My recent column about former Kansas University basketball star Fred Pralle caused me to look more closely at the golden 1931-40 KU span. It convinced me that this decade is something of a black hole of anonymity for far too many Jayhawk stars, Pralle among them.
In that '31-40 period, Phog Allen's Kansas teams won seven clear-cut Big Six championships and tied for an eighth. Who has done that lately? You don't win like that without exceptional players. Phog was a great coach, but he also lured outstanding performers to Lawrence. In all the excitement about post-World War II achievements, many forget Kansas' lush tradition includes numerous standouts from the 1930s.
Probably the best-remembered KU team of that decade was the club of 1940 (the new decade didn't begin until 1941). KU was tied for the league title by Oklahoma and Missouri. After a league playoff, it beat Oklahoma State, Rice and heavily favored Southern Cal before losing in the NCAA finals to Indiana.
The NCAA tourney didn't even begin until 1939, ever so quietly, of course. When the '3l through '39 guys finished their regular seasons, they hung up the gumsoles and turned to other things. High-profile postseason play was non-existent, media coverage was modest, at best. Year-around camps, tourneys and conditioning programs of this day and age were only dreams of visionaries like Allen.
Phog more than anyone else got basketball included in the Olympic Games in 1936 (Berlin). But war in Europe knocked out the 1940 and '44 Olympics and the sport wasn't again played at that level until 1948.
The 1940 KU team got special national attention mainly because it upset a touted, glamorous Southern California team that nobody was supposed to stand up to. I was there, at age 15, running around Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium floor going nuts and getting Jayhawk autographs. If I hadn't been a KU zealot before, my fate was sealed that wondrous night.
That '40 KU club finished at 19-6 and the guys who made it happen were Herb Hartman, James Arnold, John Kline, T.P. Hunter (lost during the war), Ralph Miller, Bruce Reid, John Krum, Bruce Voran, Bob Johnson, Bob Allen, Robert Woodward, Dick Harp, Don Ebling, Howard Engleman and Bill Hogben. Maybe you've heard of a few of them. I had most of their autographs (they didn't charge for them in those days). But my treasure disappeared while I was away with the Air Corps later on. Damn, I hate that!
But then there were the guys from '31 through '39. Some say Pralle was the greatest of these. Seems general agreement says his jersey should go up in Allen Fieldhouse posthaste, while at age 80 he's alive to savor it.
The All-Big Six stars were Tom Bishop and Frosty Cox (1931); Ted O'Leary, Bill Johnson and Lee Page ('32); Johnson ('33); Ebling ('34); Dick Wells and Ebling ('35); Ebling, Francis Kappelman and Fred Pralle ('36); Pralle ('37); Pralle ('38); Lyman Corlis ('39); Ralph Miller, Bob Allen and Howard Engleman ('40).
Another guy too often overlooked when Kansas fans wax poetic about court immortals is Ray Ebling. Others will tell you Bill "Skinny" Johnson could, and did, play with anybody at any level. Pralle and Engleman were chosen All-America, along with Ebling and Johnson.
Bill Johnson out of Oklahoma City is in the Naismith Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., and was considered the dominant center of his time. He helped KU win three straight league titles and at 6-4 was incredible when there was a center jump after every basket. After graduation, he played AAU ball, then better than the NBA, for Southern Kansas Stage Lines. He made AAU All-America, same as Pralle did for the powerful Phillips Oilers.
In the 1920s, Kansas got national attention because of the Helms Hall of Fame emphasis on stars like Dutch Lonborg, Paul Endacott and Charlie Black No. l. In the 1940s, before and after War II, there was visibility for Bob Allen, Engleman, Miller, Ray Evans, Otto Schnellbacher, Charlie Black No. 2 (a four-time All-American), Claude Houchin and Jerry Waugh, John Buescher, Gordon Reynolds and Kirk Scott, to cite the all-leaguers.
Then came the 1950s and the Lovellette Era, the Bandy-Legged Gamecocks of 1953 and the two-year Wilt Chamberlain span. Teddy Owens did some nifty things as coach in the 1960s and 1970s and Larry Brown-Danny Manning and Roy Williams and Co. made the joint jump in the 1980s and 1990s.
But we too often forget those great teams and players at Kansas in the 1930s, working out in old Robinson Gym and playing home games on that shin-shattering Hoch Auditorium court.
Man, what a collection of superstars Allen and his Jayhawks provided for their fans in those days -- with a lousy home showcase, Olympic newness, no NCAA tournament to aim for, the NBA nothing to boast about and the best thing available a good job with an AAU team like Phillips.
Unsung and sometimes forgotten, maybe. But every bit as great in their own day as anyone before or since.