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Injuries hurt local five in tourney tilt

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If you are up on your local basketball history, you certainly know about the Franklin Wonder Five and its historic run to three straight state championships in the early 1920s.

You probably also know about Franklin’s George Crowe, Indiana’s first Mr. Basketball. And you might even know about Greenwood’s John Bass, the state’s third Mr. Basketball.

If you are particularly well-versed in Johnson County’s rich boys basketball tradition, you know that legendary Crispus Attucks coach Ray Crowe starred for Whiteland High School in the 1930s. And you are aware that his younger brother, George, led Franklin to a runner-up finish in the 1939 championship, which sealed the Mr. Basketball award.

Moreover, you know about Franklin’s back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1973 and 1974 — the most recent local boys team to advance that far in the defunct single-class tournament.

You probably know a lot of other fascinating tidbits about the county’s past, as well. But unless you are a true “Hoosier Hysteria” historian, here’s something you might not know: The Wonder Five, which won state titles in 1920, 1921 and 1922, was not the first county team to reach the championship game.

It wasn’t even the first Franklin team to get there.

That distinction belonged to the 1912 Franklin High School team, which played for the championship 102 years ago.

Less than a month before the Titanic went down, Franklin — led by coach C.D. Branigin and star player John Pruitt — played Lebanon in the second-ever IHSAA state final in Indiana University’s old Assembly Hall.

On March 16, 1912, in what was described as a “preliminary” to IU’s home game against Wisconsin, a packed house watched Franklin and Lebanon duel for the title in what wound up not being much of a duel.

Runner-up the previous year against Crawfordsville, Lebanon broke through with a resounding 51-11 victory. Lebanon captain Dick Porter scored a game-high 26 points, a staggering total for the era, which stood as a state finals record until 1946.

Franklin was led by Pruitt, who had 10 of Franklin’s total. Team captain John Hamner tallied the only other point. Lebanon had 23 field goals to Franklin’s three, though free throws were a wash with each team making five.

Franklin finished the year 14-2.

Largely because the game was a rout, and partially because few foresaw the boys tournament evolving into a larger-than-life event, many of the details of the 1912 final are lost to history — particularly on the Franklin side.

For example, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame has no photo of the Franklin team or even the first names of its players. Franklin Community High School does have a team photo of the team in a display case, replete with full names, but not much else.

Even media coverage of the game was scant.

Under a headline declaring “LEBANON H.S. WINS STATE CHAMPIONSHIP,” the Indianapolis Star presented the following lead to a brief write-up: “Lebanon won the state championship in the second annual interscholastic basket ball tournament held here tonight, defeating Franklin 51 to 11. The game was witnessed by a crowd that filled the big gym from start to finish. It was played as a preliminary to the Indiana-Wisconsin varsity contest.”

The summary included an abbreviated box score, minus first names; a mention of the semifinal games; and concluded with the following colorful observation: “Lebanon and Franklin were declared the winners over Whiting and Orleans in the games played in the afternoon. Each of the teams was accompanied by a large delegation of rooters, and the old gymnasium was made noisy with the various high school yells.”

Indeed, Lebanon thumped Orleans 28-13 in the first afternoon game, and Franklin edged Whiting 29-21 in the second afternoon game — the timing of which would become one of two points of contention for the Franklin faithful.

In a season-ending nod to the team, the 1912 Franklin High School yearbook “Caduceus” noted that playing in the second game was distinct disadvantage for Franklin. It also lamented the fact three Franklin players were hurt in the second game. It doesn’t mention which players, nor does it make clear whether they actually played in the final.

An excerpt from the “Caduceus,” which can be found at the Johnson County Museum of History, sums the day this way:

“Lebanon played the first game in the afternoon and had a very easy one, taking their first team out a few minutes after the second half started, and gaining thereby the opportunity of resting about five hours; while Franklin played the Whiting team, fighting hard to win, and were worn out when the game was finished. They didn’t get to rest more than two hours and a half before the final game. We also had three men hurt in the afternoon game which handicapped us a great deal in the evening game. Everything seemed to be against us and we were defeated, and defeated fairly. We have one kick coming. Yet after granting that Lebanon can defeat us any time and any place, we feel that that can’t be done by more than ten points.”

Though Franklin might well have played better with more rest and healthier bodies, the yearbook does acknowledge the obvious: Lebanon was easily the state’s best team in 1912.

In his book exhaustively researched book “Hoosier Hysteria,” the definitive history of the Indiana’s single-class tournament, the late Herb Schwomeyer noted in his summary of the 1912 championship game that of one Lebanon’s best players, Vernon “Bud” Laughner, “was forced to quit the team and did not compete in the tournament. No reason was given.”

So neither team, it would appear, was at full strength.

Be that as it may, the 1912 Franklin team was still a special part of history. The “F” men, the moniker bestowed by the yearbook, paved the way for the Wonder Five in that they were the first to put Franklin on the state basketball map.

From the first single-class championship to the last in 1997, reaching the final — win or lose — was no small feat. The great majority of schools never got there. The “F” men did it in just their second try, becoming the first of five Franklin teams to eventually play for a title.

For that reason alone, Franklin’s forgotten team is well worth remembering.

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