad snowstorm while traveling to Cleveland for a game. Coach Hairston managed to find a telephone and called the other coach saying they would be very late, or maybe not make it at all and so he would forfeit the game. They were urged to try to make it so they pressed on, arriving at 11:00 p.m. The gym was still packed and they played the game which, of course, they won.

After those two championship seasons, college coaches were breaking down the gym doors to recruit those five players onto their teams. University of Kentucky's famous coach, Adolph Rupp (for whom Rupp Arena is named), tried to recruit the whole team!  Sadly, only one of the boys went to college, Stewart Wiseman who was a teacher's son. He played basketball at Rio Grande College (pronounced ry-oh grand) which was close to home and which boasts a pretty famous basketball player of its own, Clarence Bevo Francis, who singlehandedly scored more than 100 points in a single game. 

The four other starters eventually ended up forming a barnstorming team which played such teams as the Harlem Globetrotters, the New York Rens, and even the (then) New York Celtics. "In 1937, after two narrow losses to the dominant pro team of the day, the New York Celtics, the upstart Wonders beat the Celtics in a third game, 47-39, before a crowd of 7,000 in Cleveland." (SI) World War II ended their basketball careers, but they could still be found occasionally in an exhibition game or showing off one of their trick shots in front of a crowd.

By the time I was a teenager, Waterloo H.S., along with Windsor, Aid and Mason schools,  had been incorporated into Symmes Valley High School, my alma mater. I went to school with kids who bore the names of those Wonder boys and an awful lot of those Wiseman kids became teachers. Our basketball team rarely had winning seasons and none that were remotely close to those of the Waterloo Wonders, but the star players on the team were usually boys from Waterloo. In that little village, they still loved their basketball.

If you would like to read the entire Sports Illustrated article, here is the link.

And here is a link to a YouTube clip from a documentary filmed by WOUB-tv, Ohio University's public television station.









34 comments:

Ruth said...

They were bumfuzzled? That's a superb word, Susie. I won't say anything more about that. :)

I confess I have not heard of any of the names you listed. None. Nada. Nilch. I will have Don read this so he can say, "oh yeah!" over and over. They sound extraordinary, and what a testament to hard work, practice, determination and good coaching. I love hearing about people and teams and other Cinderellas that go on to great success without many resources.

Awesome post, Susie.

Susan said...

You never heard of bumfuzzled, Ruthie? Maybe it's a hometown homily! Hmmm, there's an idea for a post!

I'm not surprised that you haven't heard of the Waterloo Wonders. Unless you're a sports nut, which I am NOT. I probably wouldn't have either, but I grew up with them.

And, thank you, Ma'am!

Heather said...

What a great post Susan!

And of course I mention Hoosiers in my sports movies post.

Char said...

i seem to be a baseball fanatic when it somes to sports movies - Field of Dreams, The Natural, Bull Durham. I wonder why that is - I need to examine it more I suspect.

I'm also very partial to "Remember the Titans"

Sandy Nawrot said...

It's kinda strange that I didn't grow up that far from you, and haven't heard this story. I wonder if my parents have? That is an amazing story! I think it is really sad that only one of the boys went to college. I'm sure they could have had a full scholarship, so I'm guessing they were needed at home? Thanks for sharing Susan!

culdesacchronicles said...

What an inspirational story, Susan. I loved it. It keeps faith alive when you hear about someone beating all odds. It just does the heart good. I'm going to make sure my husband reads this tonight. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Bella

dutchbaby said...

Very inspiring Cinderella story. I am a baseball fan but I did enjoy "Coach Carter" which is based on a true story that took place here in the San Francisco Bay Area. My favorite sports movies: "The Natural", "Bull Durham", "Jerry Maguire" and "Bend It Like Beckham".

Oliag said...

I have never heard of the Waterloo Wonders...but maybe you have the beginning of a new screenplay:) so many of the good sports movies are Cinderella stories with heartwarming endings...One of my favorites is "A League of Their Own"...

Would I be using the word correctly if I say I'm bumfuzzled over why I never heard of that word before?...I will surely never forget it:)

ds said...

Okay, "bumfuzzled" is officially the Word of the Day! And the Waterloo Wonders are officially the most heartwarming story ever. Grit, talent, work ethic, love of the game, heart--brings back everything that "sport" is meant to be. Thank you for sharing this, Susan!

The Bumbles said...

Another blogger bumfuzzled by bumfuzzled!

And is Beryl related to your family or just a coincidence in name?

My dad's high school teams were called The Little Wonders. Haha! Waterloo Wonders sounds much more promising.

Happy to have inspired this wonderful post - inspiration is what sports is really all about.

kaye said...

interesting article. I appreciated your comments about "We are Marshall". I can believe it would be very difficult for anyone from that area to watch the movie. I cried quite a bit. What a tragedy.

Susan said...

Hi Heather!, who wouldn't like Hoosiers?!! It's the movie with everything...drama, angst, town drunk, earnest kids, romance and a washed-up coach who pulls it together to make a happy ending. My kind of movie!

