For a while the Missouri Valley Conference had perhaps the best basketball in the country. In the late '50s and early '60s, during the post-cold-war and pre- UCLA days, it couldn't be beat.
If you lived in Peoria, Ill. and you were a kid, you knew this. Older people knew it, too, but they reacted in a more subdued manner. As 10- and 12-year-olds, we were not subtle. We dribbled our basketballs to school each morning, down the road—poing, poing, poing—over the sidewalks—fwap, fwap—across the gravel path—crunch—and through the big front doors. The polished tile gave a nice resonance to the chilled balls—whack-a, whack-a, whack-a—as we bounced them around little girls and up the steps. One bounce per stair, careful of edges. In the hall you might pass a buddy going the other way. Both of you would be humming the Bradley University fight song.
"Good morning, Chet," he'd say, meaning Chet Walker.
"Easy does it, Al babe," you'd say, meaning Al Saunders.
"Big O tomorrow night at the snakepit, pal. Cincinnati. Gotta have it," he'd say, dribbling on by.
"Yeah, the Big O. We'll stuff him, Al. Stuff him. Boom!"
Whack-a, whack-a. You'd continue on up the hall passing other friends with basketballs. You'd steal their balls, they'd steal yours. You'd pass, weave in and out, go one-on-one, ricochet the balls off the ceiling, dunk, hook and shoot free throws until the teacher came out. You weren't allowed to dribble in the halls.
They could take your ball away, but the images jumping in your head were untouchable. The words were there, important magic words: Cincinnati, Wichita State, Tulsa, Drake, Houston, North Texas State, St. Louis, Louisville and, above them all, Bradley. Your home team. With names that slipped off your tongue like pearls: Chet (The Jet) Walker. Joe Billy McDade. Bobby Joe Mason. Mack (The Knife) Herndon. Tim (The Rim) Robinson. Levern Tart. Al Saunders. The Bradley Braves were so good. Sometimes you could feel a directionless energy, almost a frenzy, overwhelming you as you sat at your desk thinking. "Teacher," you wanted to scream, "give me my basketball!"
You knew that the Missouri Valley was the roughest league anywhere. Cincinnati was the only team consistently better than Bradley. The Bearcats would win or tie for the conference six years in a row, and in 1961 and 1962 they would win the NCAA championship. All the kids you knew hated Cincinnati as much as they hated Communism.
Monday mornings we demolished the papers searching out and memorizing every scrap from Bradley's weekend games.