‘I GOT JOB DONE’
One of three pro athletes from Batavia neighborhood was Hall of Fame-caliber DAN ISSEL FILE
As selected by a Sun-Times sports panel. Athletes must have spent a good portion of their formative years in the Sun-Times’ circulation area.
It could be any neighborhood in any small town on the outskirts of Chicago. But it’s what this neighborhood on the northwest side of Batavia produced that makes its tree -lined streets and humble homes unique.
What three boys who grew up in this neighborhood in the 1960s accomplished would far surpass their childhood fantasies.
Byron Von Hoff would be a second-round pick in the Major L eague Baseball draft. Ken Anderson would take an unlikely path to become a Super Bowl quarterback and an NFL Most Valuable Player. Dan Issel would develop into the University of Kentucky’s alltime leading scorer before a distinguished pro career landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Having Von Hoff, Anderson and Issel grow up together and be teammates on Batavia High athletic teams was an embarrassment of riches for a community with small-town charm that once was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Forty years later, it still boggles the mind.
‘‘I would venture to say we had the only high school basketball team in America that had a player who signed a professional contract in three professional sports — football, basketball and baseball,’’ Batavia Mayor Jeff S chielke said. ‘‘It’s a shame they didn’t win the state championship. S omebody might have made a movie about it.’’
Anderson and Von Hoff would make their mark in pro sports, although Von Hoff ’s quick ascent through the New York Mets’ minorleague system was cut short by a career- ending injury. But none stood taller than Issel, who was voted the ninth Greatest Athlete in Chicago History by a Sun-Times panel.
The work ethic deeply rooted in his hometown helped Issel become one of the most prolific scorers in college and pro basketball. At tradition-rich Kentucky, he was a two -time All-American who set 23 school records, including most points (2,138) and rebounds (1,078).
Once he turned pro, the smallish 6-9 center became a six-time ABA All- Star and one -time NBA All- Star whose blue - collar mentality and ferocious competitiveness was personified by a toothless smile that made him look more like a hockey player. When he retired in 1985, the only players in pro basketball history who had scored more points were Kareem AbdulJabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving.
‘‘My hero growing up wa s Ernie Banks,’’ Issel said. ‘‘He loved playing the game, and he played hard every game. His team didn’t have much success, but he loved to play and compete. That’s what I find most admirable.’’
Batavia is considered a Chicago suburb now, but it wasn’t then. The town is about 40 miles west of Chicago, but it felt like 400 to Issel and his neighborhood pals. To them, sports were played primarily in the backyards and driveways of their close -knit neighborhood, where they didn’t realize they were pushing each other to unforeseen heights.
‘‘It’s amazing that we lived so close to each other and all signed professional contracts,’’ Von Hoff said. ‘‘Competing against each other had a lot to do with it.’’
Batavia was and is a basketball town. It has been that way since 1912, when the Bulldogs beat Galesburg for the state championship. The era when Issel, Van Hoff and Anderson played together still is considered Batavia’s ‘‘glory years.’’
‘‘My dad was the janitor at the high school,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘He would get to school at 5 in the morning, and there would be people lined up in the snow in lawn chairs, waiting for tickets.’’
Issel was the fifth-tallest player on his eighth-grade team but had grown to 6-8 as a high school senior, when his buzzer-beater defeated Naperville Central and gave Batavia its first- ever sectional title. He was menacing even then, in large part the result of an accident in junior high.
‘‘S omebody had waxed the g ym floor,’’ Issel said. ‘‘I was running laps, and when I went into the corner, my feet came out from under me. The first thing that hit the floor were my front teeth. I got up. Blood was gushing everywhere. My three front teeth were stuck in the floor.’’
Issel thought he would go to Northwestern or Wisconsin before Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp offered a late scholarship. He landed on a roster that featured four Mr. Basketballs from their respective states. Issel rose above them all, earning the nickname ‘‘Horse’’ because he worked like one.
In the pros, he was a human floor burn with a rugged inside game and a soft shooting touch. He wa s a throwback player who fought for every rebound and rarely dunked.
‘‘The way I looked at it, when Julius Erving rose above Artis Gilmore and dunked, that was great entertainment,’’ he said. ‘‘But if I put it in off the backboard, it still counted two points. I was never flashy, but I got the job done. I never felt like I shortchanged anybody.’’ Full name: Issel.
Kentucky. Career highlights: Was 6-8 center on Batavia’s 26-3 team in 1965-66. Was All-State selection in 1966. Was two-time All-American at Kentucky, where he averaged 25.8 points and set 23 school records, including most career points (2,138) and rebounds (1,078). In first pro season, averaged 29.9 points and 13.2 rebounds for Kentucky Colonels of American Basketball Association. Named ABA Co-Rookie of the Year in 1971. Helped Colonels win ABA title in 1975. Was six-time ABA All-Star. Played 10 seasons with Denver Nuggets, averaging more than 20 points seven times. Named NBA AllStar in 1977. Upon retirement in 1985, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving had scored more points. Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1993.
When Dan Issel retired in 1985, only three players in pro basketball history — Kareem AbdulJabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving — had scored more points than he had.