Basinger remembers ‘Savage Seven’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 16, 2014

Lenoir-Rhyne 31, High Point 30.
At first glance this score might seem to indicate a tightly contested football game. But since High Point did not field a football team in 1964 then it must be another sport. In fact this was the score of the men’s basketball tournament championship of the old Carolinas Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The game was played on February 27, 1964 at the old YMCA in Lexington where the tournament was traditionally held at that time. Why such a low score? How did this come about? And who were the “savage seven?”
Basketball was still in my blood as a freshman in 1962 at Lenoir-Rhyne College. I had played the game as a young elementary student at Rockwell and started as a sophomore at Rockwell High School and then for two years at the new East Rowan High School. Since I was not recruited by anyone, I inquired of Coach Billy Wells at LR if I could be the manager of the 62-63 team and he said yes. My duties consisted of making sure the practice balls were cleaned, picking up towels, filling water bottles and even picking up Coach Wells’ children from school on occasion.
Another of my duties was to cheer on the Bears from the bench as they won victory after victory. In fact, the team ended with a record of 26 wins and 5 losses, still the record for most wins for any LR team. However, after the season ended with a loss to Western Carolina in the district playoffs, three of the top players would be lost to graduation. The three were Jerry Wells, the center who would be named All-America in the NAIA, Tom Burton who had the sweetest jump shot in the conference, and Jim Wiles who was a defensive ace and a clutch scorer. The two returning starters were the M-M boys, Neill McGeachy and Ed Miastkowski.
As the 1963-64 season rolled around even Coach Wells wondered in October if a break-even season was a possibility. Having played in practice against the scholarship players the previous season, I asked if I might try out for the team as a walk-on. Coach Wells had evidently seen enough of me and said yes I could and lo and behold I made the team. I was told that I could expect little playing time and might even have to help out as manager again.
Our practices in the fall remain mostly a blur but November 22, 1963 was a day that remains vividly implanted in my memory. Our dorm was all abuzz about the attempted assassination of President John F. Kennedy who was shot in Dallas on this Friday. We had practice scheduled for 3 o’clock and wandered in as a team not knowing exactly what had taken place. Coach Wells was not just our only coach but served as trainer as well. As he was taping my ankle before practice, we were listening to the radio and the announcement came on that the President of the United States was dead and the Star Spangled Banner began to play. My leg began to shake and we both became silent. Coach announced that the Catholics on the team had the option of practicing or not but the Protestants would practice. As we gathered on the floor we went through the motions without enthusiasm.
As we proceeded to practice in the fall of ’63, one of our prized freshmen quit the team. Another tall freshman was red-shirted because of inexperience. The season began and we lost our first five games in a row to Pfeiffer, Newberry, East Carolina, Atlantic Christian, and Elon, all by close scores. Needless to say Lenoir-Rhyne was all but written off for the season and even avid supporters like Larry Yoder, sportswriter for the school newspaper, had his doubts. We finally won our first game of the season 82-65 against Guilford.
And yet by the time second semester rolled around, we had lost two other big men due to academic reasons. The outlook for a successful season looked very gloomy. But something happened to bring the seven remaining players together in a spirited fashion. Sportswriter Yoder: “But the master mind of Coach Wells was working overtime and a squad of superb, tough players was rounding into shape.”
Yoder: “Having acquired a catchy nickname from the glib tongue of Professor James Jennings, the savage seven promptly went on a conference-wide rampage. Down twice went Appalachian, once each High Point and Elon (the latter in a rarely seen quadruple overtime). Western Carolina’s nationally ranked Catamounts were lucky to escape with two victories over the savage seven, the only team that did not fall to them during the regular season.”
Having defeated the Catawba Indians in Hickory by a score of 52-48, we were not so fortunate when we later traveled to Salisbury. Catawba, led by Bucky Pope, the “Catawba Claw” who had been recruited to play basketball at Duke, completely demolished us in that game by a score of 78-47. If it had not been for my one point the score would have been 78-46 as if that mattered to anyone but me.
Who were the savage seven who remained? Larry Yoder who now is Dr. Larry Yoder, a retired Professor of Theology at Lenoir-Rhyne University, described us this way in 1964.
Ed Miastkowski of Floral Park, NY: “Close your eyes and envision a writhing, wriggly, five-directions-at-once, limber legged, side-stepping dead-eye of a basketball player.”
