In March 1960, the undefeated McPherson High Bullpups, led by Dave Leach, went up against the Newton Railroaders, whose best player was Vernon Smith. The game was for a regional championship and a trip to the Class AA tournament at the Roundhouse, home of the University of Wichita Shockers.
Leach was a senior on a Bullpups team coached by Jay Frazier, who was in the early stages of a legendary career at McPherson.
Smith was a junior for Newton, one of the most historic programs in Kansas high school history.
Newton handed McPherson its first loss that night, 66-59. Leach scored 18 points but Smith was better, scoring 23 for Newton, which went on to lose in the semifinals of the state tournament to Wichita East, where Kelly Pete was a sophomore. Pete didn’t get in that game; his best days were ahead.
Five years later, Leach, Smith and Pete were three-fifths of the Wichita State starting lineup against UCLA in the national semifinals in Portland, Ore. They were joined by another East product, Jamie Thompson, and by John Criss, who played at Southeast.
Five guys who grew up in a 60-mile radius from one another were wearing Wichita State uniforms in, to that point, the biggest moment in Shocker basketball history.
“I don’t know that we understood the significance of it at the time,” said Leach, a 6-foot-5 forward who had to switch to center after the mid-season departures of 6-10 Nate Bowman (academics) and Dave Stallworth (eligibility). “But we were a pretty close-knit group.”
The rest of the Shockers’ roster included players from all over: Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, New York.
But the mainstays after Bowman and Stallworth left the team in mid-January were Kansans. The Shockers lost to UCLA 108-89, and then get beat by Princeton and Bill Bradley 118-82 in the third-place game. The undersized team will be honored during halftime of the Missouri State-Wichita State game on Feb. 7.
That the Shockers made it to the Final Four in 1965 without its two best players – Bowman averaged 12.4 points and 8.6 rebounds and Stallworth 25 points and 12.1 rebounds – is astounding.
Pete, who later changed his name to Mohamed Sharif, averaged 17.3 points and seven rebounds. He was tough as nails; his teammates thought he would make a great defensive back in football.
Leach was such a good shooter that an area on the floor along the baseline was named Leach’s Corner. He averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds after transferring to WU following two years at Oklahoma State.
Smith (8.3 points) and Criss (6.7 points) started every game and provided solid play and leadership.
The real surprise of the Final Four team was Thompson, a sophomore whose role expanded greatly once Stallworth and Bowman left. The 6-4 Thompson scored 36 points in the loss to UCLA and averaged 12.5 for the season.
“I don’t think any of us really knew what we had in Jamie,” Leach said. “We knew he would be OK, but I think at the time we all thought Melvin (Reed) would play in the middle and I would stay at forward with Vern and Kelly and John would be the guards. But Jamie proved real quick that wasn’t going to be the case.”
Thompson, who died of a heart attack in 2006, gave the team a jolt in the right direction.
“I just think we all knew basketball awfully well,” said Smith, a retired teacher who has lived in Yreka, Calif., for decades. “All of us on that team had two roles. When we started the season, it was to get Nate and Dave the ball, plain and simple. And to play some defense and play smart. After they left, our role was to hang on to the ball.”
The Shockers slowed things down after the departures of Bowman and Stallworth. With no 35-second clock, there was no rush.
“We could stand around and handle the ball quite well,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean we weren’t looking at the basket or that we didn’t score points.”
The Shockers averaged 87 points during the first 16 games of the 1964-65 season. That dropped to 71 during the next 12 games leading up to the Final Four.
“Vernon and Dave were really good leaders for us,” said Sharif, an artist who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. “I would describe Vernon as a relentless player who never hurt you because he had a really high basketball IQ and he played within the confines of his ability. He was a team ballplayer and tough.
“Leach was a great leader who everyone really respected because of how he carried himself as a person. And he was also a really talented player. If we could get him the ball off a pick, down in that corner, he was a 60-percent shooter.”
Criss, a junior on the Shockers’ first Final Four team. was the team’s floor general. And unlike the rest of the players on the team, gentlemen through and through, he sometimes had a chip on his shoulder.
“John was a firebrand,” Leach said. “A great hustler and a never-say-die kind of guy. He had a temper but for the most part he was able to control it on the basketball court. He was just one of those guys who would give you everything he had every time he walked on the floor and the kind of guy opposing teams and fans didn’t like.”
Criss, a retired Kansas City businessman who now works for a limousine service, knew Pete from the time they were in grade school and got to know Thompson in high school. He was aware of Leach and Smith as high school players, although he never played against them.
“Because we were all from around Wichita and knew each other, I think we almost knew what everybody was going to do on the floor before we did it,” Criss said. “We took pride in our roles and what it took to win games.”
Sharif and Thompson were teammates at East under Cy Sickles and led the Blue Aces to a state championship in 1962. Both were All-State players as seniors – Sharif in 1962 and Thompson in 1963. They were recruited to WU by Ralph Miller, a former East coach who left Wichita after the 1963-64 season to take the head coaching job at Iowa. The Shockers’ Final Four team was coached by Gary Thompson, previously Miller’s top assistant.
Criss, Leach and Smith all did some coaching. Leach was Southeast’s coach for three seasons from 1966-69 and had a 57-8 record before leaving. He was replaced by Criss, who led the Buffs to a 17-7 record and the state tournament in 1969-70, his only season.
Before Leach arrived at Southeast, Smith was the junior varsity coach for Jim McNerney, another former Shocker player.
The world doesn’t get any smaller than it was for some of the 1964-65 Wichita State players.
“I think it came together after Dave and Nate left because we all genuinely liked each other,” Leach said. “The esprit de corps of our group was really good and we had a really good feeling about sharing the ball and being teammates.”
Leach spent most of his adult life in Boise, Idaho, moving to Sisters, Ore., a few years ago. He’s just three hours or so from Smith, who has been in Yreka in northern California since 1970.
“I saw Vernon not too long ago,” Leach said.
Their families recently spent time together at Sunriver Resort in Oregon.
For many of these ex-Shockers, it’s a small world.