Saturday, April 16, 2016

Shooting Hoops

Score Card: MHS Maroon Basketball Team, 1957-58

Dear George,
My brother Steve’s birthday was a week ago.  Were Steve still with us, he would have turned 75, and his birthday is a vivid reminder of how much we all miss him.  The next day I was browsing on a Menominee history/nostalgia website when I came across a couple of Menominee Maroon basketball and football programs from the 1950’s.  I was thrilled to find Steve’s name on the basketball roster for the 1957-58 team, along with many of his best high school friends — Peter Johnson, Bob Picard, Tom Kuber, John Dewane, Jim Payne, Ken Hruska, and others. 

Basketball was a big part of Steve’s and my growing up on the Menominee River bank.  As the older brother, I started playing basketball in sixth grade when my grandfather, V.A. Sr., insisted that I join the Washington Grade School team.  The shortest boy in class with no sports history, the idea of joining the basketball team terrified me, but my grandfather insisted and  soon I became interested in learning to play better.  The D.A.R. Boys Club on State Street in Menominee had a basketball gym, and I started going there every day after school to practice on my own or play pickup games with my age-mates.

My dad bought a basketball hoop and mounted it above the garage door in our cinder-covered driveway.  There weren’t any other kids within a mile of us during our early years on the river, so Steve and I relied on one another as playmates, and basketball quickly became our avocation.  We learned a lot about winning and losing, effort and skill, striving to improve, fair play, and camaraderie.  I was four years older, so I was taller and more physically adept, and our games of horse, 21, free-throw shooting, and one-on-one were often one-sided.  However, Steve, just a third-grader when we started, was a fierce competitor and determined to win.  We’d play for hours on end.  When the sun went down we’d hook up an extension cord to a socket inside the garage, connect it with a desk lamp that we’d tied to a nearby maple tree, and focus the light on the basketball hoop so that we could play until bedtime.  Even the harsh U.P. winters didn’t deter us.  We’d simply shovel off each successive layer of snow and play on a solid floor of ice.  After warming up we’d take off our winter coats and play in our shirtsleeves in the freezing temperatures.   

By the time I left for college Steve was starting ninth grade, had grown a lot taller, and was winning a majority of our driveway contests.  When I came home at Xmas I was thrilled and proud to learn that Coach Bob Noonan, the basketball coach at Menominee High, had recruited Steve and one of his freshman classmates to join the varsity team.  That was unheard of since ninth- and tenth-graders had traditionally only been eligible for the Junior Varsity.  However, Coach Noonan decided that year to get his most promising prospects started at as early an age as possible. 

I wasn’t around for Steve’s high school basketball career, but he went on to win varsity letters for four years in a row.  A bunch of the team members were best friends off the court as well, and they used to convene at my grandfather’s log cabin next door to our house to play poker, drink a beer or two, and carry on.  They were a rowdier bunch than my peer group, and they had many more adventures.  Even though he and Margie moved to Seattle after law school, Steve kept in close touch with several friends from those teenage days.  Peter Johnson’s wife told me many years ago that Peter laughed more when Steve returned to Menominee for family reunions than any other time of the year.  I totally understood that, since I felt the same way.  Despite all their youthful antics, their group enjoyed lots of adult career success, including a couple of lawyers, successful regional businessmen, and the principal, coach, and athletic director at Marinette High.  For myself, I look back upon our thousands of hours of driveway basketball as one of the most enjoyable and engaging pursuits of my youth.  Were it possible for Steve and I to be together today, I know we’d go over to my next door neighbor’s and shoot some hoops in the driveway.  I wish we could.


After I did the above blog posting, a Menominee friend shared on the Internet this photo of the 1955-56 Menominee Maroons, my brother Steve's first varsity team.  FRONT ROW: Dale Bero (54), Steve L. (22), Donnie Hofer (20), Al Axtel (12), Jim Payne (10), Fritz Wolf (14); MIDDLE ROW: Billy Wolf (Manager), Wayne Allard (4?), Burke Cooney (30), Ron Janquart (42), Coach Bob Noonan; TOP ROW: Ray Anderson (32), Mike Miller (52), Bob Ziemer (50), Vernon Highdale (40), Dale Minzlaff (54), Freddie Christopherson (?4).  

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