3 pro basketball pioneers retrace their steps

GLENN “SPARKY” ADAMS, guard, 1938-40, Sheboygan Red Skins

Heartbreak, notoriety and responsibility come with learning you are the last man standing.

Ask Glenn “Sparky” Adams. Eighteen men played for the Sheboygan Red Skins’ first team in 1938-39. Seventy years later, only Adams remains, according to former NBA historian Bill Himmelman.

Only Adams can relay firsthand how the National Basketball League was overshadowed in a country smitten with baseball and football, struggling with the effects of a Great Depression and on the verge of a second world war.

Only Adams can describe the balancing act of holding a job during the day and playing pro basketball at night. He commuted with teammate/welder Ed Dancker from Milwaukee for every Red Skins game, navigating hazardous roads often coated with ice and snow. Then he would report to work the next morning at A&P Tea Co. in Milwaukee.

“Pro basketball was just getting started,” remembered Adams, who lives in Newberry, S.C. “College basketball was very popular, of course.”

Adams, who plans to turn 92 in April, is quick to point out the most glaring difference between pro basketball’s formative years and today.

“The salaries guys are getting now are astronomical,” he said. “I can’t believe it: $160 million for 10 years. Golly sakes. I got $110 a month. That’s all I got.”

In addition to being last survivor, Adams did not realize his other claim: He and two Marquette University teammates were among the first collegians signed by the pros before graduation. This practice soon became common across the country, noted the second edition of The Sports Encyclopedia, Pro Basketball.

Glenn
Glenn “Sparky” Adams is the last survivor of the Sheboygan Red Skins’ first team of 1938-39, when they played in the National Basketball League. Adams played a major role in guiding Sheboygan to fourth place at the inaugural World Pro Tournament in Chicago in 1939. In 1939-40, he averaged 4.6 points per game in 26 games for the Red Skins.

The NBL had permitted Red Skins coach Edwin “Doc” Schutte to sign Adams, All-American Dave Quabius and Erwin “Moose” Graf in March 1939 because the final league standings already had been determined.

“We were still in school,” Adams said. “Moose, Dave Quabius and I, but we didn’t all sign at the same time.”

He joined Sheboygan for the season finale March 12, 1939, against the Cleveland White Horses. Adams scored eight points in Sheboygan’s 51-45 loss at the Eagle Auditorium, which seated 1,500 and was housed in the old Playdium Building at 711 New York Ave.

“The fans were very close to the action, but I don’t remember anyone tripping me, hitting me over the head or reaching out and grabbing me,” he said, laughing.

The first World Professional Tournament pitted the nation’s premier teams and was staged in late March 1939 in Chicago. Adams was Sheboygan’s offensive star with 12 points in a 36-29 victory over the famed New York Celtics and a team-best 10 points in a 36-33 loss to the Harlem Globetrotters in the consolation final. The Red Skins earned $200 as a team for the fourth-place finish.

“All I remember is that we played the tournament in an old, broken-down building, the Chicago Coliseum,” Adams said of the Red Skins, who also played a game at the Madison Street Armory. “We did pretty well, beating some good, well-known teams.”

Frank Zummach, who still lives in Sheboygan and plans to turn 98 on Jan. 28, was his coach during Adams’ second season with the Red Skins.

“Sparky was one part of a really good team,” Zummach said of the 6-foot-1, 185-pound forward. “He was a solid player, but he wasn’t outstanding in that group.”

Glenn
Glenn “Sparky” Adams helped Sheboygan reach the playoffs in 1939-40. He is pictured in the front row, third from the left. Frank Zummach, top row at left, coached from 1939-42.

In 1939-40, Sheboygan finished 15-13 and tied the Oshkosh All-Stars for first place in the NBL’s Western Division. Adams played in 26 games and scored 119 points, the Red Skins’ fourth-best output behind all-league forward Rube Lautenschlager, team captain Otto Kolar and offensive workhorse Paul Sokody.

“I thought I did very well,” Adams said. “I did as well as the next guy.”

The Red Skins were ousted by Oshkosh in the decisive Game 3 of the NBL semifinals at the Eagle Auditorium. Adams, a starter, could not remember anything about the game, but Zummach could.

