Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Central Catholic National Catholic Basketball Champs

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – Feb 2015, No. 122)

Central Catholic National Catholic Basketball Champs

Basketball season in Indiana is a special time and its tradition-storied history is filled with tales retold and others that have faded with time.  According to Play On Celebrating 100 Years of High School Sports in Indiana, the book’s dust cover notes state, “Indiana without high school sports would be an unthinkable place.” Some would say more so before Class Basketball became the rule, however, looking back there were other issues.

 Somewhat forgotten as memories fade with time is the debilitating influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Indiana Klan had come into prominence in the 1920s. As such it had been successful in targeting, “Roman Catholics, followed by Jews, foreign-born immigrants and African-Americans” and succeeded in eliminating these groups from the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA).  

Play On goes on, “Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Association barred Catholic, private and segregated African-American schools from participating in IHSAA tournaments.  (However the) schools were under no probation against playing IHSAA schools during the regular season.”  That meant not playing in the celebrated annual state basketball tournament. 

Meanwhile, Catholic schools organized and participated in their own National Catholic Basketball league and held their own state tournament. Bob Heiny was a student at Fort Wayne’s Central Catholic High School and explained that his school joined that league, which presented its own playoff at the state level as well as a national tournament. The schools that turned in a winning season or won their state competition were invited to play for the National Catholic Basketball Championship title.  

By the end of the 1939 regular season, the Central Catholic (CC) basketball team finished its schedule losing only four of their twenty-one games. CC’s 1939 Echo yearbook reported the season’s results and how Coach John Levicki led his squad during the regular season competing against IHSAA and private schools alike. Among their seventeen wins were teams such as Elmhurst, Anderson, North Side and Concordia. The CC winning record qualified the team to compete in the State Catholic Tournament which they won beating Catholic schools from Anderson, Decatur and Indianapolis.  It earned them the right to compete in the Nationals.

In 1939, the CC’s hardwood squad included Jim Boedeker, George Bitler, Gene Maxwell, Ed Gorman, Bob Heiny, Ed Stanczak, Ed Dehner, Ed Klotz, John Falvy and Nick Leto.  The CC Irish swept Central Catholic of Wheeling, W.Va. 41-24, and Southeast Catholic of Philadelphia, Penna. 46-37. Moving on to the quarter finals they beat St. Basil’s of Pittsburg, Penna. 45-26. Now playing in Chicago they rolled over St. George of Evanston, Ill. 47-31. Hundreds of Fort Wayne fans traveled to the Loyola University gym and witnessed the final game which came down to the wire with Fort Wayne Central Catholic overcoming Chicago Leo Catholic High School with a final score of 44-37.

World War II brought change to the American culture.  Perhaps the changes had something to do with the IHSAA Athletic Council’s decision to no longer discriminate against any group from playing in its tournament. The exclusion rule that kept targeted groups which were perceived as a threat to the KKK was overturned on December 20, 1941, when the Council voted to end twenty years of discrimination.  

One other event took place before the ban was lifted that was ruled to become effective at the beginning of the 1942-1943 season.  The 1939 CC squad lost at least five of its players who were replaced in the 1940 season with the roster that included Ed Stancazk, Ed Klotz, Ed Dehner, Bob Heiny, Nick Leto, Harold Morthorst, John Kartholl, Dick Krouse, Bob Walker and Bert Keenen.  After Fort Wayne CC took both the 1939 State and National Tournament titles…they did it again in 1940.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

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