Ah, the years tiptoe past all too quickly and soon all that’s left are the memories.
But what memories they can be, and that old gang, Dreher High’s 1956 basketball team, shared some beauties Tuesday night almost 57 years after creating a little bit of history —winning the school’s first state basketball championship.
They could reminisce about the old school building, which fell to the wrecker’s ball to pave the way for the modern-as-tomorrow structure that occupies the same site, the corner of Millwood and Adger. They could talk about the old bandbox of a gym they practiced in; no seating and walls hugging the baselines. They could remember their home games at Hand Junior High, their fierce rivalry with Spartanburg, Coach Whit, the ballet lessons and all the victories.
They could see, too, how the game has changed so much in gathering to watch today’s Blue Devils against Camden.
More, they could get to know each other again after all these years. “The last time I saw Walt and Bury (the Hudson twins) might have been the last game we played,” Henry Asbill said, exaggerating only slightly.
“You keep saying you’ll get back together, but you never do,” Walt Hudson, the team’s leading scorer who lives near Richmond, Va., said. “I’m glad we could put this together.”
The idea came from Jim Leventis, who in talking via long distance to Hudson noted that the current Dreher team had started the season with a streak of victories. “They play tonight; we ought to go,” he said.
“Living six and a half hours away, I told him I didn’t think I could make it that (December) game,” Hudson said, “but we did decide to pick a date and here we are.”
In their mid-70s now, they have added a few pounds and have seen hair turn from brown to gray or even disappear and likely embellished their on-court achievements a bit —and that matters not at all.
Big, but graceful
The 1956 title did not come by surprise. After all, a year earlier, the Blue Devils went 26-1, with the loss in the state title game, to start a streak that saw Dreher win four championships and finish second in the state three times over a nine-year stretch.
The Hudson twins —Walt and Bury, both 6-foot-5 —anchored the squad that outscored the opposition by an average of 14 points per game. Add Leventis and Lee Floyd, also in the 6-5 range, and the Blue Devils dwarfed most foes of the day.
“A very big team for the time,” Asbill said. “I would shoot and miss, and let them rebound and put it back in.”
Well, whatever works ... and Leventis said the coach summoned Ann Brodie, an extraordinary ballet instructor, to work with the big men.
“Basketball and ballet, clumsy tall boys,” he claimed. “She would lead us in some exercises and I’m sure (students) stood around and laughed at us.”
Asbill does not recall the ballet mistress at practices, noting the Hudson twins “were feared throughout the state by other teams and both ran the hurdles on the (state championship) track team, which tells you what kind of athletes they were.”
Although the ninth grade was at Hand in those days, coach Arlie Whittinghill imported the Hudsons to play for the Blue Devils at the end of their ninth-grade year.
“Guys on the team would tell us, ‘He looks at y’all and thinks about next year,’ ” Walt Hudson said.
The results prove Whittinghill’s wisdom.
The Hudsons and Asbill started most games and Whittinghill mixed and matched his other starters, then settled on Floyd and Alex Jenkins late in the year. The Blue Devils lost to a Savannah team by two points and at Spartanburg by four in building an 18-2 regular-season record to earn the top seed in the lower state Class AA playoffs.
Then, the darndest thing happened. They lost. And you know what? Under today’s standards, that 1956 championship would never happen.
Rules that sound archaic today kept Dreher in the title hunt. The Blue Devils raced to a pair of easy wins in the lower state tourney in Sumter, but Bury Hudson suffered a sprained ankle and Whittinghill planned to keep him on the bench in the final against McClenaghan High of Florence.
Then, Walt Hudson fouled out, and the coach turned to Bury — who, according to press reports , grabbed 11 rebounds in the final period. But in a flurry beneath the Florence basket, a Dreher player tipped the ball into the wrong goal for the two points that proved the difference in McClenaghan’s 66-65 win.
Today, the Blue Devils’ season would have ended with their 14-game winning streak over. But 1956 rules put the two finalists from the upper and lower state tourneys in the state finals, and there Dreher took command.
The Blue Devils thrashed old rival Spartanburg 69-56 in the semifinals, setting up a date with Greenville’s Parker High for the title. “Our only hope is to out-run them,” Parker coach Effie Evington said, but Dreher dominated 59-45. Walt Hudson (17 points), Bury (17) and Asbill (16) led the offense against Spartanburg and the championship game featured a balanced attack after Walt Hudson’s 24.
“We just shot the ball better than in our other games against Spartanburg,” Whittinghill told reporters after the semifinal. “Although he scored only four points, Alex Jenkins’ passing and ball-handling helped a lot and Jimmy Leventis (6 points in a reserve role) played his best game.”
The eight survivors from those halcyon days shared those memories and more Tuesday night, and they remembered their other teammates — four deceased, one seriously ill. They could recall how Whittinghill, also an assistant principal, sometimes got caught up in administrative duties and turned practices over to football coach Red Myers, who, Asbill said, “was very serious about it and ran tougher practices.” They watched today’s Blue Devils and saw how much the games had evolved.
But more important is who they became — dentists, executives in industry, bankers, a college professor and attorneys.
“Coach Whit expected a lot out of us on and off the court,” Leventis said.
They delivered on both counts.