Lil' Herm

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Lil' Herm

Postby sweetsh0t » Sun Jan 26, 2014 1:12 pm

Just wanted to post this story written by Todd Gould a few years ago for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame Magazine. With all the titles he won, he wasn't even considered one of the "top 100" players of the 20th century in Indiana. In 11 seasons,(from 1940-1950) he won an NCAA championship, 2 All Service championships (during WWII) and 6 world championships.

Li’l Herm
Court Leader Herm Schaefer “Never Played for a Loser”
By Todd Gould

In the years prior to the formation of the NBA, the National Basketball League was the nation’s premier professional circuit. And the Fort Wayne Pistons (later to become the Detroit Pistons of the NBA) was the hottest team in the league. In the spring of 1943, the North Side High School gymnasium in Fort Wayne was the scene for one of the most exciting professional basketball games in the early history of the league.
The site was host to the final contest in a three-game playoff series between the Pistons and the Chicago Studebakers, a talented franchise with a roster that featured a number of talented African American players (extremely rare at a time when segregation in major sporting events ran rampant). The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette wrote of the opponents, “The semi-dusky club from the Windy City is one of the fastest, best-conditioned and most-accurate shooting clubs in the country today.”
Leading the Pistons were some of the nation’s most gifted professional basketball players, including Hall-of-Famers Paul Birch and Bobby McDermott, two outstanding shooters from the New York area, and the hometown favorites, Paul “Curly” Armstrong and Herman “Herm” Schaefer, a talented tandem who once played high school ball together in Fort Wayne.
Most basketball fans in the Summit City expected a hard-fought series against Chicago. They were not disappointed. The Pistons captured the first game of the series in Fort Wayne, but the Studebakers battled back to take game two in Chicago. It came down to one final showdown at North Side High School, where fans packed the tiny arena in eager anticipation of the heated competition.
Early in the contest, a giddy hysteria overtook the crowd as the Pistons pulled ahead of the Studebakers by 12 points. Suddenly, the gym grew quiet. During a fast break, a Chicago player accidentally slammed into the Pistons’ Herm Schaefer. The collision sent the Fort Wayne point guard through the air and out of bounds.
Unfortunately for Schaefer, additional seats had been placed near the floor to accommodate the overflow crowd, and his unexpected flight sent spectators sprawling as he smashed into the temporary seats. With blood streaming down his face, he boarded an ambulance that rushed him to St. Joseph’s Hospital for treatment.
Fans watched anxiously as the Pistons’ lead shrank from 12 to six points in the final quarter. With only minutes remaining in the game a sudden cheer went up. Both teams looked to the sideline to see Schaefer slowly jogging back onto the floor.
With a black eye that was nearly swollen shut and stitches above his left brow, the former Fort Wayne high school star showed an intense type of courage that thrilled the hometown crowd. He also gave the Pistons’ offensive attack added momentum. In the last four minutes of the game, Fort Wayne built its lead back to 12 points and coasted past Chicago, 44-32, to advance to the league championship.
Courage, fortitude, determination—characteristics that captured the true essence of Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame player and coach Herm Schaefer, one of the nation’s most successful and least heralded basketball stars.
Schaefer’s basketball career began in the fourth grade, where he led his Fort Wayne grammar school team to the city championship. It would be the first of many top honors for Herm, who once boasted that he “never played for a loser.” While playing for his grade school team, he first met Paul Armstrong, a small, shy lad with a mop of thick, curly black hair. “Li’l Herm” (he was the smallest on the team) and “Curly” (so dubbed because of his hair) hit if off instantly, forging an off-court friendship and on-court partnership that would last nearly two decades.
From grade school, the two school chums advanced to Fort Wayne Central High School, where they led the Tigers to the state finals in 1936. Throughout the years, Schaefer and Armstrong perfected passing and scoring plays to each other. Their timing on fast breaks was impeccable. They perfected the back-door cut and the “no look” pass. Fort Wayne News Sentinel sportswriter Ben Tenny once commented that the two were more than teammates, “…they are the two halves that make the perfect whole.”