Susan said...

Oh Char, I love those movies, too! Have you seen The Rookie with Dennis Quaid? It is really good. Maybe I'm partial to baseball movies, too. :)

Remember the Titans is great!

Susan said...

Sandy, you may be right about them being needed at home, or it could be they couldn't pass the entrance exams or something. I've never read the reason why.

Even though we're both technically from the Midwest, the places where we grew up are probably two totally different worlds. My area is more like West Virginia coal country. In fact, there were strip mines all over the place in those days. A lot of the boys went to work there or in the steel mills in Ironton, the county seat.

Susan said...

Bella, I'm so glad you enjoyed the story! I'm not sure why there has never been a movie made about it. I suppose Indiana must have beat them to it! :)

Susan said...

dutchbaby, you had me at hello! :) I love those movies, too! I haven't seen Coach Carter, but I remember when it came out. I'll have to put that one on the list.

Susan said...

Oliag, there's no crying in baseball!! That's a favorite of mine and a great story! And you would be most correct in your use of "bumfuzzled". Apparently only my little corner of the world knows that word. There's a few others that would leave you in a bumfuzzled state as well. I think that's my next post! :)

Susan said...

Thank you, ds! I just love that story, too, and for all those reasons. It really would make a great little movie...hey Hollywood, are you listening?

Susan said...

Molly, join the bumfuzzled club! :)

Actually, my DH isn't a real Drummond. He was adopted by his stepfather when he was ten. His real name is Post. Anyway, it is a different Drummond family.

Well, that is really interesting about your dad's team being the Little Wonders. The Waterloo Wonders actually started out as the Little Generals, but when everyone started saying they were wonders on the basketball court, they adopted that name!

I'm happy you enjoyed reading! :)

Susan said...

Kaye, yes I think We Are Marshall will stand the test of time as a great sports movie. I think it's Matthew McConaghey's best performance. My friend Jeanne's husband's whole circle of friends was on that plane when it went down. They went to the premier and it was really hard for him and the other people of Huntington to watch it on the screen. They said it was very true to life.

Deborah said...

That's a brilliant little gem of a story, Susan! My heart kind of ached about them not having a basketball that could bounce, but they were so resourceful and in the end it worked in their favour - amazing!

I will pass this story on to my basketballer son. What a great read!

Susan said...

Deborah, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! And not having their own basketball certainly didn't seem to get in the way of their learning to be great ballplayers!

You must have landed safely in France! Happy to hear from you!

The Lucy and Dick Show said...

Marysville, hmmm, I've been through there! It's fun to look at all the old photos and share history!

Dorothy said...

Great history so many of us have those stories in our towns and no one takes the time to research and write about them.

Dorothy from grammology
grammology.com

The Bug said...

That's so funny about bumfuzzled! Now I have to think about where I first heard it - but I'm pretty sure that I grew up with the word (in NC). Hmm - I'll have to ask my dad.

I'm sharing this story with my husband - we're both suckers for sports feel good stories.

I wonder if we pass your farm on our way to NC from Xenia?

Susan said...

Lucy, thank you for visiting! Wow, you've been through Marysville? Small world, eh? You'll have to let me know if you're passing through again!

Susan said...

Dorothy, luckily someone else did all the research on this one. I just filtered some of it into this article and gave it a personal touch. That's the way with small towns, there's always a lot of history that is never known except by the people who live there.

Susan said...

Bug, you go to XENIA?!! That's only about 6o miles from me! Is that where your family lives? My son lives in Springfield, but will be moving to Yellow Springs sometime in the next year. Holy cow! XENIA?!!!

Shirley said...

My wife, Shirley Lyall Wirth, her mother, Eva Drummond Lyall Roberts, was married to Orlyn when he passed in 1983

Sheila Miller said...

My uncle was in waterloo wonders. In 1952. He said they were called Waterloo wonder 2. I wish i could find the info before he passes. HIs name was OJ Ross he made 40me points or more in a game against Chillicothe

Mike Oths said...

I played HS basketball (poorly) at Wellston High, and my coach, Jim McKenzie, played with Bevo Francis at Rio Grande. Before Wellston, I think he coached at South Point.

He told me once he tried to get the Waterloo Wonders together for a photo op and a fundraiser for his team at South Point, but it was hard to do, because there were some old grudges and some of the guys were tired of talking about it.

He said they did ultimately get them together for a photo session.

Susan Drummond said...

Shirley, thank you for reading and commenting. I don't maintain this blog anymore, so I'm late in reading this. It's a small world, isn't it?

Susan Drummond said...

Sheila, thanks for reading and commenting. I hope your uncle will share some of his stories with you, and that you will record them for history.

Susan Drummond said...

Mike, thanks for reading and commenting.

Jim McKenzie was a teacher and the basketball coach at Symmes Valley when I went there, ('68-'71). I also had him for driver education. He was an interesting man, and he actually had a winning season at SV my senior year, which was not an easy thing to accomplish there.

The Waterloo Wonders story has always fascinated me, so I was glad to be able to share it.