Peeling back the layers to an individual deemed legendary becomes more difficult as time goes on.
In the case of Robert Polk Vandivier, proof of his immense basketball abilities has been left to grainy photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and handed-down tales subject to potential embellishment.
And so it’s been for generations.
Those who paid admission to witness the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Franklin High School athlete better known as Fuzzy Vandivier passed away years ago. The same can be said for those who coached Vandivier or competed against him.
What’s known is this: Vandivier, who graduated in 1922 and died 31 years ago come July, remains spirited discussion fodder to this day.
He was, by all accounts, Wooden before Wooden. Oscar before Oscar. Damon before Damon.
Vandivier from 1920-22 led the Grizzly Cubs to three straight boys state basketball championships, a task so incredibly difficult it wouldn’t be repeated for another 65 years (Marion, 1985-87).
Those Franklin teams of coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner teamed up for an 89-9 record, four setbacks coming during Vandivier’s senior season at the hands of Martinsville, Gary Emerson, Bedford and Anderson.
Only one player started all three state finals.
Furthermore, Vandivier scored a total of 42 points in the three title matchups, the next closest Franklin players being fellow 1921 and ’22 starters John Gant (20) and Carlyle Friddle (14).
Add the three semifinal victories needed to qualify for those championship games, and Vandivier had 74 points.
“I’ve never seen a better player than Franklin’s Vandivier,” Martinsville native and former UCLA coach John Wooden said in a 1970 interview for Sport Magazine. “Vandivier was my idol. He was 6-feet or so, and he could dribble, pass and shoot.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Wooden’s praise is the timing.
The magazine hit newstands shortly after he and 7-2 center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led the Bruins to the fifth of UCLA’s 10 national championships under Wooden.
Jabbar is still considered by many the most dominant if not greatest collegiate player of all time; his 38,387 points scored over a 20-year National Basketball Association career (1969-89) remains the league standard.
And the Wizard of Westwood chose Fuzzy.
“I never saw Fuzzy play with my own eyes, but given the source, that does have a lot of weight to it,” said Chris May, executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
“The one thing I would say is of the early years I think he and Homer Stonebraker from Wingate are the two guys who seem to have stood the test of time. And probably John Wooden, also, are probably the three legends of those early years of Indiana high school basketball that would still rank on any all-time great teams.”
Longtime Butler University coach Tony Hinkle was once asked for his dream team of all-time Indiana boys basketball players. Hinkle listed Vandivier, Stonebraker, Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Bobby Plump and George McGinnis.
Not a bad lineup.
Stonebraker, the muscular 6-4 do-everything center for Wingate’s state championship ball clubs of 1913 and 1914, is deservedly thought of as Indiana’s first authentic superstar in high school basketball.
Little did Stonebraker know he was playing with Fuzzy on his heels.
Nicknames were a common component of Indiana high school basketball in the early part of the 20th century.
The 1920 Franklin squad, coached by “Griz” Wagner, also had a player named Harvey “Pete” Keeling. The 1921 and ‘22 state champions featured guards Charlton “Butter” Williams and James “Ike” Ballard.
Wagner’s moniker originated because of his fondness of nature and exploring the woods as a young boy in Vernon. It stuck with him until he passed away in 1934 at age 48.
The story with Vandivier is that one day in 1909 he was tagging along with his older brother, Riehl, and some of Riehl’s friends to throw the baseball.
Franklin at the time had an older gentleman commonly seen walking through the downtown area. Known as something of a town character, “Fuzzy” Vest had long hair and often appeared disheveled.
Only 5 at the time, Vandivier got himself dirty playing baseball. Riehl then quipped, “You look like Fuzzy Vest, so Fuzzy, go get the ball.”
He was referred to as Fuzzy as a young boy on into his teenage years and beyond. Vandivier’s mother, Isabelle, went against the grain, always opting to call him Robert until she died at age 92.
Records list Vandivier as a guard, while others label him a forward. Truth is, he probably excelled anywhere Wagner put him.
An outstanding ball-handler and passer, Vandivier also possessed good range as a shooter. His court savvy and unselfishness made him ahead of his time during the infant stages of an Indiana postseason tournament celebrating its 104th birthday with this weekend’s state finals.
The state’s first three-time All-State selection, Vandivier and others from the high school team would follow Wagner to nearby Franklin College.
With former high school teammates Vandivier, Burl and Carlyle Friddle, John Gant and Wendell Ballard all on the same college roster, Franklin College recorded a 63-11 mark from 1922-26. The list of programs that came up short against those powerful Grizzlies teams included Purdue, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Butler, Wabash and DePauw.
Following the 1923-24 season, the Chicago Tribune called Vandivier, “the best basketball player in the United States” while honoring him as National Collegiate Player of the Year.
Unfortunately, a painful back ailment forced Vandivier to quit playing during his senior year of college. This explains Franklin College’s 12-6 record in 1925-26 after going 51-5 in Vandivier’s first three years on campus.
Vandivier remained a proud Franklin resident for the remainder of his years before passing away July 30, 1983, five months short of his 80th birthday.
A long life lived. The accolades too many to count.
Vandivier returned to Franklin High School, and from 1926-44 he coached the boys basketball program he helped make famous.
In 1938-39, the community was engulfed in a sense of deja vu as Vandivier’s Grizzly Cubs qualified for the state finals at Butler Fieldhouse.
Led by eventual Indiana Mr. Basketball George Crowe, Franklin defeated Muncie Burris, 31-25, in the afternoon semifinal. Crowe’s 13 points in the title matchup weren’t enough as the Cubs fell to Frankfort 36-22 before a capacity crowd of 14,983.
Vandivier, who would later serve as the high school’s athletics director, retired after the 1967-68 school year.
By then he had already been inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame’s first class in 1962 and had Franklin’s former gymnasium named for him during a ceremony Feb. 4, 1966.
In 1975, Vandivier received the call he would be inducted into the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Bill Russell and Bill Sharman.
Vandivier never wore his numerous athletic accomplishments on his sleeve for all to see, which in hindsight could have been his greatest quality.
“He was so humble, ... he was almost too humble,” said Vandivier’s daughter, Virginia “Ginnie” Bridges, who continues to live in Franklin. “Every time I would ask him about this or that, he would say it was just a fairytale. I think he was embarrassed that he got all the acknowledgement.”
The Fuzzy Vandivier his only child so lovingly remembers is the man who every Saturday would take Ginnie’s daughter out to eat breakfast with all of his cronies. The Fuzzy who drove so slow that he barely separated himself from the exhaust coming from his car’s tailpipe.
“Oh, that’s just Fuzz.”
This is what most Franklin residents would say once they realized it was Vandivier causing the backup.
According to Bridges, Vandivier also was deathly scared of mice and wasn’t above escaping to the high school’s boiler room for the occasional cigarette during the years he was employed there.
Bridges freely admits she didn’t exactly inherit her father’s level personality.
“I speak my mind, which has gotten me in hot water from time to time,” she said. “I remember Fuzz saying to me, ‘Every opinion in your mind doesn’t have to come out of your mouth.’”