It was 25 years ago if it was a day, but Margaret Owens's recollection is vivid. She was in the middle of a phys-ed class in the little Waterloo school gym when the janitor picked up a basketball and strode to midcourt. Suddenly Orlyn Roberts, a wiry man in his 50's, let it fly through the rafters, nothing but net.
Imagine the Harlem Globetrotters. Now imagine them as five short, white, teenage farm boys. If you can't, then it's fair to assume you don't live anywhere near tiny Waterloo, in the southeastern corner of Ohio.
Ask people there about Orlyn Roberts or his cousin Wyman or their friends Stewart Wiseman, Beryl Drummond and Curtis McMahon—the fabulous Waterloo Wonders—and watch their memories unreel like an old highlight film, the images flickering by: graceful set shots from midcourt; hook shots from the corners; bouncing free throws; passes rifled crosscourt or behind the back or between the legs or snapped over the shoulder or bowled the length of the floor and right up the center's leg; a guard dribbling out one of the gym's exits and, a few moments later, dribbling in another; a forward stopping and, just to make a dull game interesting, handing the ball back to a hapless defender for an uncontested shot: and all the while, the shoulder-to-shoulder Friday-night crowd whistling and stomping its approval, fired up by ninetysomething Perry Brumfield, a Civil War veteran (Confederate side).
The story of the Waterloo Wonders is an unlikely one. Sixty years ago, five unprepossessing young men came out of the Ohio hill country to win back-to-back Class B (small school) state championships. You might say the Wonders were rather like their counterparts in Milan, Ind., whose 1954 heroics became the basis of the film Hoosiers. But while that comparison addresses the small-town, Cinderella nature of the Wonders, it ignores the full breadth of their accomplishments. In two remarkable seasons, Waterloo played nearly 100 games, winning all but three, most of them on the road against much bigger schools. In one stretch the team won seven games in nine days; it boasted a 56-game winning streak. That makes the Wonders more akin to the great professional barnstormers of that pre-NBA era.
Yet that characterization doesn't quite do the job either. What truly made the Wonders so, well, wondrous was not that they won, but the way they won. At a time when basketball was still in its formative, stand-around stage, with a center jump after each basket, the Wonders were like five Depression-era Bob Cousys, mesmerizing opponents and audiences alike with their ball handling, complex offensive schemes, trick-shot artistry and good-natured pranks. Says Harold Rolph, 87, who officiated at many of the Wonders' home games, "It was so pleasant to watch them play that I would often tell them at the [scorer's] desk, 'Don't worry about the clock. Just let it run.' "
Waterloo, a town of maybe 125 people, sits on a bend along twisty State Route 141, about halfway between Ironton and Gallipolis, and is surrounded by even smaller towns with names like Arabia, Aid, Lecta, Patriot (that's PA-triot, not PAY-triot) and Greasy Ridge. Waterloo is a depressed town in a depressed part of the state. There are no jobs to speak of, and many of the empty, weather-beaten frame houses appear to be standing mostly from force of habit. Waterloo High closed in 1960, robbing the town of an important part of its identity.
Sixty years ago Waterloo was positively bustling. It had 150 inhabitants, an inn, a barbershop, a granary, a mortuary, three stores, two doctors—and one miracle.
Stewart Wiseman remembers it all well enough. Now 77 and the only surviving member of the Wonders' starting five, he sits at the dining-room table of his comfortable house outside Athens, Ohio, reconstructing favorite plays. The fingers of both hands fly across the tabletop in intricate patterns. To the untrained eye the retired teacher seems to be playing three-card monte without a deck, but he is explaining this weave or that give-and-go, plays as fresh in his mind as they were when he was a handsome 17-year-old.
When Stewart and his teammates were coming of age in the late 1920s and early '30s, there wasn't a lot to do in Waterloo except farm, hunt and play basketball. It took fewer kids to get up a basketball game than it did to play baseball or football, and if you didn't have the right equipment, you could improvise.
"You'd play with a homemade ball," says Lee Drummond, 77, who still lives just outside Waterloo and was a reserve for the Wonders. "Take an old sock; fill it full of rags, shirtsleeves, whatever you could tear up and put in there; tie strings around it; and that was your ball." The young Wiseman gouged a primitive court for himself with a horse-drawn grader. And when rain or nightfall interfered with their outdoor games, Waterloo lads retired to a barn loft and played by firelight. By their mid-teens, when they got the chance to play basketball in a real gym with real equipment, the five principal Waterloo players were more than ready.