Babetch truly is a living legend
By MARK PERLMAN
Back in the mid-1950s, Harvey Babetch had a decision to make. He was drafted by the St. Louis (now Atlanta) Hawks of the NBA. But he was also offered a contract to play with a professional all-star team against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Easy choice, considering the opportunity to play with future Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit and against the likes of Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes in the NBA. Or was it?
"The owner of the Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein, called me in to his office and told me I would do things the next three years that I would never be able to do," Babetch recollected. "And, he was absolutely right."
From New Zealand to Australia, from France to Germany to England and beyond, Babetch and his Texas Cowboys professional all-star team played against the Globetrotters around the world. In Spain, Babetch and the Cowboys played in front of 80,000 fans in an outdoor soccer stadium with people sitting in the mountains surrounding the field.
"In the NBA there would be 4,000 fans or so at games," said the long-time Highland Park resident. "When we played against the Globetrotters, there would be 30,000 people in the stands."
One of the more interesting trips wasn't even on the itinerary.
"We ran into thunderstorms and had to request permission to land in China," Babetch said. "We played an exhibition game for them and they just loved it."
The appeal of the Globetrotters led many NBA superstars to spend summer time on the tour. Babetch marvels that he had a chance to play with both Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, as well as long-time Globetrotter greats Reece "Goose" Tatum, Marcus Haynes and Ermer Robinson.
"Wilt was the strongest player I've ever seen and Oscar always seemed to get a triple-double. You couldn't beat him," Babetch said.
Prior to his world travels, Babetch turned heads with his play at Bradley University, scoring more than 1,500 points in his career. He led the Braves to the NCAA championship game against LaSalle in 1954, which the Explorers won behind NCAA Hall of Famer Tom Gola.
As a freshman in 1952, highlighting the Braves season was a 61-60 home-court upset over powerhouse St. Louis. Babetch hit a late basket to decide the game.
"I let it fly from the coffin corner (baseline) and it went right through," Babetch said. "My captain told me to shoot it. If I missed from the corner I figured I would just run out the door."
Although the two-handed set shot and the one-handed runner were the hallmarks of the game back in the '50s, Babetch used a one-handed jump shot, one of the first players to do so. He lamented one thing that was missing in those days.
"If we only had the three-point shot ... ," smiled Babetch.
At 6-foot-3, 187 pounds, Babetch wasn't the biggest player in college, but he could rebound with the very best of them.
"I was a very physical player," Babetch winked.
As an All-City player at Chicago's Von Steuben High School, Babetch averaged 38.1 points per game, which included a Kobe Bryant-like 87 points in a single contest.
"On my first shot, a teammate passed me the ball, and when I reached for it the ball tipped off my fingers and went in. It was just one of those days," Babetch understated.
All that from someone who almost didn't play basketball. Babetch was an avid swimmer as a youngster and came close to having a tough choice to make.
"We lived right on the border of Von Steuben and Roosevelt high schools, just a block in the Von Steuben district," said Babetch. "I loved swimming, but Von Steuben didn't have a swim team -- Roosevelt did."
Babetch is a member of several Halls of Fames, including Bradley University, Von Steuben, the Chicago Public League, Illinois State, Greater Peoria Sports and the Chicago Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. basketball team in the 1953 Maccabi Games in Tel Aviv.
Harvey isn't the only family member to star in sports. Daughters Leslie, Lauri and Sheri were stars at Niles North, while grandson Matt Shamis is playing basketball at Lehigh. Matt's sister, Abby, is a standout ice skater and a volleyball player at Glenbrook North, while brother Jordan played with the Spartans' State runner-up volleyball team. Two other grandchildren, Kevin and Steven O'Hair, are baseball players, respectively at SIU and Arizona Junior College. Niece Jamie Babetch was an all-conference soccer defender at Libertyville and is playing at Winona St. University this fall.
Babetch, 76, and his wife, Lynn, have lived in Highland Park for the past 20 years.
He is retired from the family's auto scrap parts business. Retirement has suited him just fine, as he plays golf four days a week, switching off from Sunset Valley Golf Course to Highland Park Country Club and Deerfield Golf Club.