Ohio is celebrating its 212th birthday with special events at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
Legend of the Waterloo Wonders Lives On as State Basketball Championships Begin
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Hundreds of high school basketball players and their families are traveling to Columbus over the next three days for the state finals. 75 years ago, an unlikely group of young men from a tiny town deep in southern Ohio made a similar trek, on their way to becoming legends.
George Hairston came from Lawrence County where his father, Magellan Hairston, was principal, teacher and basketball coach at Waterloo High School. During the 1933-34 academic year, Hairston says it was like the stars aligned to bring together a handful of young men who handled a basketball like no one else of their time.
Other high school teams were apparently no match for the Waterloo Wonders. Still, when they traveled to Columbus for their first state championship game in 1934, Hairston says the pressure on these young players must have been tremendous. He describes the first basket of the team’s first game in the state tournament.
“My father did in fact swear this was true. The young man from Waterloo walked to free throw line in front of the largest crowd of sports fans he’s seen, nervously looked at the basket, aimed carefully, bounced the ball off the floor through the hoop, and the game was on.”
Hairston says that story captures the essence of the Waterloo Wonders. They were talented and confident.
Ohio State University basketball great Bill Hosket, whose father played with the Wonders when they went pro, says the team had fun and entertained when they played. They were also able to win games with fewer than five players on the floor.
“If one guy wasn’t feeling well, he would leave the court, go sit in the stands and eat popcorn with the fans, then jump back out in the game.”
In the 1930′s, basketball had two divisions, A & B. As a small school, Waterloo was in Division B. But after their first state championship, the Wonders played all challengers including Division A and some college teams.
Hosket notes, the Waterloo Wonders then went on to win a second state championship in 1935.
“It wasn’t a fluke because they did it two years in a row. After they did it the first year and took on all comers, played absolutely anyone, then to do it professionally or what was professional at the time is pretty remarkable. “
Bill Hosket’s father was an All Big 10 center at Ohio State at the time the Wonders captured their second state championship. After college, Bill Hosket Sr. continued to play basketball. Eventually, he found his way to Waterloo. One member of the Wonders had gone to college, but the others declined scholarships. Hosket asked team members if hey wanted to barnstorm or compete on what was then a professional level. And they did.
Bill Hosket Sr. died at the age of 45. But a few years ago, his son had a chance to spend some time with the last surviving member of the team his father played with, Waterloo Wonder Stu Wiseman.
“After they won 58 straight games, they got beat at Greenfield on a controversial play,” Hosket says. “Stu Wiseman was in his 80′s and got up in his living room and was going through that last play of that game and how the ball had hit the ceiling and the game should have been over. It was amazing. His wife was sitting on the couch doing needlework. We’re sitting there drinking diet cokes, and he sets his drink down and he’s going over this last play at Greenfield which was 60 some years previous and finally, he said, Really, Bill. That game should’ve been over and we shoulda won.’ And Mary just looked up and said, Let it go, Stu, let it go.’”
Admittedly, the legend of the Waterloo Wonders has grown, but George Hairston has one more story he swears is true
They, on more than 1 occasion, would start a game. The first team would play until the half, run up the score. They would leave the assistant coach and substitute players to finish game, load in Magellan’s car, drive somewhere else and play a second game on the same night.”
The Waterloo Wonders won both games. Today, the gym where they played is gone. The school is gone. And there is apparently not a shred of film or audio from any of their games. But the stories continue.
“They were,” says Hairston, “as evidenced by the fact we’re telling the story 75 years later, wonderful ambassadors for small town kids from southern Ohio.”
WOUB News Manager Cheri Russo assisted with this story. In 2008, Russo produced a television documentary on the Waterloo Wonders. For more on that, please Google Waterloo Wonders WOUB.