Newton was basketball royalty
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NEWTON — Boys growing up in this railroad town had one goal: making the basketball team.
It was considered an accomplishment, moreso an honor because from 1916 until about 1958 Newton was considered by many to be the premiere basketball city in Kansas.
"It was something that we thought about constantly and we worked to strive for," said Kenneth Schlup, a member of the Newton varsity 60 years ago. "Thankfully we were in the right place at the right time with the right coaches and the right fans."
Newton won 13 championships in the 40-year span from 1916 and 1956 — the 1920 title was given back when Newton didn't complete in the national tournament — and was always considered a contender thanks to coaches Frank Lindley (1914-45) and John Ravenscroft (1945-1958).
Clay Hedrick was one of the select few that got an opportunity to play for Lindley, who coach nine champions and made 24 state appearances.
Lindley was considered a pioneer of his time. He started experimenting with zone defense in 1913 and introduced it to Kansas in 1914, going on to win titles in 1916 and 1917 using it as a staple to be complemented by the fast break.
His teams were known for being fundamentally sound. Turnovers were inexcusable and defensive lapses resulted in a nice sit on the bench.
Hendrick, 86, played on Newton's 1942 Class AA championship team. By that time Lindley had gone back to using man-to-man defense. That was Lindley's final championship, and Hendrick remembers how tough it was to play for such a disciplinarian.
"It didn't matter how long it took," Hendrick said. "We ran plays until somebody got a layup or a wide-open set shot. If the man you were guarding made a basket, you heard about it."
But he also remembers the results and how much the town loved to watch the fine-tuned machine go to work on game nights. He remembers that indescribable feeling of being carried by students and townspeople after the championship victory. When Lindley retired from Newton in 1944, his record was 594-118. He'd established a winning state of mind in Newton and made basketball more of a necessity than a hobby or a pastime.
"Newton shut down in 1942 when we played in Topeka," Hendrick said. "We didn't talk about anything but winning a state championship that year. The town expected it, and the years when we didn't win a title we were right there. In 1942 there was a population of about 10,000 in Newton. It was amazing for a town of that size to win that many championships."
Before he retired, Lindley wanted to make sure the tradition he'd helped establish at Newton would be upheld. Ravenscroft was a former player of Lindley's, a trusted assistant coach and a military man. For the most part, both had the same values when it came to teaching basketball.
"He had the insight to know that when he left, the program would have to be put in the hands of someone that understood the program and understood what the program was about," Schlup said.
Ravenscroft's first season was 1945-46. That was also his first championship season. When he took over, most of the country was still shooting the ball with two hands. He taught his players the one-handed, pronated shot (the modern shot) and won four Class AA championships.
He integrated the Newton basketball team. Before he took over there were separate basketball teams for blacks and Hispanics.
Ravenscroft said in the book "Can You Hear the Whistle Blowing" that he told Lindley he "would only take the head coaching job if blacks and Mexicans could play for his teams." Lindley agreed.
In 1952, Bernie Castro, the first minority student to make a Newton varsity team, helped the team to the Class AA championship.
"One coach is one thing," Curtis Buller, author of "Can You Hear the Whistle Blowing" said. "But two coaches continuing that kind of winning over so many years is just an amazing feat. It really is. Usually if you lose a coach like Frank Lindley, the next coach isn't going to do as well. That didn't happen in Newton."
Both coaches had a good track record of sending players to play college ball. Schlup, who played for the University of Wichita for a year before serving in the military and returning to finish out his career at Pittsburg State, recalls four Newton graduates playing for Phog Allen's 1952 Kansas championship team.
Ken Franz, 70, was on the 1958 Newton team that lost to KC Wyandotte in the Class AA championship game. That was Ravenscroft's final season at Newton. Even 14 seasons after Lindley left the reins to his successor, Franz can remember the community never wavering in support for its team.
"Lindley Hall where we played at was sold out every game. Almost the whole place was reserved seats," Ken Franz said. "I can remember getting out of school at 3:15 and there would be people lined up for blocks trying to get tickets for the few seats that we still had. I think we were kind of heralded as heroes, I guess."