While my love of running had grown through a pair of successful cross country seasons, I’d been raised in a basketball family and went straight to practice the week after the Sectionals meet where our small school got handed a lesson amongst the much bigger programs east of us toward Chicago. In 1972, there were no Class A or Class AA divisions in cross country. Everyone got lumped together.
We might have done pretty well at the Class A level if there had been one. But lacking a chance to run in the state meet, I quickly shifted priorities and strapped on the Chuck Taylor lowtops to start basketball season. Our Coach Harold Anderson was the teacher who helped cross country coach Rich Born take on the program. I liked the way that Anderson coached basketball too. While we followed the Varsity program’s slow-down offense to some degree, he improvised and loved the transition game as well.
I did too, because my endurance, speed and ball-handling skills fit that game perfectly. Granted, I was also a hot-dogger to some degree, having developed a massive skillset of behind-the-back and between-the-legs dribbling and passing modeled after my hoops here Pistol Pete Maravich. More than once I heard coaches call out, “Cudworth, make the easy pass.” But that didn’t register entirely with me. Making behind the back passes was easy for me. Perhaps if they’d said “Make the simpler pass” it might have kicked in. But I doubt it.
Our sophomore squad one quite a few games but I don’t really recall the record. There isn’t even a photo of the full sophomore squad in the Kaneland yearbook in 1973. That’s because the varsity team had a far more compelling story to tell.
As I recall that year, the Kaneland varsity basketball team got roughed up quite a bit during the regular season. If memory serves, they won just 11 games to 17 losses against conference and other foes. But toward the end of the season, thanks to a classmate of mine named Ron Ackerman, the Kaneland system of slow-down offense (it was called the Hokey Pokey) and 1-3-1 trap defense started winning games in the post-season tournament.
Ackerman was indefatigable at the point guard position. His ability to harass and push opponents into full and half-court traps resulted in many steals. His baseline endurance was exceptional, after all. He went on to win the state meet in the 880 with a time of 1:52 and ran for the University of Kentucky. I watched him run a leadoff 4:01 mile in a 4 X 1 Mile relay at Drake in 1979. As the Kaneland team played better as the season wore on, I felt good for my friend Ron Ackerman and my cross country teammate Kirk Kresse, who was a rebounding force on the inside game.
I was scoring and playing well enough for the sophomore squad that I started getting pulled up to Varsity practices right when the team was entering post-season play. But just as that tournament run was getting started, my father announced that we would be moving to St. Charles in the next month of so. Suddenly my Varsity call-up came to an end. But the Kaneland basketball team roared on to take second in the Class A state basketball tournament.
While disappointing, that last-minute decision to leave me off the Kaneland varsity roster was actually quite reasonable to me. It was already crowded with good players that had earned those roster spots in support of the team all season. I’d only been participating in varsity practices a few weeks. My only triumph during that period was out-shooting a few of those players during jump shot practice. I was a good shooter and once made 29 free throws in a row at the Elburn Days Free Throw contest. That mark lasted from Friday all the way through Sunday when a former Kaneland and Illinois State player named Doug Witt shot something like 45 straight to take home the prize money. I was seriously pissed.
After the thrill of the Kaneland state tournament run, about which I felt a little jealous and disavowed, I began my weird journey as an expatriated Kaneland Knight. Our family moved that same week to a small home on 11th Avenue in St. Charles in February, 1973. That meant I still had half an academic year to finish, and Illinois High School Association rules stated that anyone transferring from one school to another during an academic year would lose a semester’s sports eligibility.
From that day forward through the end of the school year, a group of Kaneland coaches alternated weeks picking me up at my house in St. Charles. That was truly an act of saving grace. Every morning I traveled the fifteen miles out to Kaneland High School for classes. My father apparently talked to the Athletic Director at Kaneland, Bruce Peterson, to work out a system where coaches George Birkett, Dennis Hendricks, Harold Anderson and Peterson delivered me to each day so that I would not miss any spring sports eligibility. What kindness! What patience! What teacher wants a snot-nosed fifteen-year-old in their car on the way to teach school?