After high school both Schaefer and Armstrong traveled to Indiana University to play for legendary coach Branch McCracken. The fiery coach instantly saw important leadership qualities in the young Schaefer and named him team captain his sophomore season. In three consecutive years of varsity competition, Schaefer and the Hoosiers finished second in the Big Ten standings. They topped off their run with a trip to the NCAA championships in 1940. Schaefer led the team in scoring during the tournament, as the Hoosiers captured their first NCAA crown.
After college, Schaefer returned to the Summit City in 1941 at the request of Carl Bennett, general manager of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, a club owned by millionaire auto parts manufacturer Fred Zollner. Unlike the multi-million dollar business of today’s NBA, professional basketball was still an unstable industry in the 1940s. For players on Fred Zollner’s teams to earn a living, they agreed to work day jobs in the Zollner Machine Works plant, and then signed a modest basketball contract to play games on nights and weekends when the plant was closed.
Schaefer’s contract with Bennett detailed his responsibilities on the factory floor, with additional bonus funds promised from a basketball “kitty” collected from gate receipts at the end of the season. Schaefer signed his contract, agreeing to act as player/coach for the franchise. He was 22 years old.
His first move was to travel to Indianapolis, where his old pal Paul “Curly” Armstrong settled, and convince his on-court partner to come back home and play alongside him in the Pistons’ backcourt. Armstrong readily agreed. Together the two joined Paul Birch, Harold “Buddy” Jeanette, and Bobby McDermott, three all-pro talents, to create one of the most potent scoring machines in the league.
Fred Zollner’s battle cry was “Major League.” Carl Bennett remembered, “Everything, from the factory floor to the basketball floor, had to be the best.” The Pistons, with Schaefer at the helm, ensured that the millionaire owner was true to his word when it came to basketball. “Li’l Herm” averaged eight points and four assists per game, but also provided needed leadership among the highly talented group. The Pistons won three consecutive World Professional Tournament titles and two NBL league championships during the 1940s, becoming pro basketball’s first “dynasty team.”
His only break from league action came in 1943-44, when he joined the Great Lakes Naval Station team during World War II. There he led his squad to the National Service Championship while garnering top league scoring honors. Runner-up for the scoring trophy was none other than “Curly” Armstrong, his teammate at Great Lakes.
In 1947, Schaefer moved to Minnesota when he saw great potential in a newly formed franchise, the Minneapolis Lakers. The club had just acquired the nation’s top big man, George Mikan, from the defunct Chicago American Gears franchise. As well, they had drafted Jim Pollard, one of the country’s top AAU stars from Stanford. Coach Johnny Kundla brought the seasoned Schaefer on board to lead his extremely talented, but young, team through the often turbulent waters of the professional league.
In his book Mr. Basketball: George Mikan’s Own Story, the Hall-of-Fame center recalled a meeting in which Schaefer pulled Mikan aside and told him, “This is a lot faster league than you think it is. And no matter how big a man you were with the Gears, you can’t win these games all by yourself. If you and Pollard play together, we can finish ten games ahead of everybody.”
Mikan listened. The big center finished the year as the league’s scoring leader at 21.3 points per game. Pollard finished sixth in league scoring at 13 points per game. At nearly ten points per game, Schaefer was the team’s third leading scorer. But former players attested to the fact that his real value was as the team’s captain and floor general, a defensive specialist and assist leader who ensured that Mikan, Pollard and Company got the ball in their hands at the right time and in the right position to score easy baskets.
The Lakers finished first in the Western Division by 13 games and won the league title that year. By 1949 the club added Slater Martin and Vern Mikkelson to their talented cast. When Minneapolis became a charter member of the newly formed National Basketball Association (today’s NBA), the Lakers were the dominant team in the league. Schaefer, Mikan, Pollard, Martin and Mikkelson mowed down their opponents by an average of 15 points per game. Under Schaefer’s guidance, Minneapolis won three consecutive league championships. To this day, the 1949 Lakers are ranked as one of the best teams in NBA history.
