ROVA's 1948-49 team, Part 6: State tourney: ‘Red’ Kerr, the queen and measles

Barry McNamara
Special to The Register-Mail
Members of the 1948-49 squad are pictured at a celebratory team event.

That ROVA was the smallest school to reach the Sweet Sixteen was story enough, but adding to the script was that the Tigers drew the largest school, Tilden Tech, as their opening opponent. The school on Chicago’s south side had 3,025 students, an enrollment that dwarfed ROVA’s 143.

In reality, the enrollment discrepancy was even larger, as Tilden Tech was an all-boys school at the time, meaning its male student count was roughly 40 times larger than ROVA’s. The school was so large that its enrollment was nearly twice the size of the combined population of ROVA’s four communities.

The Blue Devils, who entered the March 17 game with an 18-7 record, also had a player who was larger than any of ROVA’s boys: 6-foot-8 Johnny “Red” Kerr. It’s hard to believe now, but the player who went on to star for the University of Illinois, average a double-double in his 11-year NBA career, and serve as the first head coach and longtime announcer for the Chicago Bulls, nearly didn’t play basketball. A growth spurt midway through his high school years changed that.

Tilden Tech big man Johnny “Red” Kerr would go on to star for the University of Illinois and in the NBA. He was also the first coach of the Chicago Bulls.

“We’d heard that, at first, he didn’t go out for the team,” said Jim Asplund. “He was walking the halls in high school. The coach saw him and said, ‘Son, why aren’t you out for basketball?’ Kerr said, ‘I heard they had enough players, so I didn’t come out.’ The coach said, ‘I think I can find a spot for you.’ ”

“He’d been a soccer player before that,” said Truelove.

Kerr was far from a one-man show. In fact, he wasn’t a starter until the season’s midway point. Rather, it was tiny guard George Macuga, listed at 5-5 and called “one of the fastest and trickiest players in the state,” who led the way in Tilden Tech’s decisive 68-41 victory over ROVA, scoring 22 points. Macuga went on to play at Bradley University. Kerr netted 19 points and Chick Rose scored 16.

As talented as Tilden was, the Blue Devils didn’t win it all, continuing a trend for Chicago Public League champions in those days. They were edged 34-33 in the quarterfinal by West Aurora, the same school that in the prior game knocked out Elgin, the No. 1-ranked team all season.

The following year, Kerr and Tilden also lost in the Elite Eight. The state champion in both of those seasons was Mt. Vernon, led by All-Stater Max Hooper, who would go on to star with Kerr at Illinois.

It might not have made a difference, but ROVA was also the victim of poor timing. Claude Boland didn’t make the trip to state due to the mumps, while Bob Heflin, affected by “the three-day measles,” was clearly not himself, scoring just one point in a few minutes of action. Essentially playing without their two centers was not ROVA’s best formula for going up against the towering Kerr.

The Tigers were led by Bob Seiler’s 14 points. Dean Truelove, who was named a special mention All-Stater, added 13 as the Tigers completed their 27-5 season. Only ROVA’s state runner-up team won more games in school history.

“After the ball game, we had a little talk,” said coach Jim Pogue in a 1976 interview. “Everybody seemed happy, and we had a good time the rest of the weekend.”

ROVA didn’t win a game at state, but a ROVA sophomore did have a big victory. Heflin’s sister, Joan, was crowned the first-ever “Queen of the Sweet Sixteen.”

“Our coach told us, ‘We gotta nominate somebody,’” recalled Asplund. “Clark Main said, ‘Joan Heflin’s the prettiest girl in school, and her brother’s on the team.’ I don’t think the older cheerleaders liked that, but she won.”

Victoria’s Joan Heflin, sister to ROVA starter Bob Heflin, was crowned the first-ever “Queen of the Sweet Sixteen.” She’s shown receiving her crown from University of Illinois star Dike Eddleman, who was that season’s Big Ten Player of the Year.

Joan Heflin Nelson lived a long life, passing away in Galesburg in 2019 at the age of 85. Her brother, unfortunately, died much younger.

“Bob was killed in the last month of fighting in Korea in 1953,” said Truelove. “He’d been MIA for a year. I pretty near cried when I heard the news. He could’ve been a professional musician. He was so talented on the clarinet and saxophone.”

“If he’d wanted to be, he could’ve been the best athlete at ROVA,” said Asplund, who called Heflin, his best friend. “But he never took life too seriously.”

The following year, co-captains Asplund and Heflin played quarterback and left end on ROVA’s first-ever football team, which went 1-2-1.

“We weren’t very good,” said Asplund.

The same could not be said for the 1949-50 basketball team. Led by Asplund, Heflin, Jim Quanstrom and Bill Holcomb, ROVA again won a regional title, again beating Galesburg — even though the Tigers weren’t rewarded with another buffet dinner in the Quad Cities. Kewanee and Monmouth both reached the Sweet Sixteen, while ROVA bowed out with a record of 22-6, falling to Canton in overtime at the sectional. Half of the Tigers’ losses were to Abingdon, but ROVA avenged those defeats in the regional championship game.

Asplund and Main attended Monmouth College, where they played basketball alongside Hall of Famers Pete Kovacs and Roger Rasmusen.

As Asplund and Truelove sat at Asplund’s kitchen table, they were asked to tie a bow on ROVA’s historic first season and how their lives have turned out in the ensuing 73 years.

“For myself, it made the school district,” said Truelove. “After the basketball season, everybody liked (the consolidation).”

“That’s what brought the communities together to become friends,” said Asplund.

“You got to be pretty proud of things,” said Truelove, who worked on the railroad for 40 years as an engineer. “Like my family. My whole family were pretty good athletes, and they’ve done well in school. I didn’t. That’s the one thing I wish would’ve done.”

“My life has been a very good one,” said Asplund, who worked for Butler Manufacturing in Galesburg for 34 years, much of that time as head of personnel. “I’m very fortunate. I’ve always enjoyed sports, and because of that, I’ve followed the teams at ROWVA and Monmouth College. Sports really does something for kids — high school kids, especially. It keeps them out of trouble.”

“I always dreamed of going to state, but I never thought it would happen,” said Truelove, who attended the state tournament as a spectator as a sophomore and junior. “It’s probably one of the top things that ever happened in my life.”

Seventy-three years ago, a poetic sports reporter who went by “W.B.C.” tied a bow on the season in a piece titled “Roses to R.O.V.A.”

“But one thing you did accomplish

You put R.O.V.A. in the news

And as for playing basketball

You changed some Galesburg views.”

With the benefit of hindsight, a final stanza can be added:

But perhaps the most important thing

That we should all remember

Your winning ways in basketball

Brought four small towns together