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Getting to know the "World's Tallest Team"

Getting to know the "World's Tallest Team"

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The "World's Tallest Team" has been a part of Valparaiso lore for more than 70 years, yet with each passing year less and less is known about the first golden era of basketball in Valparaiso history.

The initial idea of the "World's Tallest Team" began in 1942 when a pair of Michigan City brothers, Don and Wally Warnke, followed their favorite high school coach (Loren Ellis) to Valparaiso. Standing at 6-foot-10 inches each, the Warnke's weren't eligible to be drafted into the service. Ellis found several other tall players, including Calumet's Milt Schoon, who had to sit out his first season. 

Valparaiso experienced immediate success with the Warnke's before Wally was able to find a way to get into the service. Don stayed in Valparaiso and it was thought the team would struggle in the fall of 1943. A group of newcomers, including Schoon, Bob Dillie, John Janisch and Alvin Schmidt, greatly contributed to another 17 win season which included a win over No. 1 DePaul where Schoon held George Mikan to nine points.

Despite Warnke graduating -- he'd later return as an assistant coach and later the head coach after Ellis left -- the Crusaders had a great deal of optimism entering the 1944-45 season. The team won its first 11 games, including a program-defining victory over Long Island at Madison Square Garden. Dille captured the hearts of the country with stories of his work ethic. The Chesterton native was married with a child and was working a 48-hour-a-week job while going to school full-time and playing basketball.

Three straight losses didn't deter the Crusaders and they bounced back to win their final 10 games, including wins over all three teams they suffered setbacks to earlier in the year. Despite finishing 21-3, the Crusaders were held out of the National Invitational Tournament, with their spot likely going to Midwest powers DePaul and/or Bowling Green. The Blue Demons eventually beat the Falcons in the championship game and Mikan was named the tournament MVP.

The iconic photograph of Valparaiso's players standing outside the Madison Square Garden has stood the test of time and is displayed just outside the Athletics-Recreation Center court to this day. The 1944-45 team was inducted into the Valparaiso University Hall of Fame in 2004.

The team came back to the forefront this season due to a variety of factors. The first being that it has been 70 years since that famed season (a number which isn't all that significant, but sounds better than 68 or 71 years). The second being that Schoon was the final living member of the team before he passed away on Jan. 18. The final reason is the current Crusaders were 18-3 at one point this season, the best start for any Valparaiso team in the last 70 years.

While there are plenty of other players who contributed to the "World's Tallest Team" era, such as the Warnke's, Ted Bean, Paul Meadows, Steve Gaza, Ted Szikora, George "Moose" Maddock and Bob Stapleton, the focus here is the 1944-45 team.

Here is an in-depth look into the men who comprised that team. Information was gathered through reading various media reports from that time period, university records and obituaries. Phone calls were placed to a variety of family members, including sons, daughters and grandchildren, with little response. I'm indebted to Forrest "Tiny" Palmer, a student-manager on the 1942-43 team as well as Alvin Schmidt Jr. for their numerous conversations and invaluable assistance. 

J.B. Chambers (Dec. 20, 1923 – June 1, 2006)

Chambers was highly-regarded when he arrived in Valparaiso from Dyer, Tennessee in the fall of 1944. Standing at 6-foot-10, Chambers was counted on to help replace the production of graduated senior and Michigan City native Don Warnke. Chambers passed away suddenly at the age of 82, just three months after celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary with wife Marjorie. Chambers served as the president and operator of the Acme Preserve Company in Adrian, Michigan and spent time between Cocoa Beach, Florida and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula until his death.