For three seasons, from 1949-51, Herm considered hanging up his sneakers and joining the coaching ranks. Each season Minneapolis coach Johnny Kundla talked him into remaining on the team as captain and point guard. Finally, in the autumn of 1951, he left his playing days behind to take over the head coaching responsibilities for the Indianapolis Olympians.
The Olympians were one of the most highly touted young teams in the NBA. Five college basketball teammates from the University of Kentucky, led by All-Americans Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, had joined the pro ranks together when the NBA offered them their own franchise and awarded them shared ownership in the team.
As an all-rookie team in 1949, the Olympians shocked the NBA with their fast break style of play and disciplined defense. They reached the playoffs in their very first season. Now with new coach Herm Schaefer, a proven winner, leading the club, a buzz of excitement filled Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, as fans awaited a season of great promise.
But the team was dealt a staggering blow just one week into the season. Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, the Olympians’ all-pro tandem, were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that dated back to their careers at the University of Kentucky. Federal investigators pulled in several players for questioning in the incident, including Schaefer, who attested to the fact that no point shaving had occurred with the Olympians franchise.
Indeed the Indianapolis club owned a squeaky clean record when it came to dealings with known gamblers and racketeers. But Beard and Groza were still held accountable for their actions at the collegiate level. The NBA banned the two superstars “for life,” stripping them of their ownership in the team. Olympians stock dropped from $10,000 to $1,000 practically overnight. The team was in a shambles, and rumors abounded that the franchise would soon fold.
It would have all collapsed…had it not been for Herm Schaefer. When the press questioned Schaefer’s old pal “Buddy” Jeanette on the scandal, he replied, “Herm Schaefer knows his basketball…Don’t count these guys out yet.” The rookie coach set out to restructure the team with his remaining core of blue-collar players. He promoted tiny, 5’9” Ralph “Buckshot” O’Brien to point guard, nurtured a big-boned kid named Joe Graboski into one of the league’s premier centers, and leveled the scoring responsibilities onto the sturdy shoulders of Leo Barnhorst, an all-American workhorse from Notre Dame.
The press dubbed them “the Cinderella kids.” And, yet, the new-look Olympians responded with a type of quiet, no-nonsense determination that perfectly reflected their coach. One reporter noted, “Schaefer kept the pallbearers idle with a mixture of strategy, psychology, college try, mumbo-jumbo and guts. He took a team of underrated workmen and convinced them that they were good.”
Opponents who often underestimated the club soon found themselves on the losing end of the proposition. The team once destined for bankruptcy finished with a 34-32 record (winning three more games than the previous year with Beard and Groza) and earned a trip to the playoffs. Though they eventually lost to Minneapolis, the Olympians were heralded throughout the league for their ability to bounce back after adversity. For his efforts, Schaefer was named consensus coach of the year.
From grammar school champ to NBA coach of the year…Herm Schaefer earned practically every distinction that existed for a basketball player in his day. George Mikan once said of his talented teammate, “Herm played with his head…He was a smart player.” But undoubtedly, players were inspired as much by his heart as his head.
When Herm laughed with one Minneapolis reporter about the fact that he “never played with a loser,” the reporter penned, “It works the other way around, too. There are lots of basketball teams which have said, ‘We just can’t lose with Schaefer in the lineup.’” Whether paired with Armstrong, McDermott, Pollard, Mikan, Jeanette or any of the unlikely heroes of the Indianapolis Olympians, Schaefer always brought out the best in himself and others. “Herm Schaefer stands among his deeds,” noted journalist Frank Anderson, “And they’re big, bold, deeds.”
# # # # #
Todd Gould is an Emmy Award-winning writer and television producer from Indianapolis. He is the author of Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball.
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