“Somebody fouled (Oshkosh’s) Connie Mack Berry and the crowd began to boo,” Zummach said of the final seconds. “In the little arena we played in, the fans could almost lean over the rim of the basket from the balcony. It got very loud and (referee) Ike Craig called a technical on the house and that blew the game for us.”

Adams’ career in Sheboygan ended with the two-point defeat. He said he was released before the next season, one in which the Red Skins would advance to the NBL finals against Oshkosh.

Former Red Skins coach Frank Zummach is pictured in 2007. His Red Skins lost a chance to beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in a 1940 playoff game when a game official called a technical foul on the overly boisterous Sheboygan crowd. It marked Glenn
Red Skins coach Frank Zummach is pictured in 2007. His Red Skins lost a chance to beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in a 1940 NBL playoff game when a game official called a technical foul on the overly boisterous Sheboygan crowd. It marked Glenn “Sparky” Adams’ last game with the Red Skins.

Adams said that while he played for the Red Skins, he was taken under the wing of a local jeweler, Ed Imig, a team director and future Red Skins president who operated a store on Eighth Street.

“I drove back from my home in Chicago to pick up an engagement ring from him,” Adams recalled.

Adams left Wisconsin for good and was employed from 1942 to 1977 in Chicago and Miami and elsewhere by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“He kind of just dropped off the Earth,” said Zummach, who also coached Adams at Marquette.

Adams, obviously, is unhappy all of his teammates are gone, but he noted one benefit to being the last man standing.

“I can talk about anything I want,” he said. “There’s no one around to deny what I say.”

* * * * * * * *

MILT SCHOON, center, 1948-50, Sheboygan Red Skins

Milt Schoon is a stoop-shouldered, cane-waving 83-year-old who in his youth wrestled the lions.

In the winter of 1949-50, men wearing the Sheboygan Red Skins’ cardinal and white belonged to the world’s most powerful basketball league: the freshly minted National Basketball Association.

Former Sheboygan Red Skins center Milt Schoon paid a visit to the Sheboygan Armory in 2005, taking a couple shots and snooping around the building and the city.
Red Skins center Milt Schoon, who shot a team-leading 41 percent from the field on the Red Skins’ NBA team, visited the Sheboygan Armory in 2005. He took a number of shots at the basket and snooped around the building and city. He munched on bratwurst at Charcoal Inn, and he and his wife, Marjorie, drove past residences on North Eighth Street and Cambridge Avenue where they lived from 1948-50.

The Gary, Ind.-bred Schoon was the Red Skins’ self-described hatchet man. At 6 feet 7 and 235 pounds, the Sheboygan center mixed it up with 6-10 legend George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers and 6-8 bruiser Alex Groza of the Indianapolis Olympians.

He took on all comers, and, if the need arose, decked opponents into the thinly padded stage only 3 feet from the Armory end line.

“With old George, I’d like to rough him up early and agitate him,” Schoon said last month in the living room of his Janesville, Wis., home. “Then he’d concentrate more on you, and that would hurt his game.”

Schoon teamed with 6-9 Noble Jorgensen to hold Mikan to a then-career-low eight points on March 7, 1950, at the Minneapolis Armory.

“I would rather guard Mikan than Groza,” he said of the NBA’s two leading scorers in 1949-50. “That son of a buck (Groza) would go all over and make you follow him. Big George, you just got him under the rim and fought for position.”

Schoon is still vigorous and his longevity is rare, for the NBA’s pioneers are a vanishing lot. He is the last full-time member of the 1949-50 Red Skins after the deaths in the last year of starters Bobby Cook, Bob Brannum and Jack Burmaster. Schoon’s buddy and former teammate Jack Phelan lives in Sarasota, Fla., but Phelan joined the Red Skins two months into the season.

IMG_0134“Funny, I never considered myself real healthy,” Schoon said. “But I never drank a lot, never got all twisted up. (Wife) Marjorie and I have lived a conservative life.”

If his large figure does not command attention, his crushing handshake and public-address-system voice do. He uses the cane mainly outdoors; at home, he can “bounce off things from the living room to the kitchen.”

