Stevenson: Former coach Latham to celebrate 100th birthday
Alden-Hebron and Quincy were destined since 1952 to be remembered together in the history of Illinois basketball.
But no one back then, a lifetime ago, could have ever imagined what would become of some of the principles in one of the state’s most famous championship games.
Quincy’s coach, George Latham, will celebrate his 100th birthday Saturday at the Lake Bluff Country Club. Among the guests attending will be A-H’s Phil and Paul Judson and Bill Schulz.
A-H, a tiny, barnstorming powerhouse from northern Illinois, was the smallest school ever (98 students) to win the state championship in the old one-class system. Quincy, with four times as many students in only three grades, lost to the Giants, 64-59, in overtime.
The story was legendary. So much so that just after 2000, IHSA assistant executive director Scott Johnson set out with his wife, Julie Kistler, to write the book “Once There Were Giants.” While Johnson and Kistler researched the book, Phil Judson mentioned that Latham was alive and doing well in Waukegan.
Phil Judson took Johnson to meet Latham. Phil enjoyed talking to Latham so much that he has made it a weekly ritual. Latham no longer can walk – he lost a leg – and can barely see, but his mind is very clear.
“His mind is sharper than a tack, it’s his body that’s falling apart,” said Sue Filippo, Latham’s daughter who lives in West Chicago. “Mentally, he’s so sharp it’s unbelievable.”
That’s what Phil Judson loves. He reads to Latham, they talk basketball. One of their favorite subjects is Jim Enright’s book “March Madness.”
“We talk about games and teams and he may not tell me the exact score, but he’ll know that they won by two points or lost by six,” said Judson, who lives in Gurnee. “We don’t think another coach and ballplayer have had a relationship like we have. It just doesn’t happen.”
But that’s Judson’s gregarious nature. They shared a link through one of Illinois’ greatest title games and just enjoy talking hoops. In 2012, when A-H was planning its 60th anniversary celebration, the Northwest Herald shot a photo with the Judsons, Schulz and Ken Spooner (the other living starter from the 1952 team) at Latham’s home.
“I like it when Phil comes over,” Latham said in 2012. “It’s great. Phil is a great guy and those other kids are too. Their players were doing the best to win and so were my players. We have pretty good gabfests.”
Latham lives in his house with a caretaker. Filippo said he looks forward to Judson’s weekly visits.
“They talk a lot of basketball,” Filippo said. “When it’s the NCAA Tournament, they talk about every game. When my mom [Jo] passed away a couple years ago, Phil, Bill and Ken were there at the funeral.”
Filippo marvels at what her father has seen in his lifetime. He grew up in Montana, riding a horse to school and working on a sheep ranch.
“He rode a horse to school and we’re trying to explain what Tweeting is to him,” she said with a laugh.
There are sure to be some fantastic stories at Lake Bluff Country Club Saturday. The A-H players are just glad they can be a part of the celebration.
“As far as Hebron, [Latham] has been so gracious,” Phil said. “He holds us in high regard. There are no ill feelings, no excuses. He really has shown interest in our team and players. He always asks about us. It’s a wonderful relationship.”
• Joe Stevenson is a senior sports writer for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @nwh_JoePrepZone.