This is the second insert recalling the Panthers run to its first state title on this, its 70th anniversary. It can be downloaded as a JPEG or read in analog.
Most of them had been there before and with a promise to themselves that they’d be back. That was March 1947 when the Pinckneyville Panthers were ousted by Pekin from the Illinois State Basketball Tournament in the semi-finals. They would win the consolation game, but third place just wasn’t good enough. It left them with seven long months to think about another run for the title.
During that time the basketballs never stopped bouncing. The team practiced the entire spring, summer and fall to ready themselves for the next season. That is just how life was as a boy growing up in Pinckneyville in the 1940s – you’d play all year round.
They lost three players to graduation, but sparkplug ball handler Frank (Pud) Gladson, Bob “Drufus” Johnson and David “Slim” Davis would return as starters. Tom Millikin would “Come out of nowhere,” as Davis put it, to make the square and 6’2” Percy Clippard muscled his way into the lineup.
They were joined by Dick Luke, Bill Williams, Charles Gruner, Bill McCrary and Richard Craig to become a square of 10 boys to carry the hopes and dreams of a community all the way to a state championship.
There seemed little doubt, at least amongst the players, cheerleaders, and fans that Pinckneyville was destined for a return trip to Champaign.
“Everyone thought we would win state except maybe the rest of the world,” said Joyce Margenthaler, a cheerleader. “We never had a doubt.”
True, cheerleaders are natural optimists, but that confidence was shared among the players, too.
“We just knew we would be back, but I wouldn’t call it cockiness,” said Gladson. “We had the nucleus of a good team.”
“I think the town expected us to return and we did, too,” said Davis.
Coach Duster Thomas spoke in those terms, said Gladson. There was no pre-season pep talk about the importance of returning to the tournament.
“He never talked about it,” said Gladson adding that the focus was on practicing Duster’s fierce style of control offense and suffocating defense. He understood that his system would get him back to the state championship, not pep talks.
“Everyone had a specialty and was expected to know it,” Clippard said. “Mine was rebounding and defense.”
Clippard’s contributions, however, would be put on hold when he broke his leg in a football game against Chester in September 1947. He’d practice free throws in a cast, but wouldn’t suit up until mid-season.
“When Percy broke his leg, Duster pulled us all off the football team,” said Johnson.
When the season started, the wins came in bundles. By the time of the Mount Vernon Holiday Tournament, the Panthers were undefeated until they ran into an aggressive Edwardsville team.
“When we got beat by Edwardsville it opened our eyes,” said Millikin. “It was a turning point for us; a wakeup call.”
Naturally, Edwardsville was elated by the upset and Gladson remembers his coach entering the Panthers locker room.
“Their coach to our dressing room and his team had just defeated this year’s state champions,” he said. “He was one of the first to visit us in the locker room after we had won it (state title) and said, ‘See, I told you so.’”
The loss to Edwardsville was soon forgotten and the team buckled down to the business at hand. The players credited Duster with providing the focus to keep their eyes on the ultimate goal.
“He had a way of instilling confidence, but also to respect our opponents,” Millikin said.
“Duster had a way of making you think you were playing the Chicago Bulls,” Millikin added. He knew what made the other team tick and actually take them out of their offense before it had a chance to get started.”
That was Duster’s way to control the tempo of the game and controlling the tempo was Duster’s modus operandi. The pace was slow and deliberate; the Panthers were never in a hurry to win. Commenting about his team Duster told a reporter, “Every coach in southern Illinois said he had a way to crack our deliberate offense. No one ever did. Frankly, I don’t know how you would make us play someone else’s ballgame. They’ve got to play ours, or else.” 1940s wedding dresses
That style of play was drilled into the players during grueling practices which were four hours a day—two hours in the morning (study hall and physical education were scheduled back-to-back from 10 a.m. until noon) and two hours in the afternoon.
Practices were tough with the first team facing the second team, but with a caveat giving the second team an upper hand.
“We’d have half-court scrimmages. The first team would have to hold the second team scoreless five times before we’d get the ball. The second team only had to hold us once,” Johnson said.
Davis remembers how Duster emphasized that the players thoroughly know the rules.
“One of our greatest assets was knowing the rule book,” he said. “Another was Duster’s ability to scout the opponent.”
“Duster was good at scouting the other team,” Gladson said. “We’d figure out their strong and weak points and adjust our game accordingly. If we played a team with a hot shot we’d close him down.”
After the setback in December, the team plowed through the schedule in January and February setting up a showdown with arch rival Centralia and its charismatic coach A.J. Trout.
“Mr. Trout was in control just like Duster,” said Davis. “I remember one game there the crowd was too rowdy. Mr. Trout took one step on the floor and looked around. There was dead silence.”
Most of the players agreed that the Centralia game was Pinckneyville’s toughest of the season. The Panthers won 40-39, but the game went to the wire.
“It was so crowded. I was at the baseline and tripped on a fan’s leg,” said Gladson. “I had goose bumps all game.”
As the Panthers prepared the return trip to Champaign as they had promised to do the fans braced for two days of intense basketball.
Those who couldn’t follow the team north gathered at Luke and Keene’s Restaurant – dubbed basketball headquarters by Assistant Coach Wib Ragland.
Those who were in Champaign likely didn’t have a ticket or even a hotel room. Many slept in their cars.
“There were Pinckneyville fans everywhere,” said Davis. “Our rooms were crowded with friends but I remember Duster telling us to enjoy it but don’t give up our beds.”
The media gave the Panthers little chance of winning.
“I remember a reporter asking, ‘what is Pinckneyville doing up here? You will never win against these faster teams,” Clippard said.
“They called us underdogs and said we hadn’t played anyone all season,” said Craig.
With a team and town that believed, a David versus Goliath story was unfolded on the hardwood.
The Panthers first faced Moline. Davis remembers them being large and physical.
“Their front line guys were 6’7” and 6’6’,” he said.
Despite being outsized, the Panthers dismantled them 45-35 with Gladson scoring 14, Johnson netting 13, David chipping in 8, Millikin hitting 7 and Clippard 3.
Next up was Springfield Cathedral with an enrollment of 350 students it was the smallest school in the tournament. The Panthers won handily 58-36 lead by Clippard’s 17 points.
Now came the grudge match against Pekin which sent the Panthers packing in the 1947 tournament and was ready to do it again.
Pekin was comfortable playing against the Panthers’ control-style. The scoring was low with Pinckneyville heading to the locker room at halftime up 15-12.
Both teams started swishing the nets in the third quarter with Panthers holding a 27-23 lead. The fourth quarter was nip and tuck but when the buzzer sounded this time it was Pekin heading home early being handed a 36-31 loss.
Back home the town was abuzz. Luke and Keene’s was packed and everyone was on edge waiting.
“My mother listened to the game on the telephone,” Gladson said. “A phone operator patched it through for her.”
The opponent was East Rockford which had only lost three games all season. The Panthers low scoring approached seemed to have been tossed out the window as they manhandled an unprepared opponent.
“Anyone who wanted to put it in the hoop did,” Davis, who had nine points, said. “We couldn’t miss.”
The game was a rout. Pinckneyville jumped to a 9-0 lead and never looked back. One reporter wrote that the Panthers had abandoned its “robot-style of play and the game was decided in the first five minutes.” Another writer with the Chicago Daily News wrote that the Panthers were the best team he had ever seen.
How quickly success changes one’s viewpoint. The Panthers were champions and the legacy was founded.