Bob Dille (July 2, 1917 – Dec. 10, 1998)

The star of the 1944-45 team, Dille gained national acclaim for his combined status as an athlete, husband, father and warworker. Dille graduated from Chesterton High School in 1935 and spent the next nine years playing in independent basketball leagues while working odd jobs before enrolling in Valparaiso in 1943. Dille led the state of Indiana in scoring in back-to-back seasons and was named an All-American by various publications. Dille played in the NBA following his career at Valparaiso and then returned to Northwest Indiana to begin a legendary coaching career. Dille coached Valparaiso High School for six seasons before moving east and coaching at several schools in Fort Wayne where he ultimately won the 1974 state title with Fort Wayne Northrop. Dille retired from coaching following the 1978 season but remained on as a teacher for several more years. Dille was a member of the inaugural class of the Valparaiso University Hall of Fame in 1998. The Chesterton native moved back to Northwest Indiana with his wife, Melba, and lived in the Region until he passed away in 1998.

Glen Gierke (Jan. 11, 1920 – May 25, 2009)

Though he was already in his mid-twenties by the time the season started, Gierke was one of six newcomers that joined the roster for the 1943-44 campaign. Gierke was born in Chicago and later moved to Chesterton. Gierke was a role player for much of the 44-45 season and he returned to play one more year under coach Loren Ellis before concentrating on his studies. Gierke graduated in 1948 with degrees in English and Physical Education as well as a minor in Biology. Gierke began a lengthy teaching career in Indiana and then moved to California where he spent more than 20 years teaching a variety of subjects at Alhambra High School in Martinez. Gierke was an accomplished baseball coach and led Alhambra to six league championships. Gierke had a passion for writing and his book “Capital Punishment, A Capital Mistake” was published three years before he passed away in 2009.

Harry Hines (Dec. 28, 1924 – Apr. 3, 2007)

The Fort Wayne native arrived at Valparaiso in the fall of 1944 and spent four seasons with the Crusaders. Known mostly for his defensive abilities and lightning speed, Hines hit his offensive stride late in his freshman year when he led the team in scoring in two of their last three games. Hines was one of just two newcomers, along with Harold Mack, that saw extensive playing time in the 1944-45 season. Hines returned to Fort Wayne after graduation and spent 32 years as a guidance counselor with Fort Wayne Community Schools. An avid golfer and fisherman, Hines remained in Fort Wayne until his death in 2007.

John Janisch (Mar. 15, 1920 – Aug. 29, 1992)

If there was ever a garbage man for the 1944-45 Crusaders, Janisch would’ve been it. Media reports from the time period indicate that he was very proficient at staying close to the basket and getting offensive tip-ins off the misses of his teammates. While prolific shooter Bob Dillie (330 points) earned the Indiana state scoring title, Janisch (320) was surprisingly right behind him until the final day of the season when Notre Dame freshman Vince Boryla scored 31 points against Detroit to finish with 322 points. Janisch was recruited to Valparaiso by Loren Ellis after the Union Mills native had begun his career at Purdue. Following his time at Valparaiso, Janisch spent two years playing basketball professionally, splitting time between the Detroit Falcons, Boston Celtics, Providence Steamrollers and the Flint Dow A.C’s. Janisch was the first player from the 1944-45 team to pass away when he died in 1992. There is little information about Janisch’s life after his professional basketball career available.

Harold Mack (Feb. 17, 1927 – Oct. 18, 2013)

It didn’t take long for the smallest player on the “World’s Tallest Team” to make a big impact. “Red” Mack knocked down three quick shots when he first took the floor against Long Island at the Madison Square Garden in just his fourth collegiate game. Mack, who was nearly 10 years younger than teammate Bob Dille, turned 18 toward the end of his freshman season and departed for the war after the school year. Mack returned to Valparaiso after the fighting had stopped and he rejoined the Crusaders for the 1948-49 season. Mack received his Masters degree from Indiana and then began a coaching career that included stops in Valparaiso, his hometown of Griffith and Greenville, South Carolina. Mack eventually moved to New Mexico and lived in Las Cruces until he passed away in 2013.

