John Wooden the Wizard of Whiting
The game of basketball was invented in 1892 as a wintertime activity at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is now known as Springfield College. The sport quickly grew in popularity. By the 1890s, some colleges began to adopt the sport. By 1898 the first professional basketball league was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Whiting, Indiana’s, entrance into basketball began nearly a decade after James Naismith first invented the sport.
In November of 1893, the Owls Club was organized. The Owls Club maintained a variety of athletic teams, but it was its basketball team that gained the organization its fame. The club was the first organization in Lake County to sponsor a basketball team. Because there were not many teams, the Owls drew their competition from the few squads that had been organized in Chicago.
By the 1920s, almost every major college and university in America had basketball teams. These programs competed against other colleges, professional organizations, athletic clubs, YMCAs and even some high schools. During the 1930s, the game of basketball had grown in popularity among sports fans in the Calumet region. By 1935, the Great Depression was already in the midst of its 6th year. Although not a very lucrative career, professional basketball provided athletes and fans an escape from the day-to-day toils.
Ed Ciesar, a dapper young automobile dealer in Whiting, decided to capitalize on this popular new phenomenon. Ciesar sold Chryslers and Plymouths, as well as, running an auto repair shop located on Indianapolis Boulevard. He was known as quite the promoter in the area. Even during the Depression, Ciesar had record sales averaging 300 to 400 cars per year. According to Todd Gould’s book, Pioneers of the Hardwood, “Anywhere you went in the Region it seemed like every car had a ‘Ciesar’ name on the back of it, mused longtime friend Joe Sotak.”
In the Midwest, a number of teams operated on a semi-professional basis. During this time, squads were either connected to industries or owned by local businessmen who were infatuated by the sport. These private business owners supported teams as a way to market their individual products and/or advertise their store. The Whiting Ciesar All Americans started its basketball career playing in Whiting, Indiana’s, industrial league. In 1935, Paul Sheeks, head coach and manager of the Akron Goodyears, and Frank Kautsky, head coach and owner of the Indianapolis Kautskys, formed the Midwest Basketball Conference, which Whiting joined for the 1936-1937 season.
Although the All Americans missed making the playoffs, Ciesar booked an engagement with the mighty New York Celtics. The Whiting promoter invited coaches and players from across the Region to attend the contest held in Whiting’s Community Center. During the game, the Celtics put on a stunning exhibition of basketball prowess in front of a sellout crowd. Ciesar brought in John Wooden for the exhibition game but his 15 points was not enough. The Hammond Times announced after the game that Ciesar had signed Wooden to a one-year contract. The Times predicted that the Ciesars, “will be back stronger than ever next year.”
John Robert Wooden was born on October 14, 1910, the third of six children. He grew up in Centerton, Indiana, just north of Martinsville. His father, Joshua, an accomplished baseball player in his day, ran a large family farm. Wooden played basketball as a member of the Martinsville Artesians. Wooden’s basketball success in high school culminated in 1927 when Martinsville won Indiana’s Top 16 Tournament.
Wooden went on to Purdue University where he was named an All American three times under Hall of Fame coach Piggy Lambert. Wooden was named College Player of the Year in his senior (1931-32) season. When Wooden graduated from Purdue in 1932, there were few opportunities to make a living playing professional basketball in the Midwest. Wooden did what many other stars of the era did. He turned his energies primarily to coaching and limited his playing time to weekend games.
In the fall of 1937, Midwest Conference officials met to determine which teams would continue as members of the newly organized National Basketball League. The signing of Wooden brought the Ciesar All Americans to the forefront of professional basketball notoriety. Fans and prospective players could see that Ciesar was putting together a team built on success allowing him to recruit next level players. Ed Ciesar knew that by signing big name talent this would also attract a larger number of fans.
The Ciesar All Americans ended the regular season with a 12-3 record, thanks in large part to the prowess of Wooden. However, the Oshkosh All Stars outdid themselves during the playoffs. The All Stars ended the Whiting Ciesars season by sweeping the Western Division series two games to none. Throughout the season, John Wooden was the leading scorer for the All Americans.
Although Ed Ciesar typically offered $50 per game contracts to his players, the contracts were often confusing. This confusion often led to Ciesar losing some of his top talent. Frank Kautsky, owner of the Indianapolis Kautskys, was Ciesar’s greatest competition in signing away players. According to the book Pioneers of the Hardwood, “Frank Kautsky and Eddie always argued over ball players, particularly the ones coming out of big colleges, like Indiana University and Purdue University.” Kautsky’s willingness to pay players more money made it difficult for Ciesar to not only get, but also keep the better players in the National Basketball League.
Wooden claimed that Ciesar’s unorthodox handling of players’ paychecks led to his departure from the team. During the 1938-1939 season, team members often car-pooled to out-of-town games. On one such road game, Wooden and teammate Bill Perigo ran into some bad weather which caused them to miss the first half of the game. After the game, Wooden and Perigo’s check was only half of the agreed upon amount. When the players protested, Ciesar claimed that they only played half of the game, so they would only get half their paycheck. Wooden informed Ciesar that he and Perigo would be going home and would not play in the next contest. According to Wooden, “I protested that if he (Ciesar) was going to treat us this way, we were leaving. He eventually gave us our money, but he raised an awful fuss.” Wooden and Perigo finished the road series, but their days were numbered. John Wooden was soon traded to the Indianapolis Kautskys.
After his playing days were long over, John Wooden entered the coaching ranks. He became the winningest coach in college basketball history at UCLA. His Bruins set records that are unapproachable, including: ten NCAA championships in twelve years; 88 consecutive victories; and four perfect 30-0 seasons. During his twenty-seven years as coach of the Bruins, he compiled 620 wins against 147 losses and was named College Coach of the Year six times. He was the first person (and one of only two) to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. He passed away on June 4, 2010.