STEVE HANLON: I finally get to meet Virgil Sweet, again

2014-04-25T17:00:00Z 2014-04-25T21:23:22Z STEVE HANLON: I finally get to meet Virgil Sweet, againSteve Hanlon Prep Beat nwitimes.com
April 25, 2014 5:00 pm  • 

It was summer of 1977, I believe. This young baller who is now an old baller put on his canvas Chuck Taylor's and dribbled a ball toward Crown Point High School.

With bangs over the eyebrows and sporting an orange Starsky & Hutch T-shirt, I was excited to meet some guy named Virgil Sweet. He was going to talk about shooting free throws.

I was a kid with acne and an 8-track player with Kansas tapes which is another way of saying, "I didn't have a clue." Like an ant crawling into a Johnny Cash concert by accident ... clueless.

The Indiana Hall of Famer had 342 wins in a 25-year coaching career in this state, 20 of those winters were spent at Valparaiso. The Vikings' sectional record was 48-6 under Sweet, who twice took Valpo to the Elite Eight.

Sweet, though, is on the Mt. Rushmore of free throw shooting. In 1963-64 his Vikings shot .792 for the season, the national high school team record that still stands.

Being born in 1963, this is where this whole story comes together. This 1970s geek met Sweet and my story should be added to his bio in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Yes, Mike Copper, once hit 409 consecutive free throws using Sweet's perfect style. But of the thousands of basketball players he taught, I am the only "player" who doubled his free-throw percentage after a single Sweet session.

When I walked out of that gym with Earth, Wind and Fire blasting out of someone's Trans Am, my free-throw percentage had jumped to 26 percent.

I was given an opportunity to thank Coach Sweet on Friday night at Lawrence North High School. In one great honor by the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association, I was given the Virgil Sweet Distinguished Service Award.

The smart lad in me wants to ask, "What took so long, fellas?" But John Wayne didn't get his first and only Oscar until 1970, when he was 63. So I can't complain, now can I?

OK, the topic of this column is proof there wasn't much going on the last few days. I'm not one to pat myself on the shoulder. It hurts too much these days.

In 1970 my brother, Bill, took me to see East Chicago Washington's legendary basketball team. I was little and more interested in another bag of popcorn than watching true grit on the floor.

But the hook was firmly entrenched. This love of Indiana basketball began back then. And it still rages today.

I don't know what I'll tell all the coaches there when I pick up my Oscar. I'm not even sure I get an acceptance speech. I'll thank God, my family and my kindergarten teacher, I suppose.

But mostly I'll thank Virgil Sweet for teaching this Bay City Roller how to shoot free throws. And I'll thank him for all he did for Indiana high school basketball. It is he who should be getting this trophy.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

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