Recalling the saga of Homer Thurman

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Recalling the saga of Homer Thurman

Jerry Colangelo, who knows a lot of the history and tradition of Bloom Township's sports program and has written a lot of history of his own as the one-time owner of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA and the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball franchise, recalls with notes of sadness and admiration the last time he spent time with Homer Thurman.

Colangelo and Thurman were teammates on Bloom's 1957 basketball team that lost to Elgin 53-52 in the supersectional. Colangelo has said that it was the most disappointing loss he has ever experienced in his high school, college and professional sports career.

"When I was a sophomore at Illinois, I got permission from Tug Wilson (commissioner of the Big 10) to put on a summer tournament in Chicago Heights," said Colangelo, now director of USA Basketball. "I had the best players in the Midwest playing in the event. I was looking for Homer Thurman. I found him in jail. He looked scruffy and hadn't touched a basketball in so long.

"Well, he had a hamburger and some French fries and stepped on the court like he never missed a beat. He was the MVP in the tournament. He was an amazing story. He disappeared right after that. He is a tragic story, a great talent who went to waste."

Thurman arguably was one of the most outstanding multi-sport athletes ever produced in Illinois. Those who saw him compete in football, basketball and track and field insist he should be mentioned in the same discussion with Dike Eddleman, Lou Boudreau, Otto Graham, Ted Kluszewski, Jack Bastable, Mike Conley, LaMarr Thomas, Howard Jones, Quinn Buckner, Tai Streets, and his teammate at Bloom, Leroy Jackson.
"He occurred out of nowhere," Colangelo recalled. "He made the varsity as a freshman at Bloom at a time (in the 1950s) when the school was a factory for sports. It was no small feat. He ended up as a starter. He became one of the greatest athletes Bloom ever had.

"When he graduated from high school in 1959, in terms of talent, he was as talented an athlete as I had ever seen at that age. Unfortunately, he had other issues that went along with the package. But he could have had a terrific college career and maybe a professional career."

Thurman, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder, was a two-time All-Stater in basketball. He scored 1,619 points in four years and averaged 17.59 per game.

He was a freshman on Bloom's 18-2 team in 1956 that lost to Oak Park 62-57 in the supersectional at Hinsdale, On a team with Colangelo, Bobby Bell and Chuck Green, he was the leading scorer with 20 points.

As a sophomore in 1957, Thurman and Bell each scored 15 points as Bloom lost to Elgin 53-52 in the supersectional at Hinsdale and finished 22-2.

He made enough of a lasting impression that he has been named among 10 players chosen in the second class in the pre-1960s era who will be inducted into the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum in Pinckneyville. The class will be honored on Nov. 3 in Champaign.

He also was an All-State end on Bloom's unbeaten 1957 football team that featured All-State running back Leroy Jackson, a three-time state sprint champion who later played for the Washington Redskins in the NFL.

In track and field, he was third in the high jump I the 1957 state finals and won the event in 1958. He also led off the winning mile relay in 1958. As a senior, he was fifth in the long jump and ran a leg on the winning 880-yard relay. He competed on four state championship track and field teams.

Thurman was born in Ittabena, Mississippi. The family moved to Chicago Heights and settled on 13th Street and Shields. Homer was a high-strung and temperamental individual. Longtime friend Homer Dillard said his life changed when his mother died in 1959.

"He was never able to relax," Dillard said. "A lot of people in Chicago Heights liked him. But he had no supervision. So many people expected him to do so much. They said he would be the next Oscar Robertson. But when his mother died, something died in him. He didn't want to work as hard."

Thurman was recruited by Iowa during the time of the Connie Hawkins scandal. Homer left after one semester and landed at Midland Lutheran in Fremont, Nebraska. He was a black star in a white community. In 1962, he married Janet Bartling, the daughter of a local newspaper publisher. The couple went to Chicago to be married and to establish a residence. At the time, Thurman became a student at Crane College.

In November of 1962, Thurman had a tryout with the Harlem Globetrotters. He didn't make the team. At the same time, his personal life was crumbling. He left his wife and two children. In 1965, his wife was granted a divorce. She returned to Fremont to live with her parents and children.

"I was always able to find him and get him to play o one of my summer teams," said Dillard, a Bloom graduate of 1957. "But I last saw him in 1974. He was in a hurry. I spotted him walking on the side of the street. He had a cape on and looked like Dracula. A guitar hung around his neck. He said that he couldn't talk and that he'd see me later. I never saw him again.

"He decided he was going to be a musician. He had a guitar and a book to self-teach himself on the guitar. He spent a lot of time learning how to play the guitar. One story was he went to California to play with a band. He is like hearing stories about Elvis. One person saw him in a movie. Another person saw him here or there, a brief shot."

Dillard said Leroy Jackson, not Thurman, was the greatest athlete in Bloom history. But he was very good at everything he did. He didn't play baseball in high school but he was a very good baseball player, as well as basketball, football and track and field.

"In basketball, he was ahead of his time in a lot of things he was doing," Dillard said. "He had small hands. He couldn't palm the ball.

Whatever sport he picked, he could have done well. He had the type of concentration to do it. He was very intense whenever he decided to do something. He put himself into it. He would prepare himself to play a game. That's part of what made him a very good athlete."

Bobby Bell remembers his old teammate, Thurman. "The last I heard was his cousin told me he had seen him in San Francisco. I also heard he was dead. He was a sportsman. He could do it all. He was intelligent, a great natural talent. What went wrong with him was when his mother died and left him alone. Then he was on his own," Bell said.

Alan Macey, a sportswriter with the Chicago Heights Star and the Southtown Star from 1976 to 2011, tried to find Thurman.

Years ago, sports editor John E. Meyers of the Chicago Heights Star assigned Macey to do a series on the great athletes of the south suburbs titled "Do you remember?" Macey even put a former FBI agent on Thurman's trail but he kept running into one dead end after another.

"It was a very frustrating journey," Macey said. "The great Homer Thurman. Is he still alive? God only knows. He could be the greatest three-sport high school athlete who decided to be lost forever."

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