If you have ever played electronic basketball in an arcade, bar or basement man cave, you have Ken Cochran to thank.
He’s the basketball coach who invented the game while recovering from heart bypass surgery.
Mr. Cochran, whose Marymount Spartans in Salina won 106 consecutive home games from 1970 to 1978 and who created the Pop-A-Shot in 1981, died Sunday in Joplin, Mo. Mr. Cochran, who also founded the Heart of America Sports Camps, was 84 years old.
A funeral service is being planned in Joplin for January.
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He was born in Pratt on Dec. 16, 1932 during the height of the Great Depression. His family moved to Joplin, where he graduated from high school in 1950. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1955 from the Kansas State Teachers College of Pittsburg and his masters from the Kansas State College of Pittsburg in 1959.
“He played sports in school and was a really good baseball player,” said his daughter, Susan Cochran, who lives in Chicago.
In fact, Mr. Cochran played baseball in the 1956 Olympics. That game was an exhibition between the United States and Australia in Melbourne, Australia. He was the starting catcher.
He was a high school coach for seven years before going to Salina in 1963 and coaching basketball and baseball at Kansas Wesleyan. He moved on to Marymount when the Catholic college became co-ed, and turned its basketball team into a national powerhouse.
The Spartans went on to win five NAIA district titles and finished second six times. In November 1975, the Russian Olympic team played Marymount during their 14-game U.S. tour. The Russians won, 78-75.
He recruited aggressively on the East Coast. He mailed postcards to high school coaches to build lists of potential players and offered scholarships.
Along the way, he also ran Heart of America boys and girls sports camps in Salina, providing thousands of kids in the Midwest a chance to learn to play basketball and volleyball
Cochran said it wasn’t unusual for the family to take vacations to Disneyland and look into the crowd and sometimes see Heart of America red, white and blue T-shirts with a bald eagle grasping in one claw a basketball and a volleyball in the other.
“My dad taught a lot of people,” Susan Cochran said. “He taught them how to live life in a respectable and compassionate way. He cared about us and his players. He might have come across as a hard-ass coach but he had a heart of gold.
“He taught us that all people were equal. And that’s how he lived his life. He believed every life was of worth.”
Mr. Cochran has been inducted into six halls of fame – NAIA, Kansas Sports, Kansas Basketball Coaches Association, Kansas Wesleyan, Graceland College and Joplin, Mo.
His friends remember he was a man who – when it looked like life had turned against him – always looked for options.
Case in point: In 1981, at age 48, Mr. Cochran suffered from heart problems and realized he would have to give up coaching. He looked for a way to make money. As he lay recovering from surgery in a hospital, he came up with Pop-A-Shot and took the game on the road, even creating a national championship for it.
“He is really one of the legacy people of (Marymount) school,” said Jordan Poland, director of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. “He was a hell of a basketball coach. You don’t win 106 consecutive (home) games without knowing what you are doing.”
Ann Parr, whose husband was a close friend of Mr. Cochran and who often refereed games at Marymount, remembers the two of them. They were inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame together in 2005. Jack Parr died in 2015.
“He was a very good coach because he was so determined,” Parr said. “One night Jack was officiating and Ken kept coming out on the floor. Jack finally said, ‘I am going to give you a technical for every step you take getting back to your seat.’ Ken turned to his team and asked them to bring him a chair and carry him back.
“That’s the kind of guy he was – never without options.”
Mr. Cochran is survived by his wife, Peggy; son, Steve and two daughters, Susan and Dana.