With all due respect to Proviso West and Pontiac, no holiday basketball tournament is wrapped in more tradition than Centralia. But the event, which was founded in 1943 by legendary coach Arthur Trout, has changed dramatically in the last few years, since I signed copies of my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," in 2004.
It wasn't by design or intent that two of the four names on the cover were Centralia icons. I was looking for one-of-a-kind names that old-time basketball fans could relate to, like Magic, Wilt, Michael and Dr. J. Dike Eddleman and Bobby Joe Mason immediately came to mind.
I attended the Centralia Holiday Tournament for the first time in 1966, as the high school sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. As a high school student in Blue Island, a Chicago suburb, as sports editor of the Daily Illini while a student at the University of Illinois, and as a sports reporter for the Champaign-Urbana Courier, I had heard so much about the Centralia tournament and the Centralia tradition that I couldn't wait to experience it all for myself. I wasn't disappointed.
The tournament has moved to the new Centralia High School, which opened in 2006, and games are played in CHS Arena. Old Trout Gym and the old school buildings are empty. The retired jerseys of Eddleman, Mason and another Centralia icon, Lowell Spurgeon, are hanging in the front foyer of the new gym but the Hall of Fame is located at the downtown recreation center.
The Green Grill, once the favorite watering hole and place-to-be for all Centralia fans after Friday night games, was closed for two years because of a fire, then reopened. But fans have migrated to Bogie's-on-the-Lake, a popular gathering spot on Raccoon Lake whose specialty is two pounds of hot wings and a bucket of beer for $16.
Bill Castleman still is alive. Now in his 90s and rarely seen at Centralia games, he and his wife once were fixtures in their chair seats at Trout Gym. Castleman was a teammate of Eddleman's on Trout's famed 1941 and 1942 teams. Another former Centralia star, Herb Williams, who once coached at Evanston, now coaches at nearby Sandoval. Rich Rapp, a star on the 1961 team and a retired supervisor of Chicago's Gately Stadium, comes to Centralia from time to time to see the tournament and visit old friends. Former coach Bob Jones returns from Texas for the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Centralia's population and the high school's enrollment are going down and the tax base is going up. But the community still hangs its hat on the basketball team. Coach Lee Bennett, who once coached at Alton and whose father was a longtime successful coach at Pittsfield, has restored the old-time magic to the program. After several down years, the Orphans have won 25 games for two seasons in a row.
The old South Seven Conference isn't the same, either. It has only six members--Centralia, Mount Vernon, Marion and Carbondale from the original eight-team league that once included Benton, West Frankfort, Herrin and Harrisburg, and newcomers Belleville Althoff and Cahokia.
Centralia tried to lure the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame after it closed its doors in Bloomington. But the effort failed and the IBCA moved to Danville.
But Butch Border and Pops Taylor still are in Centralia. Border, 67, a Centralia graduate of 1961, one of the founders of the school's sports Hall of Fame and a member of the school board, and Taylor, 66, a Centralia graduate of 1962 and a member of the Hall of Fame committee, have been watching Orphan games since the 1950s.
They'll be in the stands for the 68th annual tournament on Dec. 28-30 as Centralia honors its 1960-61 team on its 50th anniversary. The team, led by Rapp, Williams, Russell Coleman, Chuck Garrett and Paul Rice Downey, lost to Centralia and Bogie Redmon and Fred Riddle 66-64 in a duel of the state's two top-rated teams in dramatic supersectional showdown at Salem. Collinsville went on to complete an unbeaten season by winning the state title.
Neither Border nor Taylor can understand why CHS Arena isn't named for Trout and the playing floor isn't named for Eddleman. There are some board members who aren't Centralia graduates who apparently are holding up the decision because, according to Border, "they don't think Trout deserves his name on the new gym as long as the old building is still standing."
"We should let the townspeople vote on it, make it a community project," Border said. "The new gym is a beautiful facility, like a small-college arena, two levels, seats for about 3,000, a video board hanging in the center, chair seating in the lower level, top of the line."
Taylor agrees. "The new gym is beautiful, very bright. Every seat is a good seat. It doesn't have the ambiance of Trout. But I've been in old and new gyms and there is nothing in southern Illinois that compares to it," he said.
"Most people are upset that the new gym hasn't got any name at all. Personally, I wanted to call it the Orphanage. But naming it after Trout is obvious. When they were building the gym, I thought we'd at least get Eddleman Court."
At tradition-rich Centralia, there are so many choices. Some schools have none. You'd think they could come to some agreement. Naysaying board members should talk to basketball fan Heath Hunziker of Bloomington, Ill., a native of Missouri, who has traveled throughout Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky to visit the most celebrated high school gyms.
"In Illinois, of all the gyms that we visited, Trout Gym amazed us," Hunziker said. "I love old gyms because of the history that has taken place there. Former Centralia mayor John Stuehmeier met us at the old school and walked us through it.
"There are a lot of elements of that gym that are astounding, including the stain glass window that Arthur Trout had installed with some of his values ("of sound body, of sound mind") inscribed in Latin. The staircase behind the baskt, the WRXX radio station box and the balcony all attribute to the gym's historic environment.
"When walking around, it is easy to imagine Dike and Bobby Joe shooting the ball and Coach Trout walking the sideline. If we had the time, I would have enjoyed talking with more Orphan basketball with the likes of Butch Border and Pops Taylor. But we had a great time listening to John Stuehmeier as he showed us around Trout Gym and Coach Bennett as he showed us around the new facility."
Like Border and Taylor and a lot of old-timers in Centralia, Hunziker can't understand why the "new facility" doesn't have a name on it, either.