Neill McGeachy of Statesville: “Once again let the lids of your eyes fall. See a speeding, dribbling, shooting, ball-hawking, ball-slapping, six-foot hunk of a b-ball dynamite. You witness a clutch player, eating up the clock with seconds to go and a small Bear lead.”
Jim Ehlers of Dayton, Ohio: “You see a pass-stealing left-hander with a smooth corner shot and nerves of steel. You behold a steady, all-around offensive-defensive hardwooder.”
George Deehan of Braintree, Massachusetts: “Picture a driving, rebounding, six-foot-eight inches hunk of Braintree Brawn. The only hardwood giant on a team of b-ball dwarfs, ‘Big D’ came through with some valuable rebounds in many of the Bears’ victories.”
Aubrey Cochran of Harrisburg: “Open and close quickly and witness a rompin’, stompin’ bundle of red-haired basketball fury. See the Concord Comet in his freshman year, the re-incarnation of the immortal Jerry “Hoss” Wells.”
Frank Bua of Boston, Massachusetts: “This time you won’t believe what you see. A six-two bundle of two-hundred-ten pound player stikin’ it in the hole with a backward left-hand dunk.”
Dale Basinger of Rockwell: “Again you won’t believe your eyes. Another six-two kangaroo stuffs it in warm-ups left-handed or right-handed or both-handed. That’s the Rockwell Rocket.”
The truth of the matter is that even on a team with seven players, I saw only limited playing time. With big leads against teams like Newberry and Belmont Abbey (coached at that time by Al McGuire) I did manage to score 3 points in each game which satisfied me completely. Against teams that were as good or better than us, Coach Wells used the strategy of holding the ball as long as possible on offense to stay out of foul trouble. McGeachy, who is now the Athletic Director at Lenoir-Rhyne, would often control the ball minutes at a time by himself. Remember this was the era of no shot clock and no three point shot.
By the time the conference tournament came in February, we were the fifth seed with a record of 14 wins and 11 losses.
Certainly our record was nothing to write home about. Our first game was against the 4th seeded Catawba Indians and we prevailed 57-51.
The semi-final game was against the 7th seeded Pfeiffer Falcons who had defeated 2nd seeded Western Carolina by 19 points. The Bears rose up to defeat Pfeiffer by a score of 72-58. I remember missing an easy shot in that game.
Next up were the mighty, 1st seeded High Point Panthers. We had defeated them at their place by a score of 62-61 earlier in the season but they came back to defeat us 44-41 on our home court in the final game of the regular season. The stage was set to see who would be the tournament champion.
Even with a loud crowd that packed the Lexington YMCA the game itself would not compare to today’s frantic pace of running up and down the court. But it was exciting nevertheless to the hundreds of fans and myself who had one of the best seats in the house, right on the bench where I stayed the entire game. This was not a game for the faint of heart. Jim Ehlers put us up 30-26 with less than 2 minutes to go. They came back to tie it but Miastkowski hit a free throw to put us back up 31-30. They got the rebound on the second missed free throw with time to win the game. With 6 seconds to go, one of our players committed a foul on a High Point player who was in the act of shooting, thus awarding him two free throws. He could either win the game for the Panthers or at least tie the score by hitting one of the shots. First shot: airball as the Panther fans moaned and the Bear fans roared. Second shot: off the back of the rim into the hands of one of our front court men who got it to McGeachy and the horn sounded. Game over. It wasn’t pretty but for a team that started the season with five straight losses and ended up with only seven players, it might as well have been the finals of the NBA. We had to return to High Point’s home court the following week to play them in the district play-offs. They defeated us 36-27 but we had the championship hardware and had gone as far as we could go.
The savage seven have never been back together since that season. Ehlers lives in Georgia, Cochran in South Carolina, Deehan in Florida, and the rest of us live in North Carolina. Plans have been made to have a 50th year reunion of the savage seven the weekend of January 31 and February 1 in Hickory.
I coached basketball at Knox Junior High for many years. I always tried to remember that a team is not just the five players you see on the court. A team also includes those players who practice just as hard but happen to be sitting on the bench. When I watch a game at any level, my eyes are drawn to the bench to see how these players are reacting to what their teammates are doing. After all I was one of them many years ago as a member of the savage seven.
Postscript: Coach Billy Wells died in March of last year. Jerry Wells, the All-American center on the 62-63 team died in June of last year. Mark Lamoreaux, the red-shirt freshman on the 63-64 team died in 1994. Lamoreaux, who graduated in 1968, went on to have an illustrious career at LR and was named posthumously to the Lenoir-Rhyne Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.