Retro guys get their due
MARQUETTE – Bill Koski Jr. doesn’t have to tell the tall tale of walking five miles uphill in both directions to get to school every day.
He has his own true story that must sound just as foreign to today’s younger generation – having to pull out a snow shovel if he wanted to play basketball during the winter in his hometown of Champion in western Marquette County.
“Growing up, we didn’t have any snowmobiles or computer games or anything like that,” Koski said. “So basketball was one of the few things we had to do in the winter.
“We mostly played on outdoor courts, and if we wanted to play, we had to get our shovels out and shovel the snow off the court.
“My dad (Bill Koski Sr.) was principal at Champion High School, so sometimes we could get the key and sneak into the gym.”
It was that kind of dedication to the sport that made him one of the best players not only in the Upper Peninsula, but in all of Michigan in 1963.
That was his senior year at Champion High School, when he finished his four-year prep career as the second-leading scorer in U.P. history at the time with 1,953 points.
Numbers like those earned the attention of historians with the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, who are in the midst of naming “Retro” Mr. Basketball winners and finalists from 1920-80 similar to how the current Mr. Basketball award is named for the best boys high school player in the state.
Koski, 68, is the youngest among four Marquette County players nominated in the 25 years that have been announced by the group.
The others are Tim Bullock, 70, of Graveraet High School in Marquette from 1961, Terry Thompson, 79, of Ishpeming High School in 1952 and the late James Scanlon of Negaunee High School in 1922.
Koski was just named in April, while the others were named in 2011 and 2012.
But all of the living finalists were surprised when they recently heard about the award, which hasn’t received a lot of media attention.
So was Scanlon’s daughter, Marguerite Nardi of Ishpeming.
“Growing up, I knew my father was on a championship team in high school and that he was one of its best players,” Nardi said recently. “And I know he was always proud to have been on that team.”
The BCAM’s biography of Scanlon states he “helped lead Negaunee to the Upper Peninsula title and an entry in the State Tournament at Ann Arbor.
“(Scanlon) finished as the top individual point scorer in the tournament, ‘caging 22 field baskets in the four games he played.’
“Strong on defense as well, Scanlon earn(ed) a first-team spot on the All-Tournament squad.”
Scanlon died in 1974 at age 69, according to records from the Negaunee Historical Society as researched by Roland “Foo” Koski of Negaunee, who is no relation to Bill Koski.
“I understand that 1922 team was maybe the best team Negaunee has ever had, since they played in the national tournament,” he said. “Kalamazoo was one of the best teams, so it wasn’t so bad that they lost to them. Then they ran all the way through the consolation bracket and won that.”
Bill Koski, who lives in Forsyth Township with his wife Diane, gives some of the credit for his superior ball handling and sharpshooting skills to his older brother, Pete Koski.
“I used to go along with my brother and we usually played with bigger, older kids,” Bill Koski said, adding that started in the fifth or sixth grade. “You had to learn to play at their level. The alternative was to sit on the sidelines.”
Though as a junior the Indians reached the Class D state quarterfinals, probably the highlight of his high school playing days came during his senior year at the Northern Michigan University Invitational held the week after Christmas in Marquette.
Despite being the smallest of eight Marquette County teams in the event, Champion emerged as, of all things, champion.
“We beat Gwinn, which was in Class B, Marquette (Graveraet) from Class A, and in the finals, Bishop Baraga (of Marquette), which was a Class C school,” Koski said. “And that was in three consecutive days.
“Then they never had the tournament again, I think maybe because we won it.”
He took over as starting point guard as a freshman in 1959, figuring he was about 5-7 and 140 pounds then, and got to play with his brother, who was a senior. They were the leading scorers on the team that year, Bill netting 333 points.
“I think that’s still a record up here (in the U.P.) for a freshman,” said Koski, who grew to 5-11 by the time he was a senior when he scored 609 points, a 32.5 per-game average.
He went on to play at NMU, then coached basketball and taught at Republic-Michigamme for eight years.
Bullock, who winters in Lake Placid, Fla., and summers in Brimley, started for three years at Graveraet.
He earned Detroit Free Press first-team All-State honors in both basketball and football as a senior in 1960-61. For his three-year basketball career, he netted 1,033 points in 50 games.
Like Koski, who later was a teammate of his at NMU, Bullock was a sharpshooting guard who played some forward at 6-foot and 168 pounds.
And also like Koski, he got to play with his older brother, Tom, his first full year on varsity as the brothers were two years apart.
“We played a whole lot at the Williams Park courts in the summer,” Tim Bullock said. “And you always had to play with older players.
“I think I learned my shooting touch from shooting in the backyard.”
Averaging 14 points per game as a sophomore, that improved to 20 ppg as a junior and 24 to 25 as a senior.
Yet another coincidence with Koski is that they, along with Pete Koski Sr., were named to the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.
After college, Bullock coached in Republic for two years, then at Sault Ste. Marie for four or five years before later taking the helm of the Blue Devils’ girls teams for most of the 1980s.
Thompson, who takes care of the archives for Ishpeming High School, was a two-time Free Press first team All-State member. As a 6-3 sophomore center, he played with Ishpeming’s Class B state champions when they beat Grand Rapids Godwin Heights 43-36 with 6-8 center Art Spoelstra, who later played in the NBA.
“I started that game, and I couldn’t control that 6-8 guy,” Thompson said. “But we tied it 36-36 and then got Spoelstra to foul out.
“The highlight of my playing career was not necessarily that game, but coming home,” he said about the streets of Ishpeming being packed with people and team members riding fire trucks in an impromptu parade.
“It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.”
Thompson, named to the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, also led Ishpeming to the state quarterfinals as a senior, using what the BCAM called a “pivot shot,” a turnaround shot that was nearly impossible to defend.
“We lost five games in three years, and two of them were to Negaunee,” Thompson said, which included his junior year in the district tournament after an undefeated regular season.
After earning an alternate’s spot in a high school All-American game, he played a year at Ball State before returning to the U.P. to play at Michigan Tech. He and his wife A’marylee, married for about 59 years, live in Ishpeming.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.