Ex-Bullet Hoffman named All-Indiana, at age 68 BASKETBALL


A 68-year-old man has been named to the All-Indiana high school basketball team.

That's right -- this just happened in Indiana, where high school basketball is it, as we all learned watching Gene Hackman coach that championship team in "Hoosiers."

Interestingly, the newly named All-Indianan is a well-known sports figure in Baltimore.

He's Paul "The Bear" Hoffman, who came here to play for the Baltimore Bullets on their Basketball Association of America championship team in 1947-1948. The BAA was the forerunner of today's NBA. Hoffman was the league's Rookie of the Year.

Hoffman played pro through 1954 for the Bullets, Knicks and Philadelphia. In the '60s he served as the Bullets general manager. So how did Paul Hoffman happen to be picked All-Indiana now?

When Hoffman was a senior at Jasper (Ind.) High School in 1943, World War II was raging. Seniors were going into the service. Gymnasiums -- including Butler Fieldhouse, now Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the state tournament was played -- were taken over by military units.

America was consumed with the war. Picking an All-State basketball team seemed irrelevant.

But this year -- 50 years later -- the Indianapolis Star's Patrick Aikman, director of the Indiana high school all-star basketball game, decided it was about time the '43 All-State team was chosen and honored.

Aikman researched the season, talked to players and sportswriters from that era, and chose 13 living players. Several others lost their lives in the war.

All 13, including Paul Hoffman along with his wife, Audrey, attended the awards banquet last week in Indianapolis.

The All-Stars were presented plaques. The Bear was on the centerfold of the banquet program.

Of all the All-State players, only Hoffman became a college All-America (at Purdue) or went on to a pro career.

Another, John Brennan -- "Big John" at 6-4 -- played at Notre Dame, as did Jim Fritsch. Bob Mehl played at Indiana, Ralph Houser at DePauw and Michigan, Dick King at Western New Mexico.

"It was a beautiful, first-class banquet," says Hoffman. "Being there was one of the nicest experiences I've ever had.

"I had 20 family members there and there must have been 200 from Jasper. I was amazed by the people who remembered me from 50 years ago. Some of them -- people I didn't even know -- showed me old newspaper clippings they'd saved. People in Indiana are something. They don't forget."

So clear are their memories that the event's organizer, Aikman, says he received "28 complaints a day" for leaving players off the '43 team. The '93 team, which also was honored at the banquet, was selected without controversy.

It's traditional in Indiana to pick a "Mr. Basketball" from among the high school all-stars. Hoffman thought he had a shot at that, but because of the half-century time lapse none was chosen.

Hoffman got a chance to meet this year's All-Indiana players, boys and girls, who were honored at the dinner. The 1993 Mr. Basketball, Indiana University-bound Sherron Wilkerson, of Jeffersonville, created a stir.

The all-star teams of Kentucky and Indiana meet every year at this time in a pair of games, home and home, on successive weekends. Wilkerson played in the first one -- and then quit because he didn't get enough playing time.

"They gave the Mr. Basketball award to the No. 2 guy [Kojak Anderson, of Fuller]," says Hoffman. "The No. 1 guy later apologized, but the people out there were saying the kid won't last 30 minutes with Bobby Knight. I'll tell you this much -- I could play for Bobby Knight."

Knight's chair throwing wouldn't bother Hoffman?

"Hell, no," he said. "I played for [player-coach] Buddy Jeannette in Baltimore. I saw him tear off locker room doors. I loved playing on the Bullets with Buddy. He was a winner."

Those who saw Hoffman with the Bullets loved watching him play. At 6-2, he was barrel-chested, broad shouldered and heavily muscled.

Baltimore businessman Harvey Kasoff remembers how The Bear put opponents in the cheap seats. Kasoff was the Bullets' water boy.

"I think of The Bear when I watch Michael Jordan today," says Kasoff. "You know how Jordan comes flying through the middle and everybody stands back and lets him do it because it's good for the league?

"The first time Jordan did that against the old Bullets, Jeannette would have called a timeout and said, 'Bear, the next time he comes through there like that, take care of him.' I was in the huddle with those guys. I know how they talked."

Before Hoffman left Indianapolis, a man said something that suggests the citizens there are less than in love with their NFL team.

"Don't you want to take the Colts back to Baltimore with you?" the man asked him.

"I wish I could," The Bear said.

What he did bring back was just as precious -- the realization that, after a half-century, he's still appreciated back home in Indiana.

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