From Waterloo proper came Orlyn Roberts, 5'11", a quiet, deadly shooter, and his cousin, Wyman, 5'10", an extrovert and the team's Meadowlark Lemon, the instigator of some of the Wonders' most amusing pranks. The more disciplined Wiseman, a 5'7" bulldog and the team's defensive specialist, was from Sherritts, a few miles to the west. Play-maker Drummond, a slight 5'8", was a transfer from nearby Cadmus. The 5'11" pivotman, McMahon, came from Greasy Ridge. And the coach was a brilliant, elegant man with the grand name of Magellan Hairston, who left a Waterloo farm to become principal of the high school and, in his spare time, mold the most famous schoolboy team in Ohio history.
When Waterloo High opened in 1916, it had one boy and 16 girls. Of necessity, then, the earliest Waterloo basketball teams (coached by Wiseman's father, who taught at the school) were girls only. Eventually there were enough boys to form their own team, but even by the fall of 1933 the total number of boys in the school was only 26.
What the boys' team lacked in depth and size it made up for in talent. When Waterloo was on offense, the ball seldom touched the floor. Having been weaned on rag balls that couldn't be dribbled, the starting five were accustomed to passing and passing until the ideal shot presented itself. By the 10th game or so of the '33-34 season, it was apparent that something special was happening in southeastern Ohio. Waterloo—whose team's nickname, playing on the town's Napoleonic connection, was the Little Generals—wasn't just beating other schools, it was destroying them by football scores: 52-14, 40-14,69-9. At some point a local sports-writer tagged the boys the Wonders, and the name stuck.
Yet they remained a local phenomenon until March 1934, when they walked into Columbus's cavernous Fairgrounds Coliseum—unbeaten, true, but largely unknown and unrespected. Three victories later the Wonders had a 34-0 record and a state championship. Now everyone in Ohio knew who they were—and wanted to play them.
The Wonders took on all comers. Hairston was as savvy a promoter as he was a basketball coach, and during the 1934-35 season Waterloo barnstormed through a brutal schedule that would be unthinkable today. Up to five times a week, as soon as classes let out, seven people (the coach; his assistant and scorekeeper, Kenneth McCauley; and the five starters) would pile into Hairston's Ford V-8 sedan. "There were three in the front seat and four in the back," says Wiseman. "Three of us would sit on the backseat, and Beryl—Beryl was the lightest—he'd lay down across our feet there. That was his place to ride." (Reserves went only to league games, usually within 20 miles. Most games were nonleague.)
The Wonders probably played more than 60 games that season—records were not the life-and-death matters they are today, so no one knows the exact number. They were usually away games, and it was a long drive from Waterloo to anywhere, let alone Columbus or Cincinnati.
One day Hairston set off with his team for Painesville, outside Cleveland, 200 miles away. Halfway there it began to snow, and the weather worsened at nightfall. When Hairston called the opposing school to say his team wouldn't get there by tip-off time and might not make it at all, he was urged not to give up. The Wonders didn't arrive until after 11 that night—and the gym was still packed.
On another occasion, due to a scheduling mix-up, Waterloo found itself playing two different schools on the same night. Rather than cancel one game, Hairston had his starters run up a big halftime lead in the first contest, then left behind his subs to mop up as the starters took off for the nightcap. Waterloo won both games.
The Wonders played to full houses everywhere, and Hairston eventually negotiated a deal to get 50% of the night's gate to cover the team's meals and weekend hotel bills. Part of the Wonders' considerable charm was that for all the excitement of their first exposure to such big-city marvels as automatic elevators and sit-down restaurants, they never really left the farm. On Friday overnight trips they often took along their 5 shotguns and rifles to get in a little hunting the next morning.
And how the crowds loved them. The Wonders were like the Globetrotters not just in their skills and trick-shot artistry but also as pure entertainers. It was during their second season that the Wonders introduced their most outrageous pranks. Usually Wyman would start the mischief—conspicuously eating popcorn or a hot dog on the bench, or pretending to pass out on the floor—and the others would follow suit. Three Wonders might walk off the court and pitch pennies on the sidelines, leaving the game to two teammates. Sometimes the Wonders played marbles in the midcourt circle. If a loudmouth in the stands hollered, "Shoot!" the Wonders might just toss him the ball.