Sixty years ago, the boys basketball team at Hebron High School captured the state championship and became the smallest school ever to win. Learn how this remarkable achievement impacted the lives of the winning players and their hometown.
Driving along Route 173 into Hebron, Ill., the first visible sight is a majestic water tower that soars over this small town of 1,016. You can’t miss it. The top is painted to resemble a basketball, with an inscription that reads: “Hebron: Home of 1952 State Champions.”
It’s a tribute to the Hebron High School boys basketball team which, 60 years ago, defeated a much larger, more athletic Quincy High School team to win the Illinois High School Association championship. With an enrollment of 98 students, Hebron became the smallest high school ever to win the Illinois State Championship – a record that stands today.
David and Goliath
David slaying Goliath. That’s how some described the incredible achievement.
The Hebron Green Giants were led by coach Russ Ahearn, a strict disciplinarian. The team’s strong starting five played the majority of most games – guards Ken Spooner, a junior, and Paul Judson, a senior; senior forwards Don Wilbrandt and Paul’s twin, Phil Judson; and 6-foot-10 junior center Bill Schulz, who, as a farm kid, had never played basketball before Ahearn bumped into the eighth-grader one day in the hallway at school.
“We had five really good guys,” says Phil. “All five of us had a spot. We could read each other. We knew what was going to happen before it happened. The four of us played together since grade school, and Bill came along in eighth grade. We all played in our driveways or in a barn. We loved to play basketball.”
Winning the championship was no fluke. Hebron was ranked No. 1 in the state for nine out of 13 statewide polls. They were rated higher than traditional powerhouses like Centralia, Rockford West, Quincy and Thornton. The Giants finished that magical season with a 35-1 record, with Crystal Lake handing out the lone blemish, in a three-point defeat midway through the season. Fans took the loss hard, including Cody LeBaron, a Hebron sophomore at the time. “I can remember crying all the way home,” she says.
Many years later, this remarkable feat remains fresh in the minds and spirits of residents in this small farming community. It’s exactly the boost this town needs. Like most, Hebron has fallen on hard economic times. Subdivisions have stopped growing. Most factories, like Kenosha Beef International, have closed. So, too, have Gabel’s drugstore, Katie’s Diner and several other businesses.
“What strikes me is how many people remember,” says Spooner. “People know it’s been 60 years. They’ve heard about it from their parents, or they’ve read about it in newspapers. They know the story. It’s amazing that people still recognize us.”
The 1952 Giants continue to be honored. On March 18, the players will be recognized during a celebration at the high school. Schulz, Spooner and the Judson twins will participate in a Q&A session, and a luncheon with the champions is scheduled. Fans are encouraged to dress in 1950s attire. Reserve players Jim Wilbrandt, Bill Thayer, Jim Bergin and Joe Schmidt also are expected to attend the reunion.
The 60th anniversary celebration is being planned by a group of dedicated volunteers, including Bobette and Mel Von Bergen, who own a vegetable farm and country market on the east side of Hebron. The Von Bergens also helped to plan the 40th and 50th anniversaries.
“It’s something we’re very proud of,” says Bobette, a 1961 Hebron graduate. “We didn’t realize how important it was at the time. Basketball was big in Hebron. We had to do something to honor this great team.”
Long Road Home
John Lalor wasn’t born when the Giants won the state championship, but growing up, he heard plenty of stories from his father. When he became athletic director at Hebron High School 10 years ago, he was surprised at the lack of attention that was paid to that once-in-a-lifetime team.
“We should be proud of them,” Lalor says. “There was hardly any memorabilia on display. Why wasn’t that stuff up? I don’t think we realized how truly special these guys and their accomplishments were. We needed to do something to honor them.”
Today, the memory of the championship team burns brightly. Reminders are everywhere, starting with basketball hoops that line the main street in downtown Hebron. Walk down the front hallway at Hebron High School, and the large championship trophy is encased next to a framed portion of the original basketball court bearing the letter “H.”
Hanging on the walls outside the gymnasium are large black-and-white photos capturing the highlights of the Giants’ memorable run. They were taken by Don Peasley, a Woodstock photographer and reporter who chronicled the team’s dream season. Inside the gym hang the retired jerseys of the five starters, along with one that belonged to the Judsons’ older brother, Howie, who played on the 1940 state tournament team and went on to pitch in the major leagues for the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
But this wasn’t the gym where the 1952 Giants played their home games. They played down the hall, on a small stage housed in an auditorium with room for about 400 fans. In the event that one of the players might fall off the stage chasing a loose ball, fathers and other male fans were encouraged to sit in the front row. “If the players came flying off the floor, they could catch them,” says Lalor. Game tickets were hard to come by. When games sold out, fans went home to retrieve ladders, which they propped up against the exterior of the building to watch from the windows.
Knowing he had a pretty good team, Ahearn scheduled a majority of his team’s games on the road. “He wanted his team to play in hostile environments, against bigger schools in larger gyms, as a way to prepare for the playoffs,” Lalor says. “That way, they wouldn’t panic when they played in big games. He knew what he was doing.”
Ahearn was a stickler for details. He gave his players a list of instructions to follow in order to become more polished basketball players. His suggestions included doing 50 pushups and 100 jumping jacks, eating good foods, and getting lots of sleep. “He really stressed the fundamentals,” says Phil. “Play good defense. Get your hands up. Fumbling is a sin in basketball. Back then you didn’t make crosscourt passes. Be awake at all times, be quick but don’t hurry, and don’t talk to spectators. We didn’t deviate from them. Back then, Coach’s word was it. We were to always be gentlemen.”
