Hebron to celebrate its 60th

Hebron to celebrate its 60th
January 20, 2012, 6:04 pm
Share This Post

For those of us who recall sitting in front of a tiny black-and-white television set--was it an Emerson or Philco or RCA Victor?--and watching the first live telecast of the Illinois high school basketball tournament in 1952 and listening to Jack Drees describe the action...well, it is hard to believe that Hebron's state championship team is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the event this year.

"Sometimes it feels like 60 years and sometimes it doesn't," said Bill Schulz, the 6-foot-11 center on that storybook Hebron team. "Memories are getting faded now. The whole experience we had, a bunch of young kids, it was tremendous. It gave all five of the starters a Division I scholarship.

"We have been close for all these years. We still see each other a couple of times a year. Normally this time of year my wife and I are in Florida or Arizona. But we got notice last October that they planned on something for March 18. So we aren't going to Cubs spring training, not this year. We're staying home."

Schulz and two other starters, Phil Judson and Ken Spooner, definitely plan to attend the March 18 reunion in Hebron. Another starter, Paul Judson, Phil's twin, was involved in a serious automobile accident on Thanksgiving near his home in Florida and currently is rehabbing at home under the care of his older brother, former White Sox pitcher Howard Judson. He hopes to be able to make the trip in March.

The fifth starter, Don Wilbrandt, died in 1998.

Reserves Jim Wilbrandt, Bill Thayer, Jim Bergin and Joe Schmidt also will attend the reunion. The other, Clayton Ihrke, is deceased.

The 60th anniversary celebration, or 5260 as the organizing committee has dubbed it, is being planned by Bobette and Mel Von Bergen, who own a vegetable farm on the east side of Hebron. Bobette is a 1961 graduate of Hebron.

"This is our third reunion," Bobette said. "We did the 40th and 50th. My brother was in the seventh grade in 1952. He was involved in basketball and went to games with my folks. He didn't go to the championship game. He watched on TV, a little black-and-white screen. I think everybody in Hebron and the surrounding area bought TVs that year.

"It was something we were very proud of," Bobette said. "We didn't realize how big it was at the time. Basketball was big in Hebron. We always had players come back at different times for the booster club. Then we decided we should celebrate it."

The 5250 celebration was highlighted by a book signing by Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, who wrote the book, "Once There Were Giants," with his wife Julie Kistler. It was published by the IHSA in 2002.

The March 18 event will feature "A Taste of Hebron" with food provided by local restaurants, including roasted chicken from Crandall's and mostaccioli from Back House. Schulz, Spooner and the Judson twins will participate in a Q&A session. A luncheon with the champions is scheduled. Townspeople will dress in 1950s attire.

At the time, Hebron had a population of 700. The school had an enrollment of 98 students. Today, the town has 1,100 residents. But, like most towns, hard economic times have had a negative effect. Two subdivisions went bankrupt. The water tower in the form of a basketball, built in the 1980s, remains the town's landmark. But most factories have closed. So has Gabel's drugstore and several other businesses. The bank has moved to a
different location.

But who can forget Hebron?

It not only was the first school to win a state championship on live television, it was the first district school to win and it was the smallest school ever to win, before or since. It was Cinderella in sneakers. Everybody was cheering for the little school that could.

The Little Giants, coached by Russ Ahearn, won 34 of 35 games. Surprisingly, at the end of the regular season, they were ranked No. 1 in the state ahead of such traditional powers as Centralia, West Rockford, Quincy and Thornton.

In the state finals, they defeated Champaign 55-46, Lawrenceville 65-55, Rock Island 64-56 and Quincy 64-59 in overtime. In the final, Schulz scored 24 points, Paul Judson 13, Phil Judson 12 and Don Wilbrandt 10 as Hebron overcame Quincy's Bruce Brothers, who finished with 20 before fouling out.

"Not too many people are around who remember back then," said Schulz, who suffered a slight stroke in October. "I work out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday in a gym and most of the people I work out with are the same age. They all remember it. Everybody was for us, other than the people from Quincy. It was kind of a feel-good deal, the whole experience."

Spooner said it is "amazing" how many people he comes in contact with who aren't even 60 years old but have heard the story about Hebron. He still is amazed that a school of 98 students could beat schools with enrollments of 1,000 and 2,000 students, big schools such as Danville, Oak Park, Quincy and Kankakee.

"It amazes me how many people were impacted by what we did," Spooner said. "Everybody was cheering for us because of the smallness of the school but we only had five or six players who warmed up during the regular season. People who came from little schools were inspired by what we did.

"It was a numbing experience when it was over. We were jumping around on the floor. I have a picture of me jumping in the air and yelling after we won. Personally, I didn't realize what it meant for many, many years. We had reunions but nothing fancy until the 50th. At the book signing, a neighbor had to wait in line for 2 12 hours to have me sign a book. It hit home to me at that point.

"The same thing happened at Peoria. People wanted to meet us. We felt like rock stars. It was overwhelming. It was the first time that it really sunk in for me, the impact that our whole experience had on people. I still have my old jersey and a lot of scrapbooks."

So do the Judson twins. "Sixty years? It does feel like it when you look at the calendar. It's gone by pretty quickly, the older you get. But it feels like we could go out and play a little bit. Every day somebody reminds me of the team," Phil said.

What he remembers most are some of the games, how they were trailing a big and muscular Rock Island team by three points at the start of the fourth quarter in the semifinals, then scored 14 points in a row to win.

"When the tournament began, the coach wrote the number 11 on a chalkboard. "Win the next 11 games and you win the state title," Ahearn told his players. In those days, the small schools started at the district level, then moved to the regional with the bigger schools.

"When we got to the final against Quincy, the coach told us that they had an All-American in Bruce Brothers," Phil said. "Back then, you didn't see TV or listen to the radio or read the newspapers. So you didn't know about your opponents.

"Quincy finished third the year before and had three starters back. But we expected to win. We weren't intimidated. The coach said they had a zone press. We hadn't heard about it. He said (Taylorville star) Billy Ridley couldn't dribble through it, that we had to pass the ball, not dribble.

"We handled it really well. Spooner passed to Schulz at the top of the key and he passed to Paul or me on the weak side. Then one of us would break to the middle. We had a three-on-two fast break. We finally pulled it out in overtime."

After 60 years, he still remembers every play, every shot, every exciting moment. He can't wait until March 18.