For old-timers, memories soar with the return of the Illinois High School basketball tournament to the UI campus. Central to those memories are Stan Changnon’s Mt. Vernon’s Rams, state champions in 1949 and 1950.
Star of those teams and the state’s top player in 1950 was Max Hooper, who died Sunday at age 88 in Birmingham, Ala.
The undefeated 1950 Rams were rated No. 1 in the state’s first half-century at a time when the southern and central sectors ruled. The Rams followed Champaign, Paris and Pinckneyville on the throne. Two years later came the Judson twins and Hebron, considerably smaller and representing a much larger state than the memorialized Milan quintet in Indiana.
Mt. Vernon forwards John Riley and Eddie King went on to play basketball at Bradley. Walt Moore enrolled at the UI and became the first Black player to appear in an Illini game (actually, five games) before leaving at the semester. After a military stint, he became a Hall of Famer at Western Illinois and ultimately the head coach there.
In any all-star listing of Illinois preps in the first half-century, Hooper would be near the top ... close behind Centralia’s Dike Eddleman, who excelled at everything except cheerleading. Eddleman was an Olympic level high jumper, a three-time all-stater and Big Ten MVP in basketball, and a backfield star who boomed 86- and 88-yard punts for Illinois in 1948.
The 6-foot-5 Hooper wasn’t a perfect fit for Harry Combes’ run-and-gun style at the UI. He was a reserve on the Final Four team in 1952 and started as a junior and senior on teams that went 18-4 and 17-5, finishing in the top three in the Big Ten both seasons.
Many standouts from those three teams are gone now ... Rod Fletcher, Herb Gerecke, Red Kerr, Clive Follmer, Bob Peterson, Irv Bemoras, Jim Bredar, Max Baumgardner and Billy Ridley. Still with us from the 1954 club are Paul and Phil Judson and Jim Wright.
After a stint as an Air Force pilot, Hooper played along the late Harv Schmidt with the Denver Truckers. He later sold insurance for Ruck Steger in Chicago, and served alongside Dick Martin on Illini basketball broadcasts. He moved to Birmingham in 1977 to work in counter-top manufacturing and the steel business before retiring in 1997.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.