Bill Russell and Butch Wade each had to pause a moment or two after being reminded that they were part of local basketball history.
It will be 50 years come Friday night when the 1962-63 Columbus High School basketball team capped a record-breaking regular season by defeating visiting Jeffersonville before a sellout crowd of 7,240 fans in Memorial Gym.
Their achievement was to become the first Bull Dogs basketball team in the school’s history to win all 20 of its regular-season games. That’s a big deal. For any team to win 20 consecutive games in a single season is pretty remarkable. In fact, Columbus was the only team in Indiana to do it in the 1962-63 season.
No other team in the school’s history had done it, either. The closest would have been the 1929-30 squad, which lost its second game of the season to Connersville but went on to win the next 19 in a row. Those 20 victories in 1962-63 even earned the Bull Dogs the state’s No. 1 ranking at the end of the season.
Ironically, history was repeated this year by another Bull Dogs team. In fact, the Columbus North girls basketball team has three-upped the record-setters of half a century ago — winning all 23 of its regular-season games, followed by a pair of sectional victories before a disappointing loss to Bedford North Lawrence in the first game of the regional tournament. The North girls also were ranked first in the state at the end of the regular season.
All this aside, the achievement of 1963 is still regarded as somewhat anti-climactic. It was even anti-climactic at the final buzzer of the game against Jeffersonville.
The report of the game was carried on the front page of The Evening Republican the next day, along with a picture of the victory celebration. However, the photo was of a group of cheering players holding up the final standings in the South Central Conference. That last victory had clinched first place for the local team, the first conference championship for a Columbus team in 13 years.
“Going undefeated was kind of a pipe dream,” recalled Wade, one of the leading scorers on the squad. “From start to finish, our season was all about winning the conference. That was all (coach Bill) Stearman talked about.”
Actually, the winning streak reached 25 games as the Dogs raced through the sectional and regional tournaments only to see it end in the afternoon game of the Indianapolis semistate against eventual state champion Muncie Central.
Golden anniversaries of achievements like this often are accompanied by celebrations. Back in 2009, the members of the undefeated Columbus High School football team of 1959 were given royal treatment during a reunion of the squad. Apparently not this year for the 1962-63 basketball team.
So far as I’ve been able to find out, no ceremonies are planned. It’s unlikely even that former teammates will get together. While they certainly were aware of their team’s achievement, neither Russell nor Wade realized that the 50th anniversary will be Friday night.
“I guess if there’s anything that stands out in my mind about the anniversary, it would be my difficulty in believing that it was that long ago,” Russell said.
In a lot of ways, the 1962-63 team has never really gotten the respect it deserves. There’s no question it had support. The full house for the Jeffersonville game was not the first of the season.
“We just had unbelievable fans,” Wade said. “My goodness, they even had to haul out a huge drum so that they could pick winning numbers out of it just to see who would get tickets to the games.”
But not even the most devoted of fans had visions of a blemish-free record at the beginning of the season — not even coach Bill Stearman.
“His goal for us at the beginning was to go undefeated at home,” Russell recalled. “I think that’s because we had a pretty rugged schedule on the road.”
That road schedule included Evansville Bosse, which was ranked among the state’s top 10, and Anderson, which had not been beaten on its home floor over the previous two seasons.
The Bull Dogs won both in convincing fashion, the one at Anderson by a 102-86 score, an unimagined margin and one that set the stage for the final game against Jeffersonville.
The team even got statewide attention when WTTV televised a home game against Southport. Legendary sports announcer Chuck Marlowe did the play-by-play on the contest.
But even with the statewide attention and the undefeated regular season, the Bull Dogs of 1962-63 have gone down in history as the team that paved the way for the 1963-64 club, the squad that Wade acknowledged was the “best in the state.”
The 1963-64 team repeated the undefeated regular season accomplishment, but the difference was that the record was almost expected.
So was the state title that was supposed to be theirs. That prophecy went unfulfilled when Huntington won a 4-point decision over the Bull Dogs in the afternoon game of the state finals.
Nevertheless, almost 49 years after that final game, the 1963-64 team is still referred to by many as THE team in CHS history.
Wade and Russell both graduated in 1963, but several of the players on the 1963-64 team had been their teammates.
“(Jerry) Newsom was a starter on our team, but he really didn’t begin to develop until mid-season,” Wade recalled. “Steve Hollenbeck was a sixth man for us, and you could tell he was going to be special.”
Other future stars on the 1963-64 squad like Vic Thixton and John Partin spent most of their time playing with the reserve team during the 1962-63 season.
“Actually, I think we set the stage for the next team,” Russell said. “A lot of the time the regulars on our team would scrimmage against the reserves, and I think that honed their abilities. Then, too, there were a number of games in which we would jump out to leads like 25-0, and the starters usually spent most of the second half on the bench while the reserves got some valuable experience.”
Neither Wade nor Russell is bothered by the lack of attention their team has gotten. Now that they’ve been reminded of the history-making moment, they’re looking to their 50th class reunion this summer as an opportunity to get together with many of their former
And that leaves open the question as to whether there will be a 50th anniversary celebration for the team of 1963-64 around this time next year.