VALPARAISO | The old photograph hardly stands out among a series of other faded memories in Valparaiso’s Hilltop Gymnasium. The three yellow jerseys that hang above the court are noticeable if only for the NBA logo that stands alongside a peculiar franchise name.
Current members of the Valparaiso men’s basketball team walk by the relics on a daily basis, barely registering a moment of contemplation.
While this season’s Crusaders are concentrating on a future that may be filled with a Horizon League championship, they’ve also been unknowingly paying homage to one of the great eras of basketball in Northwest Indiana.
“We see the pictures but we don’t really know much other than what’s on the poster,” Valparaiso sophomore Alec Peters said. “You hear about the 'World’s Tallest Team', but we don’t really recognize what that means.”
“The World’s Tallest Team” was actually a collection of teams that gained Valparaiso national recognition during World War II. Playing under the direction of former Michigan City coach Loren Ellis, the Crusaders went from a 4-13 record in 1941-42 to a school-record 21 wins three seasons later. Ellis coached at Valparaiso until health issues forced him out of the job following the 1946-47 season.
The Crusaders became famous for a number of reasons during Ellis’ early seasons, notably because of the great height of their players. Michigan City products Don and Wally Warnke both stood at 6-foot-10 while Calumet great Milt Schoon was 6-foot-9.
“Ellis knew how to use height,” then-student manager Forrest Palmer said. “The Warnke brothers were probably the first double high posts that you could ask for in college. I was 6-5, and I got the nickname 'Tiny' because I was one of the smallest guys around. Both of my roommates, Schoon and (Gary native) Moose Maddock, towered over me.”
World War II, and notably the draft, decimated Valparaiso’s roster following the record-setting 42-43 season when the Crusaders won a then-best 17 games. Of the 35 lettermen that were enrolled at Valparaiso during that season, only two returned in the fall of 1943. Ellis was given a boost when local star Bob Dille enrolled at Valparaiso.
Dille exploded on the scene in 1943-44, capturing the state scoring title with 423 points and earned All-American honors from the Helms Athletic Foundation. While the Crusaders were once known solely for their height, Dille’s story also began to capture the attention of the nation.
Dille wasn’t the only local product to join the Crusaders in 1943. John Janisch arrived from Union Mills while Gary Tolleston product Alvin “Rabbit” Schmidt enrolled at Valparaiso after a knee injury ended his stint in the war. Coupled with Schoon and Don Warnke, the Crusaders shocked the country when they went to DePaul and defeated the No. 1 ranked Blue Demons 65-57. Schoon guarded DePaul star George Mikan and held the country’s top big man to just nine points.
“My Dad would tell me about that game and it was such a big deal,” Alvin Schmidt Jr. said. “He doesn’t really think that Mikan ever got over the disappointment.”
The Crusaders ended the 1943-44 season and had high hopes entering the fall of 1944. Dille, Janisch, Schoon and Schmidt returned along with a host of newcomers including Griffith’s Harold “Red” Mack and Chesterton’s Glen Gierke. Ellis challenged his talented squad with a grueling schedule that involved games against national powers such as Great Lakes Naval Training Station and Hamline. There was also some ambitious travel involved as the Crusaders took on Long Island at the Madison Square Garden and Holy Cross at the Boston Garden.
The Crusaders proved they would be a strong team in 1944 by coming from behind to beat Long Island 64-59 in front of more than 15,000 spectators.
“One of my Dad’s biggest thrills, and we didn’t have a lot of money, was playing at Madison Square Garden,” Schmidt Jr. said. “When he ran out to the court he looked up and even with all those people there, he spotted his Mom and Dad in the crowd. They surprised him and took the train all the way in. He was just a normal kid from Gary that came from modest means. That meant a lot to him.”
The team waited anxiously for a call from the National Invitational Tournament. The call never came despite the Crusaders finishing the year with a program-best 21-3 record.
Dille, Janisch and Schoon all went on to play in the NBA. Schoon made headlines in 1951 when he scored a then-record 64 points while playing in the National Professional Basketball League with the Denver Frontier-Refiners.
Ellis died in 1984 at the age of 80. Janisch was the first player from the team to die in 1992.
More players followed, culminating with the death of Schoon on Jan. 18. The night before Schoon died, the Crusaders defeated Wright State to improve to 17-3, the best start in school history since the famed “World’s Tallest Team” in 1944-45.
“It’s all part of history and it’s kind of cool to look at,” Peters said. “To know that we’re part of something that they were a part of, something that they helped build. That’s something pretty special.”