Shoot, Schoon is just thankful to be alive. Seven years ago, he cheated death “by five minutes.” He had an aneurysm of the aorta and drove himself to a hospital. It was the same ailment that killed fellow Red Skins pivot man “Jorgy” Jorgensen in 1982 at age 57. Schoon’s doctor told him that 98 percent of patients don’t survive this type of aneurysm.

“I was glad to learn that after it was all done,” he deadpanned.

A month ago, Schoon and his wife accepted an invitation to make a pilgrimage to Sheboygan. They had been back only a handful of times since 1950. Once here, they hopped in their car and searched for 1950 relics.

Tooling around a corner, Schoon spotted an ancient clothier and blurted, “Look, Ma. Art Imig’s. Son of a gun.”

The Schoons devoured bratwurst sandwiches at Charcoal Inn. They drove past old Red Skins watering holes at Eighth Street and Penn Avenue (The Inn was operated by Red Skins director Ted Ziebert) and at Water Street and Penn (where The Chicken Tavern once stood).

They passed their old apartment above a Laundromat at 1937 N. 8th St. and snapped photos along Cambridge Avenue, where they enjoyed living at 1525 with Eclipse Manufacturing Co. foreman Al Pfeiffer and his wife, Edna. Schoon and Pfeiffer loved to fish, and at times the pair  found themselves cleaning smelt at 3 a.m.

The Schoons also toured the Municipal Auditorium and Armory, the smallest facility in NBA history, with seating for 3,500. Schoon even poked around the locker rooms and walked the second-level landing, pointing across the way to where WHBL radio announcer Hal O’Halloran sat.

“And the place was always packed,” he said.

Milt Schoon (14) boxes out Minneapolis' George Mikan while Sheboygan's Jack Burmaster puts up a shot over the Lakers' Tony Jaros on Jan. 5, 1950, at the Sheboygan Armory. The Red Skins beat the Lakers 85-82.
Milt Schoon (14) boxes out Minneapolis great George Mikan while Sheboygan’s Jack Burmaster puts up a shot over the Lakers’ Tony Jaros in an NBA game on Jan. 5, 1950, at the Sheboygan Armory. Schoon “held” Mikan to 42 points as the Red Skins beat the champion Lakers 85-82.

Schoon played in all 62 games for the 1949-50 squad, which finished with a 22-40 record. That was good for fourth in the six-team Western Division and earned the team a playoff berth. The Red Skins made national headlines with an early-season, six-game winning streak.

“And no cookies; they were toughies right off the bat,” he said of the string of Armory wins. “Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Rochester Royals, Indianapolis. We’d knock off the big boys, but then the little guys, less effective, would beat us.”

In 1949-50, Schoon averaged 8 points per game on a team-best 41 percent field-goal shooting. The standard for good marksmanship was 33 percent, he said.

“It was the best basketball the people of Sheboygan could see,” Schoon said. “And, boy, were you idolized. Course, I was on the easy side, liked to joke a bit and talk to everybody.”

In summer 1949, Schoon took a job operating a heavy airhammer to supplement his $5,000, six-month basketball salary.

“Man, I was solid,” he said.

Red Skins fans walking down Eighth Street tried to engage the 6-foot-7 laborer with the familiar face.

“If I’d have paid attention to the people, I’d have been waving to them all day.”

Schoon said he valued “the closeness of the players to the town. In Sheboygan, for crying out loud, you got to know everyone and their brother. And it was a closer group of players in Sheboygan than anywhere else I played.”

The former Valparaiso star’s journey to the NBA began with the Detroit Falcons of the Basketball Association of America in 1946-47. Then Schoon played one season with the National Basketball League’s Dow Chemicals of Flint/Midland, Mich.

Milt Schoon and Noble Jorgensen (right) tower over two editors of The Sheboygan Press in the late 1940s.
Backup center Milt Schoon and starter Noble Jorgensen (right) tower over two editors of The Sheboygan Press in the late 1940s.

A year later, he hammered out a deal with Red Skins president Magnus Brinkman and arrived in Sheboygan on Oct. 1, 1948, for the first of two seasons with the Red Skins.