The friends issue
There was some talk among my friends that my move from Kaneland to St. Charles was the product of recruitment by the St. Charles cross country and track coach, Trent Richards. He’d been a Kaneland student himself a few years before. At just 21 years old he coached the Elburn baseball team when I was thirteen. We’d had some early success together, and I was grateful for that. But there was no conversation between Trent and I, much less my father, about switching to St. Charles.
While I’d helped lead the Kaneland cross country program and done decently, but not spectacularly, in track and basketball, I wasn’t a good enough athlete to be recruited by anyone.
In fact, when I asked my father twenty-five years later why we moved to St. Charles during the early 1970s, he told me unequivocally, “I didn’t want your younger brother to play basketball for that slow-down offense at Kaneland.”
“What about me?” I retorted. “I was Class President and the one of the best runners on the team!”
“I knew you were a social kid,” he responded dryly. “I knew you’d survive.”
A real reason to move
To my father’s credit, he saw potential in my younger brother that would flourish to an All-State Honorable Mention in basketball. He helped lead the St. Charles team to the Sectional Superfinals in his Junior year. The St. Charles team played a mobile offense and my brother’s hieight of 6’6″ and a vertical leap of 36″ made him a dominant force inside. But he also had a soft left-handed jumper that was great from the perimeter. He was a basketball player ahead of his time in many respects.
With his jumping ability, he also made it downstate in high jump under the tutelage of coach Trent Richards. My brother went on to play hoops on a full scholarship with a Division 1 university in Ohio.
Our move from Kaneland to St. Charles proved to be a successful decision for our family in the long run. While my last few months at Kaneland were in many ways hectic, I’d simply traded the morning hour that I typically spent delivering papers in Elburn for riding to Kaneland for school. I recall my mother telling me, “You don’t have to take another job, Chris. You have enough to do right now.”
It was a bit like attending a commuter school for the rest of that semester. I’d get there so early I should have spent time studying and kept up my grades. Instead, I’d often go out to practice long jump or high jump. I recall that one cool spring morning that I’d raked the long jump pit smooth and trotted back to line up for a jump. I felt a surge of energy in my legs and took off running. My foot hit the board perfectly and I felt a clean sensation flying through the air. Landing in the pit, my feet left a clean mark and I popped out with excitement only to realize that I had no way to measure the length of the jump. My best to that point was nineteen feet. Nothing to brag about. But what if I’d jumped twenty that morning? Some feats on sports are never to be known. And what does it actually matter?
I ran well enough in track that spring, dropping my mile time down to 4:42 at the Kane County meet. I recall that my future coach Trent Richards approached me carefully before the race to give me some pacing advice. He spoke so quickly that I didn’t actual understand what he was telling me. In any case, I set the sophomore record that day, a mark that would not last long as other Kaneland runners quickly surpassed it in the coming years. But given the circumstances of my quasi-year at Kaneland, I was happy to see improvement that spring hauling back and forth between towns to attend Kaneland those last few months.
My close friends were still suspicious of the supposed reasons for my move to St. Charles. I felt a distance grow between us as the year wound down. I kept trying to explain that my move had nothing to do with wanting to switch schools. I even told them, “I’m not good enough for anyone to recruit me.” At one point I even considered whether I should try to live with another family and finish high school at Kaneland. Grief and guilt had caught up to me. Also a bit of fear at the need to change my life all over again. It was a confusing time. I felt like I’d been jumping through hoops for months just to make life feel somehow normal again. I was ready to be done with it all.
The year closed with what felt like a bump and a clump. I walked out the doors of Kaneland High School that last day and took a look around, realizing that I’d never attend the school again. It felt weird. I felt a bit betrayed by the lack of trust that friends had shown me. Of course, they felt the same lack of trust toward me. For a fifteen-year-old kid, that was a ton pf social pressure to handle. All I could do was get in the car with a coach and ride away.
I missed my Kaneland friends, but the opportunity to make new friends would arrive quite quickly. Again, running would come to the rescue.