WOSTER: Hoops legends were more legendary in print, on radioI was thinking the other day that South Dakota has an incredible number of talented high school basketball players, but not as many instant legends as we did half a century ago.
I was thinking the other day that South Dakota has an incredible number of talented high school basketball players, but not as many instant legends as we did half a century ago.
I have to qualify that. I’m not as wrapped up in the game as I was half a century ago. Back then, I read every story in The Daily Republic’s sports section. I listened to state tournament games on the radio, too, back when the games were all played at the marvelous Huron Arena. Through the sports pages and the broadcasts, I picked up on the names and stats of players across the state. I suppose I turned them into legends myself. Maybe it’s easier to picture a legend if you’re using your imagination to visualize words on paper or over the air.
However that works, I grew up knowing the names of Ray Deloria and Bob Swanhorst and “Swish” Bisch and Don Jacobsen. I played about the time Jack Theeler did, and I was just ahead of guys like John Thomas and Gene Zulk and Bruce Bad Moccasin.
The biggest name of the time, though, was Freddie Knife. I never saw him play except in my mind as I listened to the radio while his Cheyenne Braves won the 1959 basketball championship. Years and years later, I saw him in person on the main street in Faith. He was sitting on the sidewalk in the shade, his back propped against the side of a business building. My traveling companion pointed him out, and I felt a momentary thrill, just to see the legend of the hard court.
If you didn’t grow up knowing the name Freddie Knife, you probably won’t understand my reaction. If you did, I probably don’t need to say another word. That would make for a pretty short column, though, and besides, it never hurts to recall the way a quiet, unassuming and incredibly gifted young man captured the imagination of every sports fan in the state.
Knife could shoot the lights out, dribble like a Globetrotter and pass the basketball places where no space existed for a ball to fly through.
In a story my little brother wrote after Knife died about seven years ago, the player’s high-school coach was quoted as saying, “He did things with a basketball that I’d never seen before. … Nobody had seen those moves before. And it seemed like every night he came up with a new one.”
That’s the way it sounded over the radio, too. The announcers went nuts, and you could hear a constant roar from the crowd during the Braves’ games that tournament. It wasn’t all for Freddie Knife. The rest of the starters — Eugene Red Bird, Robert Mandan, Mel Bagola and Chester Condon — were pretty gifted ballplayers, too. And Chester’s little brother Keeler, a freshman in 1959, was a fireball off the bench.
I met Keeler some years ago when I was traveling in the Takini School area after a blizzard and he was driving a school bus. We got to talking about 1959. Like everyone else, he praised Knife’s skills, particularly his ability to pass the ball. Players on the Braves’ team learned quickly to always be aware of the ball when it was in Knife’s hands, Keeler said, because in a split second, it might be in a teammate’s chest or face.
One Saturday afternoon — and this was probably six years ago now — we traveled to Eagle Butte to watch a couple of Chamberlain granddaughters play basketball against the host team. I was expecting a good time, because it’s always a pleasure to watch the girls compete.
That Saturday was even more of a pleasure than most. During a break between games, the community honored Freddie Knife by retiring his jersey. A couple of the old players from the 1959 team were on hand. They had aged just like all the rest of the folks in the gym, but for a few moments, there was magic, a flash of memory and the presence of a legend.
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