Tate | The Whiz Kids wowed — then were called to war

Tate | The Whiz Kids wowed — then were called to war

It is incongruous to describe the 1940s as an "era of innocence" when that decade was consumed by a savage world war.

But as this nation finds itself immersed in the latest 68-team basketball shootout — and thereby distracted from confusing matters of state — it is striking how the game has copied the complex world that surrounds it. Except for the number of allowable participants and the height of the basket, there are few remaining similarities.

Back in the school year of 1946-47, we scribbled our motives and interests on a different page. As described by Bob Deindorfer's article in Readers Digest, Illinoisans were stirred with anticipation like no other in Illini history. The renaissance swept its arms around four returning servicemen — Andy Phillip, Gene Vance, Jack Smiley and Ken Menke — who made up the Whiz Kids that formed the nucleus of Big Ten champs in 1942 and 1943.

The '43 club was not only undefeated (12-0) in Big Ten play, but had only one conference game decided by fewer than 14 points. The 1947 Digest article cites a poll adjudging the 1943 team as the nation's all-time greatest team, and projected Illinois to win the NCAA title in 1947, a quest that had been cut short by service calls at the end of the '43 regular season.

Hardly the same

First, let's point out how different the game was in that day.

The NCAA tournament was comprised of eight invited teams and only one from a particular conference. Except for a few war-affected seasons, freshmen were ineligible. There was no three-point line, no shot clock (games usually ended in stalls), no conference tournaments, no blanket TV or conference networks and — you aren't expected to understand — almost no jump-shooting. Only the followers of the Dick Tracy comic strip imagined cell phones and personal computers.

Participants were mostly multi-sport athletes like baseball star Phillip and versatile Dike Eddleman, the state's greatest all-around athlete of the first half-century.

And to our everlasting discredit, an ungentlemanly "gentleman's agreement" prevented the participation of black athletes within major conferences ... although there were instances of breakthroughs that failed to take hold. As far back as the 1920s, Paul Robeson starred in basketball and football at Rutgers. This is the same Paul Robeson who, as a concert artist and political activist, sang Showboat's Ol' Man River before William Warfield did.

Bill Garrett led Shelbyville to the Indiana state title in 1947 and would become the Big Ten's first regular African American basketball player at IU.

Yes, any comparison between the 1940s and the 21st century are purely coincidental. In that distant day, we could never have imagined FBI investigations into illegal shoe company payouts (pay attention, Nike may join Adidas in the FBI gun sight), an admission scandal sweeping through eight major universities and a stampede of player transfers that may hit 800.

Rise to power

On Dec. 7, 1941, a "day of infamy," Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor.

Less than a month later, the budding Whiz Kids, then described in headlines as "19-year-old boys," traveled to Wisconsin to tangle with the defending NCAA champions. The sophomores spanked the Badgers, 55-40, as Phillip hit 6 of 16 shots and Menke 5 of 21. To be sure, shooting averages were much lower in those days.

With junior Art Mathisen and senior Vic Wukovits sharing the center position, the 1942 gang decimated an unsuspecting conference, losing only at Indiana and Iowa in a 13-2 campaign. They entered the eight-team NCAA tournament and promptly lost to Adolph Rupp's Kentucky team, 46-44 ... the first of the UI's 11 excruciating NCAA losses by three points or less, not including three others by four points, and the historic five-point losses to Villanova in 1988 and North Carolina in the title game in 2005.

Then came 1942-43, and the run of a lifetime. In rout after rout, the Illini played one Big Ten game decided by fewer than 14 points. They were ranked No. 1. Phillip set a record of 255 points in 12 games, and was called by some the No. 1 player in the country.

Call to arms

Then, at the height of the war, duty called. Immediately after two incredible romps in Chicago — 86-44 over Northwestern and 92-25 over Chicago — four of the five starters were called to service. Coach Doug Mills elected not to participate in the NCAA tournament, marking the only year that the Big Ten was not represented.

All four served with distinction. The Digest story recites: "Phillip was commended for extreme valor after leading a Marine patrol unit into enemy territory under fire on Iwo Jima. Menke earned three battle-stars in Europe. Smiley saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. And Vance landed in Europe in time for mop-up duties."

No group was ever welcomed back with such open arms as these four Whiz Kids. But the magic had been dissipated on Pacific islands and European soil. And Mills, in his final season, ran into squad problems. He had 25 legitimate candidates for the team ... not only Eddleman and Urbana's Fred Green, not only 1945 All-American Walt Kirk and 1946 Illini MVP Bob Doster, but also the speedy Bill Erickson who headed up the youthful group that would reach the Final Four two years later. Prominent names like Burmaster and Thurlby and Bontemps and Osterkorn were cut from the '47 travel squad.

Valiant legacies

Phillip wasn't himself until he embarked on an 11-year professional career. He had engaged in the South Pacific war zone where, for every two soldiers killed in battle, five died from infections stemming from rain, vermin, insects, poor sanitation, impure water, tainted meat ... and malaria, which had a curious recurring nature about it.

On Dec. 6, five years after Pearl Harbor, Phillip and his teammates drew a record crowd of 7,785 at Huff for the opening 87-39 win over Cornell. But road losses to Missouri and California soon followed, and Wisconsin got revenge 53-47 on Jan. 1. A bumpy, difficult season saw the Illini finish one game behind the Badgers for the Big Ten title and the NCAA berth ... though they beat Indiana, 59-50, in their final home game with Smiley (1947 MVP) scoring 15 and Menke 17.

The Whiz Kids earned a special place in UI history, not only for what they did on the court but how they performed in service and in life.

They never dreamed of transferring. They only dreamed of getting back.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.