“Magnus Brinkman had Northern Furniture make two 7-foot beds, one for ‘Jorgy’ and one for me,” Schoon said. “And wouldn’t you know it, just last week I gave that bed to my son.”

Brinkman was president of De Land Cheese Co. and known as a tight-fisted contract negotiator.

“He said, ‘You’re going to get this much’ and that was it,” Schoon said. “You couldn’t deal with him. But he knew how to handle money. Man, he was a pistol.”

In the 1948-49 NBL season, Schoon quickly learned about the intense rivalry between the Red Skins and Oshkosh All-Stars and center Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, one of the greatest players of the 1940s. The All-Stars held a 43-39 edge over Sheboygan in an 11-season series.

“He was mean, and Oshkosh worshipped him,” Schoon said of the 6-4, 230-pounder also known as “Lefty.”

“He hit me with that left elbow and I swear my head fell off. That was just open war (with Oshkosh); that’s what that was.”

Schoon’s own rough style did not endear him to some. After one NBA game in 1949, he was approached by the wife of the league’s only 7-footer, a brute who manned the key for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.

“Don Otten’s wife was going to hit me with her purse, but I put up my arm and blocked it,” Schoon said. “She thought I played dirty. Imagine that.”

Otten’s eight fouls in a 120-113 Red Skins win on Nov. 24, 1949, at the Armory stands as the NBA record.

IMG_0005Schoon finished his career with the Denver Frontier-Refiners of the National Professional Basketball League in 1950-51, a season that featured his pro-record, 64-point outburst against the Kansas City Hi-Spots.

Sitting on the Armory stage last month brought back a groundswell of memories for Schoon. He pointed to the area on the 63-year-old hardwood where Mikan liked to post up, and drew his finger in a semicircle to show how he chased Groza out high.

“And if you won, you were king for a day,” Schoon said, softly.

Then he wiggled down from the stage, gathered his hat and cane, and strolled toward the northwest exit. The sound his hard-soled shoes made pounding the maple bounced off the walls of the empty building.

“You know, I’m lucky to have had that great experience,” he said, opening the back door. “Course, you only recognize it after it’s gone.”

* * * * * * * *

KEN BUEHLER, forward, 1942-43, 1945-46, Sheboygan Red Skins

When he pedals his bicycle these days in South Palm Beach, Fla. — 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.

Ken Buehler was named the National Basketball League's rookie of the year in 1942-43. He was a solid scorer but was especially valued for his rebounding ability.
Sheboygan Red Skins forward Ken Buehler was named the National Basketball League’s rookie of the year in 1942-43. Buehler, who averaged 7.5 points per game in 22 games, was a solid scorer but was especially valued for his rebounding ability. He entered the military a month before the Red Skins wrapped up their only NBL championship.

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 said, 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,” said Buehler. “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 said 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 said. “I even batted in a rebound from the free-throw line with my back to the basket.”

Sheboygan started the 1942-43 season 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 was quoted 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 playing in four of Sheboygan’s six remaining NBL contests.

“When Buddy Jeannette joined the team, that certainly elevated my hopes,” Buehler said of the 5-11 guard who was inducted into the Naismith 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.”

The champion Red Skins are pictured late in the season, after Ken Buehler had joined the military. Guard Buddy Jeannette, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member, is pictured in the front row, fourth from the left.
The Red Skins are pictured late in the season, without Ken Buehler. Buddy Jeannette, a guard enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who also led the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons to NBL titles, is pictured in the front row, fourth from the left. Star Ed Dancker, back row with hands on the shoulders of defensive star and team captain Ken Suesens, was Sheboygan’s leading scorer in 1942-43 (10.9 points per game) and was a five-time all-NBL center in the 1940s.

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,” said 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 remembered. “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.

In that game, 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 said. “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 said 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,” said 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 (country club) 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.”

(Published Dec. 26, 2008 (Adams); Nov. 20, 2005 (Schoon); and Nov. 26, 2007 (Buehler) in The Sheboygan Press as a staff member of The Des Moines Register)

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