Jim Brown always believed that his 1954 Du Sable team was one of the best ever produced in Illinois and surely was destined to win the state championship with a lineup featuring Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown and Shellie McMillon. But the Panthers lost to Mount Vernon in one of the most controversial state finals in history.
Arthur Trout's celebrated Wonder Five was heavily favored to win the 1941 state title. But the Orphans, led by Dike Eddleman, Jack Klosterman, Bill Castleman, Harold Wesner and Bob Michael lost to Morton of Cicero and Chet Strumillo 30-29 in the state semifinals and settled for third place and a 44-2 record.
They were two of the outstanding teams that fell short of expectations. They received more recognition for losing than many other teams did for winning state championships. Who remembers Mount Vernon's 1954 team? Or Morton's 1941 team?
Du Sable 1954, Centralia 1941, Farragut 1955, Collinsville 1957 and Paris 1942 are five of the best teams ever produced in Illinois--and none of them won the state title. They will forever be remembered as great teams with great players that didn't bring home the biggest trophy of all.
Du Sable had qualified for the Sweet Sixteen in 1953 under coach Arthur Scher but lost to eventual state champion La Grange and Ted Caiazza 85-68 in the first round, finishing with a 27-3 record.
In 1954, new coach Jim Brown greeted three returning standouts--Paxton Lumpkin, Sweet Charlie Brown and Shellie McMillon. They joined Karl Dennis and McKinley Cowsen to form a devastating offense that averaged 95 shots and 82.8 points per game in winning their first 31 games and overwhelming Bowen, Quincy and Edwardsville in the first three games of the tournament. But the Panthers lost to Mount Vernon 76-70 in the final.
McMillon, who later played at Bradley, was whistled for three early fouls. Lumpkin twice was called for charging after making baskets. One of the officials, John Fraser of Alton, called traveling on Brown after he had converted three long jumpers. Lumpkin, Brown and Dennis fouled out in the closing minutes.
"He (Fraser) turned the game around," Jim Brown said. "In the last three minutes, he called key fouls and took the game over. The other official (Joe Przada of Belleville) was fair. Sure, we made mistakes. We didn't protect the key. Don Richards (25 points) surprised us. We probably should have called off the press earlier rather than foul. But I still believe the game was taken away from us."
"It's not how many fouls you call (Du Sable committed 19, Mount Vernon 12) but when you call them," Sweet Charlie Brown said. "I had been making the same move throughout the season and the tournament. I planted both feet when I caught the ball, then took a step as a launching pad for shooting. It was called traveling in that circumstance."
A few years later, as recounted in "Glory Days: Legends of Illinois High School Basketball," Fraser was convicted of fixing games and banned from officiating in the Missouri Valley Conference. It prompted Brown to do some research of his own, to confirm his suspicions that the championship game had been rigged.
"I wanted to get a copy of the film of the state final but I was told that the last three minutes were deleted," he said. "To this day, I can't get a copy of the film.
"We were 17 and 18-year-old kids playing a game and competing and trying to find out who was the best. We were out to prove our superiority, like soldiers taking a hill."
Centralia was the scourge of the Deep South in 1940-41 and Dike Eddleman, a junior, was building a reputation as one of the greatest athletes in state history. The Orphans swept past Paris and Carbondale but lost to Morton by one point in the semifinals. Morton went on to win the state title.
The following year, it was Paris' turn to suffer the same fate. Coach Ernie Eveland's team, led by Nate Middleton, won 39 games in a row before losing to Centralia and Eddleman 35-33 in the state final. Eddleman scored 16 points to lead a late comeback that stunned Paris.
Centralia rallied from a 13-point deficit in the last six minutes to stun Paris. Eddleman picked up a loose ball and scored the winning basket at the buzzer. Even after competing in the Rose Bowl, the Final Four, the Olympics and the NBA, he always considered the victory over Paris in 1942 to be his greatest thrill in sports.
As Centralia had done the previous year, Paris came back to win the 1943 state title. With Dick Foley, Dave Humerickhouse and Max Norman returning from the 1942 squad and joining Gordon Taylor, Paris capped a 36-2 season by beating Moline.
"That was devastating," Norman said about Paris' loss to Centralia in the 1942 state final. "We thought we would be the first unbeaten state champion. It broke us up. You don't forget things like that, even 50 years later. I recall 1942 for losing almost as much as I recall 1943 for winning. To this day, I think 1942 was a better team than 1943."
But Paris didn't blow the lead in 1943. The Tigers got past Salem and All-Stater Roy Gatewood and 6-foot-7, 230-pound Dean White by a 53-50 margin in the semifinals despite Gatewood's 22 points, then prevailed over Moline 46-37 in the final.
Vergil Fletcher won two state championships and 792 games at Collinsville but the one that got away was the 1957 final when his unbeaten and top-ranked team had its 34-game winning streak snapped by Herrin 45-42 in the state final. The Kahoks were led by Terry Bethel and Thom Jackson. Herrin was led by John Tidwell.
In the final, Bethel, who was named to Parade magazine's All-America team with Jerry Lucas, picked up three fouls in the first five minutes and was forced to sit down. The Kahoks shot only 17-of-47 and Fletcher said it was one of the most disappointing losses of his career.
"Nobody will let the 1957 team die," Bethel said. "To them, there never will be a team like 1957, not even 1961."
Fletcher's 1961 team, led by Bogie Redmon and Fred Riddle, went 32-0 and is generally regarded among the top five teams in state history. After edging Centralia 66-64 in the supersectional in a duel of the state's two top-rated teams, Collinsville went to crush its last three opponents by margins of 23, 37 and 34 points.
In 1995, William "Wolf" Nelson was convinced that his Farragut team, featuring future NBA star Kevin Garnett, Ronnie Fields and Michael Wright, was destined to add to the Chicago Public League's legacy of outstanding state champions. But the Admirals were upset by Thornton in the state quarterfinals. Garnett was distraught after the game and has always said it was one of the most disappointing losses of his career.
At the end of the regular season, Farragut was 23-1 and rated No. 1 in the state. Peoria Manual was 24-2 and rated No. 2. Thornton was 22-1 and rated No. 5. In the Public League final, Farragut ousted Carver and Nick Irvin 71-62 but lost to Thornton and Melvin Ely, Erik Herring, Chauncey Jones and James Johnson 46-43 in the state quarterfinals. Thornton went on to lose to Peoria Manual in the state final.