Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

December 11, 2012

Local author talks about basketball book

Matt Saxton
Effingham Daily News


 The year was 1975. The event, a Teutopolis/Altamont basketball game.

A young Kurt Becker sat in the stands with his father as he heard the sounds of crowds screaming and sneakers squeaking on a polished wooden court for the first time.

"I had never heard anything like it," said Becker during a Monday evening book signing and presentation at Helen Matthes Library. "It scared me as a child, but it was always fascinating to me and frankly, I never got over it."

Becker, a lifelong Altamont resident, is a National Trail Conference historian and author of "Hoops: The History of Boys High School Basketball in Effingham County." The book, which details a century of the county's favorite winter pasttime, is a product of the Effingham Daily News and is available for sale at the newspaper.

A professional sports announcer for horse and motorsports racing, Becker spoke to a small but enthusiastic group of basketball fanatics about some of the highlights he discovered during his 15 years of researching the local history of the game. He also talked about why the sport means so much to people here.

"It's a tremendous social experience," said Becker, who went on to quote and paraphrase comments from former county high school coaches and newspaper articles.

One of those was from longtime Teutopolis boys coach J.H. Griffin. Becker said Griffin, the second-longest Wooden Shoes team leader of the court that now bears his name, had once said that basketball was the opportunity to bridge the gap between the older and younger generations.

"The spirit of any given town is demonstrated in the way that town portrays its youth," said Becker.

For Effingham County towns, that spirit took hold in 1911. That was the year Altamont formed the first organized high-school team here. Other teams followed in the next decade, but still, there were few available for regular matchups.

That led to some interesting pairings, Becker said. In neighboring Fayette County, for example, the Vandalia team played the University of Illinois in March 1906. Vandalia won.

A few years later, Dieterich played Wheeler in a game that ended in a score of 7-4. The Dieterich paper at that time wrote a spirited article describing how the powerful emotions of the spectators on each side - made up of men, women and children from all walks of life - rose and fell on whether or not the ball made it through an iron hoop nailed to a wall. The players had those emotions, too.

"You can still see that emotion coming out, especially when the tournaments are done and the players realize that the season is over," said Becker. "Boys and girls shed tears."

Matt Robinson, a one-time letterman for Altamont and an audience member Monday night, said part of that emotion developed from the intense rivalries of highly regarded teams in the NTC.

"That's what made playing basketball in this area so special," Robinson said.

Becker had pointed out Robinson earlier in the evening as an example of mid-1990s T-Town power. Robinson had the daunting task of defending Brent Niebrugge, who led the Wooden Shoes to an undefeated regular season in 1994. With Robinson on the defense, Niebrugge scored only 52 points.

"I don't want to say it was a good experience," Robinson said as the others in the room chuckled. "But I got to see that is how good great is."

"Matt goes exactly to the heart of what I've heard of the players in Effingham County," said Becker.

Now that the Wooden Shoes have pulled out of the NTC and other teams are co-oping, Becker said the future of basketball here will look different than what has happened in the past. But, he said, they will always be strong.

"There are some great stories that have taken place that will never be told again," said Becker. "But, with all due respect to them, perhaps there will be a renewed level of interest in the NTC without T-Town."

Matt Saxton can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 129, or at matt.saxton@effinghamdailynews.com.