Howie Judson graduated from Hebron High School nine years before the Giants achieved basketball immortality, but the mark he made on that team was indelible.
The former All-State basketball player taught his twin brothers Paul and Phil, nine years younger, the fundamentals of sports. Howie, who pitched seven years in the major leagues, was their hero.
In 1952, just after Howie had headed to California to spring training with the White Sox, Paul and Phil led Hebron (now Alden-Hebron) to the IHSA boys basketball state championship in a 64-59 overtime victory over Quincy.
The Giants, with an enrollment of 98 students, were the smallest school ever to win in the one-class system.
Howie Judson, remembered as one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of McHenry County, died Tuesday in a Winter Haven, Florida, nursing home at the age of 95.
According to Baseball-Almanac.com, Judson was the 14th-oldest living former major leaguer, although both sites listed his birthday as Feb. 16, 1926. Paul and Phil both confirmed their brother was born in 1925, which would have put Howie eighth on that list.
Judson leaves behind a remarkable legacy. He was named to the Champaign News-Gazette All-State basketball team, the first of four in his family to earn that honor, played baseball and basketball at Illinois, then pitched for the White Sox and Cincinnati over a seven-year major league career.
“Howie really took an interest in Paul and I,” Phil Judson said. “He had such a good high school and college career. He said, ‘I want you guys to do the best that you can. If I can help you, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
Phil said Howie took them to their driveway hoop and put an ‘X’ on the backboard on each side of the rim, then told them to dribble with their heads up and when they shot a layup to hit the X and it would go in every time. It was one of many lessons the twins learned from their legendary big brother.
“It was great. Just super great to have a big brother playing in the major leagues,” Paul Judson said. “He played at Illinois, and we went down there. Just great. We were going to go to Wisconsin because we figured we could play right away there. Illinois was ranked No. 1 in the nation. People said, ‘Do you know what you’re running into down there?’ It was one of the best choices we’ve made in our lives.”
Howie Judson missed seeing the last few games of the 1952 season when he reported to spring training for his fifth and final season with the Sox, but he was notified by telegram of every Giants victory.
Howie Judson played golf until about two years ago. Paul and Phil said after Howie fell and broke a hip, he had to stop playing.
Paul and Phil Judson also were named All-State players by the News-Gazette, and later Rob Judson, Phil’s son, also was selected as an All-Stater. Phil coached Rob at Zion-Benton.
Several years ago, A-H athletic director John Lalor retired the jerseys of the five starters from the 1952 team: Paul Judson (4), Kenley Spooner (6), Don Wilbrandt (8), Phil Judson (9) and Bill Schulz (17). They also retired Howie’s No. 11. All those jerseys hang on the west wall of A-H’s Tigard Gymnasium.
“I asked Howie about 10 years ago, ‘Did you think we were going to be any good?’ ” Paul Judson said. “He said, ‘Oh, sure. I knew you were going to win a lot of games, but you weren’t going anywhere without a big center.’ That piece of the puzzle came when Bill Schulz came into Alden-Hebron.”
When Howie graduated, it was just Hebron High School. Hebron consolidated with Alden before the 1948-49 school year, which meant Schulz, a 6-foot-11 farm kid, came to the school.
Two years later, the Giants filled gymnasiums everywhere, were ranked No. 1 in the state and went 35-1 to bring home the title.
“Howie helped make us the basketball players that we were,” Phil Judson said.
When the Northwest Herald did a series in late 1999 chronicling the best athletes and teams of the century, Howie Judson was ranked among the top 10 athletes.
Rob Judson visited his parents’ house in Gurnee on Tuesday and FaceTimed Howie to talk. Phil said he believes Howie knew who they were while they were on the call. Howie died 2 1/2 hours later.
“He led a good life,” Phil Judson said. “We had a good time together. He’s in a good place right now.”