Bruce Firchau is immersing himself in a yet-to-open museum honoring basketball history in the state of Illinois, so he wanted to do his homework on what makes for a successful museum in a broader sense.
He scoped out a wide variety – even a museum dealing with shipwrecks – as he sought innovative ways to bring history alive.
“The one thing [the successful ones] all had in common was they all had great oral histories,” Firchau said. “And I thought the window of opportunity was closing.”
Firchau, an Elburn resident and longtime high school basketball coach in Illinois, spent much of 2012 combing all regions of the state in pursuit of colorful recollections of Illinois basketball lore, with an emphasis on the high school level.
He thinks he hit the jackpot.
Firchau unearthed enough gripping stories to fill a museum, and that’s exactly what he intends to do. The Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame Museum is scheduled to open in Danville late in 2013, though Firchau cautioned that funding challenges might push back the launch of the shrine to Illinois hoops of all levels.
Among the anecdotes that wowed Firchau from his numerous, face-to-face meetings with basketball luminaries across the state, many now in their golden years (hence the sense of urgency):
• Point shaving controversies dogged basketball in the mid-20th century, and even the high school game wasn’t immune from whispers about impropriety.
Likely out of jealousy, opposing fans of now defunct Stephen Decatur High School used to throw Monopoly money on the floor at the downstate school’s players.
“Back in those days, the fans could really be pretty hostile, and that was I guess one of their ways to show hostility to Stephen Decatur, who was a basketball power,” Firchau said.
• Violet Fletcher, the widow of former Collinsville High School coaching legend Vergil Fletcher, was eager to fill in some gaps on the coaching career of her late husband, who won more than 700 games and a pair of state titles for the Kahoks before he died in 2009.
Firchau’s interview with the spunky Violet Fletcher produced more than Firchau bargained for.
“They brought her from a nursing home to a high school for the interview,” Firchau said. “She got all excited. She ribbed me a little but she said ‘You think I’m something now, you should have seen me [before]. I really gave the officials what-for. Do you realize how much fun I would have had with three officials [in the modern era]?’”
• A reliving of the 1963-64 Cobden Appleknockers, a tiny school from deep southern Illinois that remarkably finished as state runners-up in Illinois’ old one-class system.
Cobden lost to Pekin in the state championship game in 1964, as several members of that team painfully recalled to Firchau. But upon returning home from the title game in Champaign, the Appleknockers were hardly treated like losers.
“When they were coming back to the edge of town by train, they see all the cars parked out at the cemetery at the edge of town, and they thought somebody important in town had passed away,” Firchau said. “They’re not grasping what they had actually accomplished and how the whole southern part of the state was there to actually celebrate what they had accomplished.”
That level of deep, fervent community support for high school basketball was a common theme throughout most of the 20th Century, before cultural and technological changed led to divided attention spans on winter nights. It’s a heritage Firchau believes will come across in what he envisions becoming a must-see museum for basketball lovers statewide.
While the countless hours of oral histories secured should enrich the museum, there will also be a wealth of more conventional memorabilia. Firchau, currently head coach at Westminster Christian and chairman of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame Selection Committee, is soliciting from the public as many nostalgic goodies as he can get his hands on, including old photos, programs, newspaper articles, uniforms, banners, trophies and anything else you can imagine.
Even decades-old coaching blazers are on Firchau’s wish list.
If he has a regret, it’s that schools generally did a poor job keeping records for girls basketball, which didn’t take off in Illinois until the late 1970s. Interviews with the state’s girls basketball pioneers revealed that the sport was an afterthought in its early years; female athletes often had only one uniform to wear for each of the different sports throughout the school year, Firchau said.
Firchau promises the museum will be interactive, saying visitors will even have a chance to broadcast the endings of memorable games courtesy of preserved game films.
“This museum belongs to the people of Illinois,” Firchau said. “It’s the players, it’s the coaches, it’s the fans, it’s the media that made this game what it is in our state. We’re probably one of the finest basketball states, and we have been for the last 100 years.”
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.