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Picking top Franklin squad no easy feat

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An unwritten job description of being executive director of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame is an ability to carefully tailor opinions so not to offend or exclude.

Surrounded daily by tangible reminders of the state’s glorious hoops past, Chris May is more educated than most when revealing his dream Final Four.

“Of the all-time greats, 1971 East Chicago Washington, the 1969 Indianapolis Washington team, one of those (late-1980s) Marion teams and then you’re probably looking at the (Franklin) Wonder Five,” May said. “It would be fun to have a time machine and make a tournament out of it.”

If only.

Envisioning Franklin’s Fuzzy Vandivier attempting to shut down Marion’s smooth-shooting Jay Edwards or one of the Friddles (Burl and Carlysle) taking the ball strong to the basket against George McGinnis or Junior Bridgeman is the best we can possibly do.

Crossing generational lines is risky, particularly if it involves something as sacred as boys basketball in this state. Eras are treated as personal property, the, “In my day ...” rebuttle at least as old as the game itself.

Of course, any fictional state finals is going to take only one of the three “Wonder Five” squads that won three consecutive titles from 1920 to 1922.

All three Franklin teams were coached by Ernest “Griz” Wagner and starred Vandivier.

All three have an argument.

Vandivier’s sophomore season of 1919-20 saw Franklin finish 29-1, the lone blemish being a 24-18 loss to Martinsville in the season’s ninth game. However, a Vandivier basket in overtime was required to escape Anderson 14-12 in the state finals semifinal round.

The team again posted 29 W’s the following season but came off as slightly more vulnerable with four regular-season losses. That team would go on to produce sectional romps against Waldron, Center Grove, Morristown and Shelbyville by a combined 154 to 38.

Franklin eked out three-, one- and five-point victories before settling in to knock off Anderson 35-22 behind Vandivier’s 13 points.

Vandivier’s final season contained little to no postseason suspense. Franklin laid a 222 to 38 drubbing on four sectional foes, clobbered Scottsburg 51-6 at the regional, and won its final four games by an average of 14.3 points.

A packed house of 7,200 fans inside the Indianapolis Coliseum witnessed history as the curtain three winters in the making finally lowered with Franklin’s 26-15 win against Terre Haute Garfield.

Influencing the numbers all the more is Franklin’s dominance — particularly in 1920 and ‘22 — during an era void of modern basketball conveniences such as free-flowing offenses and the 3-point shot.

Old documentation found in the Hall of Fame’s extensive library revealed amusing commentary from Wagner pertaining to how the city rewarded him for the three championships.

“When I won my first championship the citizens gave me $1,000. When I won my second one they gave me a fine rod and reel,” said Wagner, who legend has it received a blanket after title No. 3.

And even though Wagner, Vandivier, the Friddles, Paul White and others would ultimately branch out in different directions, Franklin High School’s presence at the prep level proved unavoidable.

In 1923 Franklin advanced to the final eight before dropping a 22-18 decision to eventual state champion Vincennes. In 1924, Martinsville would face Franklin twice during its title run, the Artesians winning the games by two and five points.

Later, Burl Friddle, Franklin’s starting center in 1920, would coach a pair of championship squads from opposite ends of the state in Washington (1930) and Fort Wayne South (1938).

This made Friddle the first person to play for and coach a boys state basketball champion in Indiana.

One year after Friddle’s South team became champion, Vandivier, then 35, led by eventual Indiana Mr. Basketball George Crowe, coached Franklin all the way to the state championship game at Butler Fieldhouse before falling to Frankfort 36-22.

The impact of Franklin’s three straight championships all those years ago bled into later decades. Those teams remain a yardstick of sorts for today’s athletes and coaches regardless of gender or sport.

It’s why the “Wonder Five” phenomenon continues to get passed from generation to generation.

“It’s hard to compare (great teams) because of the style change and the way the game has been played. But they’ve held up throughout time with what they accomplished and how they did it,” May said. “I think people who understand the history of Indiana high school basketball definitely appreciate the accomplishments of the Wonder Five.

“The three consecutive state championships, I don’t think it’s lost on them.”

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