Column: The night the NBA came to Oconto

From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren
By: 

Roger VanHaren

I’ve recently been struck by a wave of nostalgia, and memories of my childhood and teen years have resurfaced. And I’ve had some mail from readers who’ve approved of my trips back into my gray matter. So here’s another excursion down Memory Lane.

When I was kid growing up in Oconto Falls, some of our local heroes were the players on the Northern Lites basketball team. The Northern Lites was a semi-pro team sponsored by a local company, Beam Chemical, which manufactured a number of cleaning products.

Most of the players were local guys, former high school stars like the Lemirande twins and Chub Magnin. Our high school coach, Romie Kosnar, who was from nearby Lena and had been a star at St. Norbert, was a favorite. Two of the guys were from Green Bay and De Pere; Kelly Daanen was a lanky blonde about 6-6, and Joe Meeuwsen (whose daughter Terry became Miss America in 1973 and then became a host of the 700 Club on TV) was a rangy forward.

The Northern Lites played their home games in the tiny Oconto Falls High School gym. They played such teams as the Great Lakes Naval Station varsity team and the bearded “House of David” barnstorming team from Benton Harbor, Michigan. That team was always an attraction because they wore very long hair and long scruffy beards. The long hair and beards were part of their Christian Israelites religious beliefs. (Contrary to the common belief, the House of David group was not Jewish.) Long hair and beards were pretty unusual in conservative little Oconto Falls, so the House of David team was a real curiosity, but, boy, those guys could play basketball.

The biggest, most memorable game I ever saw the Northern Lites play was an exhibition in 1955 against the Milwaukee Hawks of the NBA. (The Hawks moved the next year to St. Louis and then later to Atlanta.) “Red” Holzman had been hired the year before as the Hawks’ new coach, and during the offseason the Hawks had added the cornerstone of their future success by drafting 6-9 Louisiana State forward Bob Pettit. Pettit was having a spectacular rookie campaign, averaging 20.4 points (fourth in the NBA) and would be named NBA Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.

The Hawks also had Frank Selvy. Anybody remember Frank Selvy? In 1954, during his All-American senior year at tiny Furman University in South Carolina, Selvy had scored 100 points in Furman’s 149-95 win against Newberry College. He nailed a 40-footer with the clock running down to hit the century mark. Selvy made 41 of 66 field goal attempts and 18 of 22 free throws, and that was long before the days of the three-point goal. Selvy finished his final college season with a 41.7-point average to lead the nation. No other Division I player has ever scored 100 points in a game against another four-year school. Bevo Francis of Rio Grande, Ohio, had scored 113 points in a game 11 days before Selvy’s outing, but it was against a junior college.

Selvy was a little guy by today’s NBA standards. He was about 6-3 and maybe 180 pounds, but, boy, could he shoot. He was the first player picked in the 1954 draft (by the Baltimore Bullets) and was traded to the Hawks in 1955. My friends and I were thrilled to be able to see him play and eager to see how our Coach Kosnar would stack up against him. I can’t remember many other players from the Hawks from that era, but I think Alex Hannum and Chuck Share might have been there.

Because they expected a larger than usual crowd and because neighboring Oconto High School had a big new gym, the game was played at Oconto. In those days, Oconto Falls and Oconto were fearsome rivals, but we were willing to go there to see the Lites play the Hawks. At that point in their history, the Hawks had just come off three pretty miserable seasons with the worst record in the NBA, but they were pros — and they had Pettit and Selvy.

Before the game, Frank Selvy put on a spectacular shooting exhibition, hitting quite a few half-court shots. Even the Hawks’ warm-up drills were pretty amazing to us country kids. There was a full-house crowd there to see the game.

It was a great game. Kelly Daanen and Joe Meeuwsen double-teamed Pettit inside and Romie Kosnar was practically inside Selvy’s jersey all night, matching him point for point. I can’t honestly tell you what the final score was, and I’m not even sure who won it. Those were not the most important things about the game. What was important to us was that our little-town Northern Lites had comported themselves well and our coach Romie Kosnar had shown the Hawks that he was a star!

It was the first time I’d ever seen an NBA team in person, and I remember how thrilled I was to be there for that game. Bob Pettit and Frank Selvy. Wow!

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.