I played high school basketball. My sophomore year, I played for a team ranked #3 in the state of Indiana. That was until we ran into a buzzsaw by the name of East Chicago Roosevelt.
I can still remember Mike Copper, my coach, standing at the chalkboard. He told Mike Hertz, Paul Wolak, Tony Nelson and Mike Millies who they were gonna guard against Roosevelt. And then coach Copper broke into a laugh.
“And, finally, you, Jimmy, are gonna guard Charles French.”
Now this may or may not mean that much to the three or four of you. Who is Charles French, after all?
I’ll tell you. For a good part of the 1970s, Charles and his brother Chris were two of the best guards around. By the time I reached my sophomore year, Charles French was a senior and a fully-grown man. As an 8thgrader, I had watched him torch up some of the best defenders in Indiana. Now it was my turn.
The rest of the team laughed. Here I was this diminuitive point guard on a state contender. And I was given the task of guarding the best player in the Region.
“Just stay between Charles French and the basket,” coach Copper said. And he laughed. And so did assistant coach Mike Luksich. And JV coach Dave Knish. And the rest of the team. And the trainer, And the janitor. And the girls coach, Betty Libert, walking by.
The outcome of this game is not what I want to address 40 years later. It was the participants. The coach on the bench for East Chicago Roosevelt was a guy named Bill Holzbach. He’s the guy in the picture above. I just drank a couple beers with him at a backyard barbecue.
In a stroke of Indiana basketball irony, my wife used to be married to Bill Holzbach’s son, Steve. They had a son – also Steve. Alexis and I got married when young Steve was 11 years old. We’ve been a family ever since.
As a matter of fact, young Steve was waiting for me today to arrive a half hour early to his girlfriend’s daughter’s graduation party. Kaleigh graduated from Hammond Morton and they were having a big hullabaloo.
“Come with me. We gotta go get the keg,” Steve said.
“I can go get it,” I told him. “You got a lot of prep to do here.”
“No offense, Jim-Hoss,” Steve said. “But there’s no way in hell you can lift a half barrel into the back of your SUV. Come on. Let’s go.”
Steve was right. We got to the bar to pick up the keg, and I almost shit my pants just lifting up half of the keg. I swear to God they make kegs heavier than they used to.
“Lift with your legs, Jim-Hoss,” Steve reminded me.
Eventually, the Dedelows and the Holzbachs were all sitting around a table:
- Bill Holzbach, the Hall of Fame coach
- Steve Holzbach, his son and quite the athlete in his own right
- Steve Holzbach, Steve’s son who has a state championship football ring
- Betty Holzbach, Bill’s wife
- Laure Holzbach Conquest, Bill and Betty’s daughter.
- Mike Conquest, Laura’s husband.
- Alexis Vazquez Dedelow, my wife and Steve’s former wife and little Steve’s mom
- Jackie Vazquez Dedelow, our daughter and little Steve’s half-sister
Confused? Don’t be. Basically, I married big Steve Holzbach’s ex-wife. It hasn’t always been that we could all sit around the same table like we did today. And it hasn’t always been that we could laugh like we did. There was a lot of laughing, like when I asked Bill Holzbach:
“Hey coach, out of all the games over the years, who was your favorite referee?”
Bill didn’t miss a beat. He’s 88 years old and quick as an East Chicago card shark.
“Haven’t met him yet.”
It was just this week that I talked about Bill Holzbach’s 1970 East Chicago Roosevelt Roughrider state championship team. This was a big deal in Indiana. A rough and tumble steel town team with several black players went down I-65 and beat up on white farm boys from that overgrown farm town known as Indiana-No-Place. Coach Holzbach’s team had a guy on that team named Jim Bradley. He was a good 6-7 and could bring the ball up the court. He could play all five positions on offense and guard all five positions on defense. He was Magic Johnson before Magic Johnson. In fact, I am not the only Indiana basketball observer who considers Jim Bradley to be the best high school basketball player ever in the state of Indiana, with the possible exception of Damon Bailey.
And there have been a lot of good high school basketball players in Indiana, not the least of which was Oscar Robertson.
Anyways, EC Roosevelt won the Indiana state basketball championship in 1970. I was eight years old. My dad took me to some of their games.
“A guy like Jim Bradley may come along only once in a lifetime. We’re going,” my dad told my mom. We got in the car and shuffled to the game. It was quite prophetic on my old man’s part. I played in 60 or so high school games, watched my brother in a good 40 games, announced hundreds of games and watched a couple hundred more as a fan. I have never seen a high school basketball player as good as Jim Bradley.
Not even close.
Let’s talk 1971. After EC Roosevelt’s championship, their cross-town rival, EC Washington, did the same thing – an undefeated regular season and a state championship. Junior Bridgeman, Tim Stoddard, Darnell Adell, Ruben Bailey and Pete Trgovich, who would go on to NCAA national championships at UCLA under John Wooden. ECW played way better “team” basketball than ECR. Any one of those five guys could mow you down on any given night.
But they didn’t have Jim Bradley. That’s why, to this day, when someone asks me – “what was the best basketball team ever in the Calumet Region?” – I do not hesitate. The answer is easy.
East Chicago Roosevelt. 1970. Bill Holzbach’s team.
I talked about this on the air this week. I don’t know how it came up. Someone from old ECW must have called up and said something stupid. If you want to piss off an ECW grad, just tell them that Roosevelt was better.
“Are you kidding me? ECW is ranked higher than ECR in state of all-time greats.”
This is just one of many angry texts and emails that I got. It was from a guy named “Eppo.” He’s a Puerto Rican guy who looks and talks and moves his hands just like me. I’m not kidding. I have a Puerto Rican doppleganger.
“By who,” I texted.
“I think it was the Indy Star.”
“So you are going to take the Indy Star over me when it comes to basketball.”
“Can’t touch the ECW team. Bradley was no doubt a great player for EC Roosevelt. Coach Holzbach’s 1970 team was loaded with talent. But Washington was a team with a mission to run you out of the gym.”
So there. The debate over who was better – EC Roosevelt 1970 or EC Washington 1971 – continues on. This afternoon, we didn’t debate it at all. We talked about the Mayflower. Betty’s family, the Aldens, came over on it. We talked about the 1974 Hammond High team with Rich Valavicius and Ron Mercer.
“They were wild. Mercer with that hair and all that,” big Steve said.
We didn’t talk about ECR being better than ECW. We didn’t have to. Everyone at the table knew the answer to this age-old question. Line ‘em up against each other and Roosevelt wins. They had Jim Bradley. That’s all you would ever need.