The Passaic High School Hilltoppers basketball team of the early 1920s was so dominant that a narrow loss to Hackensack on Feb. 6, 1925, remains memorable for what it ended ― a six-year, 159-game winning streak that, according to at least one prominent authority, remains the longest in the history of the sport.
Passaic residents with long memories had reason to recall the Hilltoppers of the early Prohibition era ― still known locally as the “Wonder Teams” ― this week, when the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set an NCAA record by winning its 100th consecutive game. .
Achievements in high school sports are harder to quantify, but the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, states that Passaic’s 159-game streak is “believed to be the longest in basketball history.” Furthermore, the hall of fame has enshrined Ernest “Prof” Blood, who coached the Hilltoppers for much of that era, as well as one of the team’s star players, John Roosma.
However, there is at least one claim to an even more impressive streak. According to news accounts from the New Orleans area, the Baskins, Louisiana, High School Lady Rams tallied 218 consecutive wins between 1947 and 1953.
Reached by phone at her post at the Franklin Parish Library in Winnsboro, Louisiana, June Chapman (née Anderson), who played for the Rams from 1951 to 1955, told The Record that she can recall only one game her team lost after the streak was snapped, in 1955.
Since high school athletic records have not always been reported or tracked to the same degree as college or professional competitions, it’s been up to individual areas to lay claim to their own superlatives.
Of course, score charts kept by the Lady Rams’ coach, Edna “Tiny” Tarbutton, currently in the possession of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, would seem to be unassailable.
“I refer to the Basketball Hall of Fame,” Auerbach said of his reasons for placing such a definitive label on Passaic High School’s streak above any others.
Ted Knothe, whose father, Fritz, played for the Passaic team from 1920 through 1923, is even prouder of the Hilltoppers’ feat than Auerbach. Though Fritz Knothe did not score many points, his talent for passing and ballhandling was essential to the Hilltoppers’ success.
“My father was probably the prototype for what they call a point guard today,” Ted Knothe said in a telephone interview from his home in Sea Girt.
“The best thing Passaic High School had going for it was getting the center jump,” or the tip-off, Knothe said.
“In those days they would have a center jump after each basket,” and the Hilltoppers got the ball 95 percent of the time, he said. Leveraging that, coach Blood had written numerous plays based on the center jump.
“A lot of it was tipping it to my father, who would get it down court to bigger guys who could score,” Knothe said.
Each of Fritz Knothe’s sons keeps a treasured collection of news clippings, photos and memorabilia celebrating their father’s athletic accomplishments. Ted Knothe read off scores from the Wonder Teams’ reign that show the immense talent Passaic put on the court.
The Hilltoppers, he said, won 67-8 against Hasbrouck Heights in 1919, 107-8 against Leonia in the 1920-21 season and beat Dover 111-10 during the 1921-22 season.
Though it happened long ago, Passaic residents have not forgotten the team’s streak. “We’re all aware of the Wonder Teams here,” said Salim Patel, president of the Passaic School Board.
Near the main gym in Passaic High School there is a display case that holds trophies and other memorabilia from the Hilltoppers’ heyday. Likewise, the school’s auxiliary gym is emblazoned with a plaque naming the facility the “Blood Gym,” after coach Blood.
A few of the city’s “Welcome to Passaic” road signs still reference the Wonder Teams, though many have been damaged, vandalized or stolen.
The UConn Huskies haven’t lost yet, but they need another 60 wins to best the Hilltoppers. Should they do so, the Wonder Teams will nevertheless remain local heroes.
“I think it was an enormous achievement,” Ted Knothe said.