Alvin Schmidt (Deceased 2008)

Schmidt initially enrolled at Michigan State after graduating from Gary Tolleston. A knee injury kept Schmidt from staying in the war and when the Big Ten put sports on hold in the early 40’s, Valparaiso coach Loren Ellis came calling. Affectionately known as “Rabbit,” Schmidt used his speed and push shot to tally 179 points, good for third on the 1944-45 team. Schmidt married his college sweetheart Bonnie, a woman he met by chance when she was getting off the bus in Valparaiso while he was walking by the station. “Mom was the Valparaiso beauty queen in 1945 and Milt Schoon used to always tell my Dad that he got the prettiest girl in school,” Alvin Schmidt Jr. said. Schmidt and his wife had five children, including Alvin Jr. who later was named The Times Athlete of the Year out of Merrillville and helped lead Indiana to the 1968 Rose Bowl. Schmidt spent his life as a teacher and coach, leading the Biddy Basketball world champions in the 1960’s. Schmidt retired from teaching and coaching in 1990 and spent time managing the family business before he passed away in 2008.

Milt Schoon (Feb. 25, 1922 – Jan. 18, 2015)

Schoon was one of four returners on the 1944-45 team which had joined the Crusaders a year earlier when the program was nearly crippled by players departing for the war. Standing at 6-foot-10, Schoon attempted to join every branch of the military but was denied because of his height. Schoon made a splash in his freshman season when he held DePaul star George Mikan to just nine points in Valparaiso’s 65-57 upset of the top-ranked Blue Demons. Schoon went on to have an outstanding career with the Crusaders and then spent five seasons in the NBA. Schoon scored a then-league record 64 points in 1951. Following his retirement from basketball, Schoon worked as a store manager for International Harvester and then for Fagan Automotive. The Gary native graduated from Calumet High School before attending Valparaiso and was inducted into each school’s Hall of Fame. Schoon settled in Janesville, Wisconsin and lived there until his death on Jan. 18 of this year.

Edward Susnis (Dates Unknown)

Loren Ellis preferred to play with just a six-man rotation for much of the 1944-45 season, but that didn’t mean his reserves weren’t valuable. Susnis played for Ellis at Michigan City High School and was brought to Valparaiso despite being slightly older than most of his teammates. Standing at 6-foot-4, Susnis challenged his taller teammates during practices and occasionally saw playing time where he scored 30 points during the course of the season. Susnis returned briefly to the team in the fall of 1945 but gave up his spot when several players, including star Paul Meadows, returned from the war. Unfortunately there were no further records available concerning Susnis and his life after Valparaiso. Phone calls placed to believed family members went unreturned.

Tyrus Winebrenner (Nov. 26, 1926 – Nov. 12, 2000)

Winebrenner arrived at Valparaiso via Columbia City in the fall and played sparingly for the Crusaders during the 1944-45 season. Winebrenner left school after one year and enlisted in the Army on Nov. 1, 1945. He served as a Private First Class and specialized in coppersmiths, tinsmiths and sheet metal according to his army enlistment profile. Winebrenner eventually moved back to Indiana after the war. Unfortunately there are no further records available and phone calls to family members went unreturned.  

Loren Ellis (Jan. 7, 1904 – Dec. 19, 1984)

Ellis arrived at Valparaiso in the fall of 1941 after spending the previous 12 years as a teacher and coach at Michigan City High School. Ellis went 4-13 in his first year with the program and then had one of the best turnarounds in program history to this day when he led the Crusaders to a 17-5 mark in 1942-43. With many sports programs in the Midwest shut down due to the war effort, Ellis went around and recruited players to Valparaiso. The Crusaders enjoyed national acclaim during the Ellis years and the coach responded by challenging his team with a difficult schedule. Valparaiso’s record began to slip following the 1944-45 season as players began returning from the war. Ellis took a leave of absence due to health concerns following an 11-20 mark in 1946-47. Ellis later returned to coaching when he led a professional team in Hammond and then spent some time at Stetson in Florida. In addition to coaching basketball at Valparaiso, Ellis is also credited with restarting the football program following the war and leading the Crusaders to a 6-1 record in 1945 when it was thought the team would struggle due to a lack of enrollment. Ellis and his wife Ranora had two daughters and three grandchildren while settling down in Florida. The beloved coach died in Eustis, Florida after a six month illness in late 1984.  


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