Tonight, Kansas will crown its state high school basketball champions. Every year during state championship week, I think back to March 17, 1973. That night, the great Topeka High Trojans won the boy’s 5A state championship, the school’s first state title since 1932. Of all the many great privileges granted me by the Lord throughout my long career, to be able to photograph that championship remains one of my most cherished.
That 1973 team will always be viewed as a great basketball team filled with outstanding players. Most were black. Their coach was a middle-aged white man trying to navigate his way through the trying times of civil and social unrest in our country and at Topeka High School. Many of the stars of that championship team were unsure they ever wanted to play for Willie Nicklin when they first entered Topeka High. Once they did, those players and that coach discovered the true meaning of being part of a team. In the process, a divided high school bonded together.The victory over Wichita East brought players and coach a shiny trophy, but that bond, the greatest reward, lasted long after that night.
Growing up just a block and a half from the entrance to Topeka High’s famous basketball gym, I rarely missed a home game from the time I was old enough to go to games on my own, an age far younger than any parent would allow today. During my high school years, I never missed a game, home or away. I loved being in that gym.
Friday nights were sermon nights in our home. My father would sit in the kitchenette preparing his Sunday sermon. My sister and I knew that meant quiet. The Topeka High gym became my Friday night home and continued long after high school and even through our two daughter’s high school years.
The ’73 season was especially rewarding. By the time I returned home from a four-month vagabond journey through Europe in late December 1972, the Trojan basketball team was rolling. As I worked myself back into shooting for the Capital-Journal, I either photographed or found a seat a few rows behind the bench to watch players like Alonzo Canady, Ed Whitlock, Randy Oakes and others that provided the depth the team needed to work their way deep into the state tournament. What a welcome home gift.
Of course, none of this would mean as much if not for Nicklin. Willie, as everyone called him, was an assistant to legendary Jack Dean during my high school years. Proctoring in the school’s athletics department gave me real insight into how Nicklin mixed his strong discipline with a great desire to teach his players how to play basketball and grow into men for life beyond the court. Besides my parents, there are only a few people I really believe had a profound influence on my life. Nicklin is one of the men.
During my senior year, I wrote a weekly sports column for the school newspaper. After a poor performance in the Topeka Invitational Tournament, my concerns about the team’s and coaches’ efforts eventually led to me pacing back and forth along the baseline, nose to nose with Nicklin, as each of us argued at a very intense level, our opinions on the team and my writing.
While I still believe the column was fair, I nevertheless learned a great lesson on the impact of my writing, and eventually my photography, could have on people for good and bad. That was Nicklin lesson No. 1. Many more followed as our friendship grew into a true bond that lasts after nearly 50 years.
The joy I felt that night in 1973 is sure to be felt by players, coaches and fans this evening. My hope is that so many years later, the thought of those moments will bring smiles to their faces the way that championship and those wonderful people still does for me.