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February 10, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Clyde Lovellette: Basketball’s most dominant collegian (Part III)

TERRE HAUTE — In 10 years, Clyde Lovellette was transformed from an awkward, self-conscious seventh-grader at McLean Junior High School in Terre Haute to the most dominant basketball player in college annals.

Born Sept. 7, 1929, in Petersburg, Ind., he was the youngest of John and Myrtle Lovellette’s eight children. When Clyde was born, his father was a fireman for the New York Central Railroad. John Lovellette became an engineer soon after the family relocated to 2400 N. 15th St. in Terre Haute in 1932.

Clyde attended Albert Lange Elementary School and McLean Junior High School. Despite pleas by basketball coach Phil Cartwright, Clyde did not try out for the seventh-grade team because he was embarrassed by what he perceived to be “his skinny legs in baggy shorts.”

During the summer before entering the eighth grade, Clyde succumbed to Cartwright’s appeals. By that time he was over six feet tall, gaining confidence and making great strides conquering coordination issues.

“Mom had me jumping a rope,” Clyde reminisced recently. “She didn’t insist that I play but, if I was going to, she wanted me to commit to being the best I could be.”

By the time Lovellette enrolled at Garfield High School in 1944, he was 6-feet-4. During the summer before his freshman year, coach Willard Kehrt encouraged Clyde to take dance lessons and work with weights for upper body strength. And he continued to skip a rope. Assistant coaches Donas Dischinger and George Yaeger helped in several areas. The coaches urged him to shoot free throws underhanded.

Clyde played on the junior varsity as a freshman and was a reserve on the varsity. Led by Alex Balu, Stu Chestnut and sophs Ronnie Bland and Gordon Neff, the Purple Eagles won the 1945 Wabash Valley tournament, beating Bridgeport, Ill., in the title game. Herschel Wagner, an Army veteran, was Bridgeport’s top scorer.

Gerstmeyer eliminated Garfield in the 1945 Terre Haute Sectional, 65-54.

State High, led by Lyle Disney and future Indiana All-Star Charlie Fouty, edged Garfield, 28-22, in the 1946 Sectional, won by Honey Creek.

Going into the 1947 IHSAA tournament championship game, undefeated Garfield was identified by many as “the best high school team ever produced in Indiana” after winning a record 31 straight games. The Purple Eagles lost in the finale, 68-58, to Shelbyville with future Indiana University star Bill Garrett and Emerson Johnson, a team they had beaten during the season. Clyde outscored Garrett, 25-21, before fouling out.

He also recorded 19 in Garfield’s victory over Marion in the afternoon game.

The Garfield team was crowned the 1947 Wabash Valley tournament, Western Indiana Conference and city champions. Lovellette, a 6-foot-8 junior, set tournament records for free throw attempts and free throws made. He also was said to be the tallest athlete ever to play in the IHSAA tournament finals, attracting notice from colleges nationwide.

Clyde did not have to go too far to compete against tall players. John Scott of Wiley, Bob Gilbert of Gerstmeyer and Perry Brown of State High, who played during the same era, were 6-6 or better.

Neff and Bland, the 1947 Trester Award winner, graduated but, with Lovellette and playmaker Bob Skitt returning, the Purple Eagles were expected to be very good in the 1947-48 season. And they were, winning the Wabash Valley tournament as Clyde, 6-9 and 230 pounds, poured in a record 35 points in the title game against Attica.

The 1948 season ended on a sour note when Wiley upended Garfield, 45-44, in the Terre Haute Sectional championship game.

Meanwhile, Lovellette was busy fielding inquiries from at least 50 colleges. It was an unforeseen experience. As a youth, Clyde had set his sights on working for the railroad, like his father, or trying to secure a position with the Indiana State Police.

He visited North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Purdue and Indiana State, coached by John Wooden, before committing to Indiana University.

“I was born and raised a Hoosier,” Lovellette said time and time again. “If I was going to go to college, IU was the logical place.”

Upon returning to Indianapolis after visiting Coach Everett Case at North Carolina State, Lovellette and several other Indiana athletes were met at the airport by IHSAA Commissioner L.V. Phillips and advised they would be ineligible for spring sports for engaging in a scrimmage with college athletes. Clyde was a baseball letterman.

His late decision to attend the University of Kansas stunned the basketball world.

Assistant coach Dick Harp, who had received commitments from three top Kansas high school players, contacted him first but Clyde rejected his overtures. But Kansas head coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, now a basketball legend, was persistent. Lovellette clearly was the best high school prospect in the U.S.

Coach Allen showed up at the Lovellettes’ home at 2047 N. Eighth St. one summer day in 1948. Clyde tried to avoid him but eventually relented, agreeing to accompany the coach to Lawrence, Kan., to look at the KU campus. During their visit, Allen told Clyde that, if he came to Kansas, the team would win the Big Seven Conference, a NCAA championship and would go to the Olympics.

“That had a huge impact on me,” Clyde said. “That talk changed my mind.”

Garfield’s failure to win the 1948 Sectional and Lovellette’s decision to go to Kansas may have hampered his chances to be named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball. In 1948, that honor went to Bob Masters, floor leader on Lafayette Jefferson state championship team who became a three-year starter at IU. Clyde wore No. 2.

The chemistry between Coach Allen and Lovellette was immediate and lasting. Freshmen were not eligible so Clyde spent the entire academic year and the following summer in Kansas increasing his strength and honing his skills.

Continued to next week.

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