Ken Buehler: Sheboygan Red Skins

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Ken Buehler: Sheboygan Red Skins

Postby rlee » Tue Nov 27, 2007 2:56 am

Buehler recalls his lone full season of pro basketball with 1942-43 NBL champion Sheboygan Red Skins

By Brian Gaynor
Sheboygan Press

When he pedals his bicycle under palm trees and past Spanish stucco, Ken Buehler is reminded how far he has traveled from Sheboygan and the winter of 1942-43.

Distance aside, many layers of life have been recorded: World War II on an assault transport ship, dental school at Marquette, family, 35 years as a dentist in Menomonee Falls and 20 years of retirement in Florida.

But while Buehler, 88, says he rarely thinks of that winter, he acknowledges it is impossible to forget.

It was his only full season of professional basketball, when he was the third-leading scorer on a Sheboygan Red Skins team that won the city's only major-league championship. He was named rookie of the year in the National Basketball League, a forerunner of today's NBA.

"No one ever informed me of (the award)," Buehler says, chuckling. "I was too busy winning the war."

In 1942, The Sheboygan Press dubbed the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Buehler one of the best "spring men" the Red Skins had ever had.

"I was particularly good at timing the jump," says Buehler, who lives in South Palm Beach. "I had a way of figuring out how the ball was going to come off the rim and then doing something with it once it came off."

The season also raised the curtain on a new arena with the NBL's largest floor: 90 feet by 50 feet. The Red Skins, after occupying the 1,500-seat Eagle Auditorium downtown for their first four seasons, played their first NBL game in the 3,500-seat Sheboygan Armory 65 years ago Sunday. Buehler scored 14 points in the 53-45 win over the Chicago Studebaker Flyers.

"I thought the Armory was great compared to my high school facility," Buehler says of his prep days in 665-person Edgar, in Marathon County. "We didn't have any showers and we played in the fire station upstairs, which was set up as a theater. The floor was so short the center circle and free-throw circle overlapped."

Buehler's offensive punch with the Red Skins was no more apparent than during an exhibition win over the famed New York Renaissance on Dec. 11, 1942, at the Milwaukee Auditorium. The former Milwaukee State Teachers College star left to a standing ovation after scoring a season-high 30 points.

"Everything went right," Buehler says. "I even batted in a rebound from the free-throw line with my back to the basket."

Sheboygan started with a 5-2 mark, but lost eight of its next nine games. It appeared the season was slipping away.

Then head coach Carl Roth made an announcement on Jan. 30, 1943, that would alter Sheboygan's direction. Efforts by the Red Skins Booster Club had enabled the team to sign former Detroit Eagles star Buddy Jeannette, who had been working in a defense plant in Rochester, N.Y.

"They wanted me bad," Jeannette said in the 1990 book, "Cages to Jump Shots." "I hemmed and hawed and finally said, 'Well, I'll take $500 a game.' They said, 'Be here Saturday.' "

Jeannette, who arrived when the Red Skins had a 7-10 record, averaged 15.5 points per game while playing in four of Sheboygan's six remaining NBL contests.

"When Buddy Jeannette joined the team, that certainly elevated my hopes," Buehler says of the 5-11 guard inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. "He was fast and could handle the ball well."

Jeannette commuted from Rochester for each game and took home his rich earnings (Buehler said he made $200 a month, about the team norm.).

"They paid me in cash," Jeannette, who died in 1998, told the author Robert W. Peterson. "And when I got on the train at 2 o'clock in the morning (at the Chicago & North Western depot on Pennsylvania Avenue), I'd keep my hand over my money in my inside pocket."

With Jeannette on board, the team finished 5-1, including a crucial win Feb. 4 over the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in which Buehler had 19 points. Buehler scored 165 points in 22 games for a productive 7.5 average.

"Where (center and leading scorer) Eddie Dancker was outstanding, Kenny Buehler was right under him," says former Zollner Pistons coach Carl Bennett, nearly 92 and still in Fort Wayne, Ind. "A good jumper. Ken was just one of those fellas who showed up for work."

Buehler also showed up for his country. A V-7 reserve, he was called to active duty in mid-February 1943, entered officers' training school at Columbia University in New York and 90 days later was on a ship carrying troops to the Aleutian Islands. The Red Skins held a special ceremony for him after his last home game on Feb. 15.

"They gave me a black Onyx ring with a Navy emblem on it," Buehler remembers. "I thanked the Sheboygan fans and said I looked forward to coming back after the war."

Franchise bedrocks Dancker, No. 2 scorer Rube Lautenschlager and captain Kenny Suesens helped Sheboygan push aside the Oshkosh All-Stars in the first round of the playoffs. Then Suesens anchored a league-leading defense that kept the Red Skins nearly even with the Zollner Pistons in decisive Game 3 of the NBL finals at noisy Fort Wayne North High School.

On March 9, 1943, Sheboygan trailed 29-28 with 6 seconds left when the ball was pitched to Dancker, who lofted a hook shot from about 25 feet that banked off the board and went in and secured the inaugural Naismith Memorial Trophy.

"I'll never forget it; that cost us a championship," Bennett says. "I'm sitting on the bench and Dancker is right in front of me. I could have pulled the hair on his legs. He wasn't really looking at the basket and just sort of threw it up."

According to The United Press, there was "a near riot after the final whistle" and police were called.

"Fort Wayne, I think, had a better team, but apparently that wasn't the case," Buehler says of the Zollner Pistons, who finished five games ahead of the Red Skins with a 17-6 record.

Buehler kept his word and returned to Sheboygan after the war. He played in three NBL games for Red Skins coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dutch Dehnert at the end of 1945-46. The next season, he signed with Bennett's Fort Wayne club and played eight games before developing a knee problem.

"Nobody dunked; nobody ever tried," says Buehler, recognizing the athletic gulf between eras. "I could get my wrist over the rim, but you've got to get up higher than that. I remember talking at length with Kenny Suesens at Pine Hills years later. He said, 'We used to stumble over the lines on the floor compared to these guys today.' "

Buehler has two faulty knees these days, but he keeps his legs moving, riding his bicycle 30 miles a week under a canopy of palms. And during timeouts, he allows an occasional mental excursion back to his basketball youth when he was Sheboygan's "spring man."
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