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Famed pro hoop team barnstormed through Ada over a century ago

By Cort Reynolds

In my constant reading and search for more historical and sports knowledge, I came across an interesting bit of hoop history tied to Ada in a book I bought this spring.

As a native of Indiana and lifelong player, chronicler and historian of the game, I am always looking for new information on basketball history. 

My extensive personal library has hundreds of basketball books, dozens of biographies, many old Basketball Digest and Street and Smith's magazines, annual handbooks, and other team histories, as well as some of my own self-published trivia game books.

Having been a college sports information director at my alma mater, sports editor, newspaper editor and freelance writer, as well as keen observer of the game on all levels, I have seen a lot.

In addition I organized, played and basically ran the noon weekday and Sunday basketball games at Ohio Northern for years, even going so far as keeping score (mentally) and bringing the balls we played with. This long run was brought to a painful end only by the pandemic of 2020.

When I was reading the book Cages to Jump Shots by Robert Peterson, the author mentioned an influential early 20th century basketball promoter/manager of Hungarian Jewish descent named Frank J. Basloe. 

Basloe was born in Vienna in 1887 but immigrated to America a few years later with his family. His father Yusuf never learned to read or write English, yet ran a successful business.

Long after his retirement from the game and anxious for the game's provenance to be set straight, the resourceful Basloe wrote a book about his experiences in the seminal development of the quintessential American game.

His 1951 book argued that the game was actually invented in Herkimer, New York–not Springfield, Massachusetts by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, as is universally accepted today. And Basloe also recounted his role in helping popularize the game through his barnstorming All-Star teams.

Intrigued and a bit skeptical, I decided to buy the book Basloe wrote called I Grew Up with Basketball, sub-titled "20 years of Barnstorming with Cage Greats of Yesteryear." 

In the entertaining 210-page book full of anecdotes and wild escapades describing the early days of pro basketball before organized leagues, Basloe claims and recounts that their local YMCA director, Lambert Will, actually came up with many of the foundational rules for the game–not Naismith, as most everyone thinks today. 

One state over in Massachusetts, Naismith was working on rules for a new winter indoor game that his Springfield College students could use for exercise. He didn't want it to be as rough as rugby, focusing on teamwork, skill and conditioning. 

The Canadian native remembered a game from his youth called “duck on a rock" where kids attempted to hit a target by throwing rocks, which was the genesis of shooting a basketball at a goal extended above the floor.

He found that it was easier to do so by throwing with an arch, and remembered this for his new game. Nearby peach baskets were suspended from the YMCA balcony at 10 feet because that was how high the balcony was. 

Originally they used a soccer ball, and he had wanted a box to shoot it in, but instead they wisely used the available peach baskets (hence the term basket ball, two words at the time). The baskets did not have the bottom cut out, so a pole was used to poke the ball out of the bottom after a made basket.

Naismith corresponded with other local YMCA directors on his idea, and Basloe claims that his local YMCA guru (Will) actually wrote him back with many novel rule inventions. Many of his ideas were borne out of playing the game, experimenting and inventing rules on the fly, such as 20-minute halves.

He said Naismith never wrote Will back yet incorporated many of the Herkimer director's ideas into his rules. At the time, local YMCA's played a huge role in spreading the game, beingone of the few places to play it.

Incidentally, Naismith hated dribbling and wanted that written out of the 13 original rules, preferring the ball be advanced only by passing. Players today would have a hard time adjusting to this with their incessant over-dribbling!

Basloe, an enterprising sort, was entranced by the new game. He dropped out of school and formed his own team of local players, coaching and even playing with the team at times when injuries occurred or subs were needed. But usually, the same five players would play the entire game for each team.

An entrepreneurial sort, he would pull all kinds of stunts to make money. One of his favorite tricks was to pack several "World Champion" banners for each trip and sell them to teams they lost to–something they rarely did–for as much as $30-75 apiece, a huge sum at the time.

After a while he started taking his team of All-Stars by train through all sorts of bad winter weather to different parts of New York, and then the midwest. Eventually they would even play in national tournaments on the west coast.

By 1910 his well-known Oswego Indian All-Stars were traveling as far as Wisconsin (Fond du Lac had top teams) and Chicago to play games for pay against teams he had scheduled. 

His players were all Caucasian, but Basloe found that billing them as Native Americans seemed more exotic and piqued interest, bringing out fans intrigued to see them play. In early years, they even dressed like Indians and painted themselves to look more Native American.

As time wore on, the Indian moniker was dropped and they were called the Oswego All Stars.

On one trip out west in 1912, Basloe scheduled games on their foray against teams in Cleveland, Toledo, Lima, Celina and Ada.

On pages 106-07 of his book, Basloe recounts his team's first stay in Ada, where they played the Company G team in the Armory, which was only about 10 years old then and still stands at 124 E. Buckeye. His account of their stay is unflattering.

He jokingly wrote that his team stayed overnight during a freezing winter night in an unnamed hotel that "was probably built by an Indian about the time Columbus bumped into America. The rooms were pips.

"Doors swung on one-screw hinges. It had kerosene lights that smoked up the dingy little rooms in the night in less time than it took to find the chamber pot under the bed.

"The bathroom...was at least a hundred yards from the hotel. I made arrangements with the owner of the hotel (he was also janitor and bartender) to borrow his heavy fur overcoat the next morning (to use the outhouse) after he got the wood needed to start the fires.

"I got up at 6 a.m. (to use the bathroom but it was too cold to venture out). Snow had fallen all night. The drifts were very high in spots. It was terribly cold...the room was ice-cold.