Hebron’s coach wouldn’t allow any distractions, either. Ahearn’s players were forbidden to read any newspapers or listen to the radio during basketball season. They didn’t even know who the star player was from the opposing team. “When we got to the final against Quincy, the coach told us that they had an All-American in Bruce Brothers,” Phil says. “I had never heard of him. But we weren’t afraid of anyone. We were confident every time we walked out onto the court.”
At the beginning of the state tournament, Ahearn gave his team members one simple message before they faced St. Mary’s of Woodstock. “He came into the locker room, wrote the number 11 on the chalkboard, circled it and said, ‘Win the next 11 games and you will be state champions,’” says Schulz. “He walked out and never said another word until the game began.”
In the state tournament, Hebron beat Champaign, Lawrenceville and Rock Island. In the championship game, the Giants, from a town with a population of 700, squared off against Quincy High School, a team from a town of 44,000. That game was played at Huff Gymnasium, on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, in front of nearly 7,000 jubilant basketball fans. It also was the first televised Illinois State Championship game, with thousands across the Midwest watching from home.
The Giants won 64-59 in overtime, thanks to balanced scoring from four players who finished in double figures, led by Schulz, with a game-high 24 points.
“Bill improved so much,” says Spooner. “He came from having never played basketball before eighth grade to being the star of the championship game. He worked hard at the game. We never would have won several games without Bill, that’s for sure.”
On the way home from Champaign, the team was recognized in every town along the way. Well-wishers lined the streets as the caravan of cars made its way through. “We started home with 30 cars in Champaign, and before we knew it, there was a stream of cars from one town to another,” says Phil. Later that week, the team traveled around northern Illinois, visiting with young fans from area schools. “We won, but we didn’t realize what we had done, until the fans started to swarm us. They couldn’t get enough of us.”
The windows in the old gym at Hebron High School have long been replaced by brick; the hardwood floor has been covered with tile; the balcony has been converted into storage space.
These days, the room is used mostly for school plays and occasionally wrestling practice. Only the original backboards remain from the Giants’ glory days. But standing on the court, surrounded by silence, it’s easy to imagine the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, the cheerleaders prancing across the floor, the thunderous applause that must have rained down on the Giants in this same room 60 years ago. “For me, it’s emotional to relive those memories,” says Spooner.
Over the years, much has been made of Hebron’s historic season. A book, Once There Were Giants, was written by Scott Johnson and Julie Kistler. Becoming Giants is a DVD written and directed by Dean Rowe, a former television producer and director, who lives outside of Hebron. Rowe spent six months producing the one-hour documentary with Harold Rail, of Afterglow Creative Services, Woodstock.
“This is the epitome of a team effort – the good guys won,” Rowe says. “Here was a school with 50 boys to pick a team from. It’s a story of how they all came together. This was a team that not only liked each other, but also played clean basketball. They were tough, and they wanted to win. They became celebrities as high school kids.”
Following high school, all five starters from the Hebron team received Division I basketball scholarships. The Judson twins played at the University of Illinois; Schulz and Spooner played at Northwestern University; Wilbrandt played for Valparaiso University.
“It changed our lives,” says Spooner. “We never thought about going to college, but all of a sudden, people were contacting us.”
The players have long since hung up their sneakers and gone separate ways. They have built careers and raised families. But they still reunite several times a year. They meet for a hot dog and talk about their kids and world events. And there’s plenty of chatter about the good old days.
Now in their late 70s, the players are still in demand. Over the years, they’ve participated in Hebron alumni games, shot free throws at community fairs, taken rides on parade floats and made guest appearances at local libraries.
Fans won’t let the memory die. LeBaron, who graduated from Hebron in 1954, moved around the country with her husband, Ed, who served in the Marines. She says wherever they lived – whether overseas or in Yuma, Ariz. – people always made a connection to her hometown. “Everywhere we went, people said, ‘Hebron, Ill. Oh, that basketball town,’” says LeBaron, who has retired from a 30-year career as office manager at Hebron High School.
Schulz, too, has found that the Hebron team is remembered around the world, whether he’s attending the Rose Bowl in California, or vacationing in Spain. At a book signing, fans waited in line for 2½ hours for an autograph from the players. Bobette Von Bergen’s younger brother was named after Paul Judson. “We felt like rock stars,” says Spooner. “It was overwhelming.”
Still, time marches on. Coach Ahearn passed away in 1976, shortly before the 25th anniversary of the championship team. Don Wilbrandt died in 1998. Paul Judson lives in Florida. Spooner lives in Huntley and Schulz lives in Northbrook. Phil Judson, who still goes by the nickname “Swish,” lives in Gurnee, where he referees more than 100 grade-school basketball games a year.
Most sports fans remember the popular 1986 movie, Hoosiers, starring Gene Hackman, about Milan High School and its boys basketball team that overcame great odds to win the 1954 Indiana State Championship. At the time, Indiana, like Illinois, held a single state basketball championship for all of its high schools.
Rowe, the producer and director of the Hebron documentary, says the Giants’ story likewise has the potential to be turned into a feature-length movie. “This is a McHenry County story, it’s an Illinois story and it’s an international story,” he says. “It’s right up there with Hoosiers.”
“We’re part of history,” says Schulz.
Adds Spooner: “What we did will never happen again.”