Central’s state championship team of 1952 had speed and surprise on its side.
The end result was the same as in 1951, but the manpower and the manic method were amazingly different. The Bearcats morphed from deliberate to frenzied in their pace.
That change was essential to the repeat, believes all-state player Danny Thornburg, who played on both teams. “We went from very slow-paced team … to a fast break all the time,” he said. “We took 9.5 seconds to get across the center line (as a junior). My senior year, we were gone. It was a major change and I liked it better.”
Thornburg thinks the speed game was “the only way” the surprising Bearcats were able to repeat. One reason is that the team had to rebuild and play to its strengths after losing the five senior starters that led Central to the title in 1951 under coach Art Beckner.
“We had speed and quickness and they are different,” Thornburg said. “Speed is foul line to foul line. Quickness is the first step.”
The aggressive approach was the brainchild of new coach Lawrence “Jay” McCreary after Beckner left to take over Richmond. The 1952 title run took tenacity and togetherness, as well as step-up talent. No starter averaged more than a dozen points.
The players were close on the 1952 champion, said Thornburg and teammate Gerald Wright.
Some members still get together for breakfast at times, but it’s getting increasingly harder to get around.
“It’s been a long time. I have good memories,” Wright said. “I think about that experience at times.”
The team will take the floor again tonight at the Muncie Fieldhouse as Thornburg, Wright and five of their teammates will he honored to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their title. The festivities will take place at halftime of the Bearcats’ game against Delta. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.
The championship was the fourth in Central history and came as possibly the biggest surprise.
Current coach Matt Fine said his players will be paying attention to the celebration and its meaning.
“We’ll see them (tonight). We’re honored to be a part of that,” he said. “We’re a small part of something way bigger than us.”
Five other 1952 champions besides Thornburg and Wright have confirmed that they will attend, said Central athletic director Chip Mehaffey.
They are Tom Raisor, Jesse Rhoades, Charlie Hodson, Calvin Grim and Dick Rollins.
Those Bearcats epitomized the philosophy of playing best at the end. They were floundering as they closed the regular season. They had been defeated by Beckner’s new team – Richmond – and then lost a late opportunity to win a title in the North Central Conference.
But, the Bearcats raced through the sectional, then turned the tables on Richmond, 50-39, in the regional final. The Bearcats then defeated Kokomo in a close semistate. Thornburg’s late free throw stopped New Albany in the first game of the semifinal before the Bearcats stormed past Indy Tech to win the finale, 68-49.
Wright, a quick-footed 6-foot-3 sophomore center, said the team practiced smart and hard to reach the ultimate goal. He was used extensively in game preparations because he had the ability to mimic the playing styles of the oppsoing top players.
He remembers acting as Richmond giant Lamar Lundy during practices and by doing so, it helped the Bearcats win on their playoff run. The preparation also helped hold the 6-7 future Purdue and Los Angeles Ram football player to 5 points in a game in 1953, he said.
“I learned how to block out, make myself bigger,” Wright said.
Like hundreds of Bearcats through the years, Wright had honed his skills by practicing basketball endlessly as he grew up.
“I was always on the playground. The (old) Harrison Elementary was my front yard,” he said.
Wright and Thornburg bemoan that so much has changed in the game. They played every home game to sold-out crowds. They also realize they were a part of something special in the history of one-class basketball.
“That was the era when we were the only thing in town. It was a different world. That’s just the way it is,” Thornburg said. “You don’t forget (the feeling) because it was such a neat experience.”
He knows it will be a neat and totally different experience tonight when he and his 1952 teammates amble out onto the floor where they once ran to glory.
“There will be none of us willing to lead a fast break,” he said, followed by a hearty laugh. “We’re all a lot slower now.”