"At breakfast, I ruined the budget with a breach of midwestern etiquette. The waitress brought in a large bowl of Grapenuts and set it down in front of me with a pitcher of cream. I poured most of the cream on the cereal and began eating. The rest of the team sat around the table looking hungry.

" 'Aren't you going to have any cereal, boys?' " I asked.

The waitress came back and said, "'don't you know that bowl is for all the boys?'"

"It cost me a nickel extra to get five more dishes of Grapenuts. A nickel out of our budget at that time was a big hole. The hotel charged 25 cents for breakfast, 50 cents for dinner and 75 cents for double-beds. 

"Incidentally, we beat Ada 28-20." 

Playing on the Company G team for Ada was a man named Skeet Hill. He would come out of the crowd to compete for the short-handed Lima team later in an upset win over Oswego.

Their next stop was in Lima, where Oswego handed the White Stars their first home loss of the season by a 36-18 score. Then it was on to Ft. Wayne and Chicago by train for games on the same day, a regular occurrence.

Such was the life of a barnstorming pro basketball team back then. A bit different from today, with NBA players treated to chartered flights, 500-dollar per diems, multi-million dollar contracts, endorsements and league national TV deals.

Basloe brought his team back through Lima on his way back from a triumphant tour through Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The All-Stars had split a two-game series with the rival Fond Du Lac squad to retain the mythical world title.

Hill and the Lima White Stars upset weary Oswego by six points, and demanded that they be known as world champions for "dethroning" the famed club. 

For the first time, Basloe sold the Lima team his phony "World Champions" banner for the princely sum of 30 dollars. But as the All-Stars were leaving by train the Lima team figured out his ruse, chased Basloe down and demanded their money back.

Basloe reluctantly returned the 30 dollars to the angry Lima mob. But he went on to sell hundreds more banners over the years to other unsuspecting teams, a huge financial boon for a shoestring outfit. 

Basloe claimed a 60-3 record for his team that 1911-12 season. Their best season may have been in 1920-21, when they recorded a mark of 124-5.

From 1903-23 his teams traveled an estimated 94,800 miles across America and compiled an amazing record of 1,324-127! This with a revolving door of players from year to year, although many of the best players stayed with Basloe's club for years.

Paying for travel, player salaries, uniforms and meals was a major undertaking for each long trip and season, but he managed to scratch and claw a lucrative career out of it.

Worn out by all the travel and now raising a family, he eventually retired after 20 hoop seasons on the road. He opened a successful real estate business in the 1920s back in Herkimer, but basketball never left his blood.

Basloe then owned and managed the Mohawk Indians of the New York State League from 1923-29, and served as president of the league from 1937-41. He was named commissioner in 1947-48 and retired at the end of the season. At that time, he was often referred to as the father of pro basketball.

Basloe and the men who played back then helped spread the game from the northeast across the country, and their contributions in popularizing the sport have been all but forgotten and disrespected. But their experiences were priceless.

I can relate well to Basloe's thankless task as promoter/manager, although he got paid for it, and I did not. Scheduling a place, mutually agreeable time to play, cajoling and gathering players to play 3-5 days a week takes a lot of effort and dedication.

Many times I was tired, hurt, busy or shouldn't have played, but I dragged myself to the gym to run the show, make the teams, keep score and get my run in. It takes a while and a lot of work to keep a regular game going, but it doesn't take long for one to disappear if you don't show up almost every time.

I am sure Basloe and his players encountered much of the same.

Hundreds of different townspeople, college students, law students, high school students, Ada alumni, ONU faculty, staff, coaches and people from Kenton, USV and Bluffton cycled through our league to play in the game I organized and ran. Only the pandemic stopped it.

As one of the regular players in our noon ONU games told me a few years ago, by organizing and running the game week after week, year after year, 45-50 weeks a year I was "probably responsible for the only exercise some of those guys ever got."

Not sure if that was completely true, but I appreciated the compliment.

Like Basloe, I had been organizing and playing all kinds of sports games since I was a little kid. Calling people, going to their houses even to get them, playing in our yard in the day and at the local park at night.

Growing up, our homes in Ada and Westerville always had a big yard and a basketball court, and were the proverbial place where the neighborhood kids all came to play.

Whether it was whiffle ball, hoops, frisbee, ping pong, croquet, backyard football or even "Monday Night Football" which we played under the streetlights around a few cars parked on the street (while the bats flew near the lights), our house was the home field and I was the organizer/player.

Long-time former ONU tennis coach Scott Wills later bestowed the moniker "Commissioner" on me for running the noon game.

Over a decade ago, I even co-owned the Armory here in town, but by then the old basketball backboards were being used to hold up big screen projection TVs.

Whether Lambert Will deserves more credit for developing the rules of the world's most popular sport after soccer is up for debate, with Naismith recognized by almost everyone as its sole inventor.

The Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield is named after Naismith. Ironically, Naismith died penniless in 1939, months after the first NCAA tournament was held and seven years before the birth of the NBA. Meanwhile, many have become millionaires from basketball. 

Naismith did get into coaching, but surprisingly had little win-loss success. Previously, when told he should coach, he answered, "you don't coach basketball, you play it!"

And he is the only coach in the storied history of Kansas University men's basketball to sport a losing career record, fashioning a 55-60 record from 1898-1907.

Basloe no doubt relished his superior record against the man he considered to be the faux inventor of basketball.

Editor: For an Ada account of a 1914 game vs. Oswego, check out these two articles available on the Ada Public Library digital archive:

The Ada Record, Wednesday , January 28, 1914
University Herald, Friday , January 30, 1914