Alumni book tells of Algoma’s ‘Glory Days’ of basketball and history
Former Algoma resident Dennis Sell knows that a good sports story can often best be told in the context of the events and people surrounding it.
Sell’s new book, “The Glory Days of Algoma High School Boys Basketball 1948-1968 and A Fond Look Back at Algoma’s ‘Good Old Days,'” tells the story of some of the greatest years of Algoma basketball and the events and people who helped shape that success.
“Unlike today where one can watch a game on television literally every night of the week, basketball games were not frequently televised back on those pre-cable days,” said Sell. “As a result, local fans religiously backed the high school team and the old Algoma High School gym was the place to be on Friday nights.”
During the two decades Sell covers in the book, Algoma High School boys’ basketball teams won or shared six conference championships and compiled an overall winning percentage of .719 in conference play. The coaches and players most responsible for these records are all featured in the book.
“Algoma has had good basketball teams since, but the boys teams have never been able to put together a string of successes like this,” said Sell.
The book covers 20 basketball seasons including box scores of individual games and seasons. Within each story are a series of “timeouts” focusing on individual players and the challenges they faced growing up. The father of one player was battling alcohol addiction while another player was the victim of domestic abuse.
“These two fellows succeeded in spite of difficult home environments,” Sell said.
Sell was born and raised in Algoma, the son of Elmer “Babe” and Mayme Sell. Elmer was a partner in the former Wheeler’s Bar and Bowling Alley on Fourth Street and Mayme was a registered nurse.
“I was 7 years old when Dad took me to my first game,” said Sell. “Our parents knew how much I wanted to attend a game and if I misbehaved … there would be no Friday night game.”
Sell finally joined the varsity basketball team in the 1967-68 season, but he said he was never a star. He graduated from Algoma in 1968 and attended Marquette University, earning a degree in business adminstration and accounting in 1972. He spent 25 years in banking before serving as controller for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee for 17 years.
He said that he had decided to write the book about Algoma basketball several years before he retired in 2014.
“The older you get the more you go back to your youth and its fonder memories,” said Sell. “I thought if I don’t write this book, that glorious period in Algoma would be lost in history.”
He began to do research using old copies of the Algoma Record-Herald. When its former publisher, Harold Heidmann, sold the newspaper, he retained the files of negatives, including all the sports photos from that period, and before he died, he organized the negatives and donated them to the Algoma Public Library, according to Sell.
Sell’s book contains more than 300 of the newspaper’s photos over two decades.
“I owe a great debt to Bruce Heidmann, Harold’s youngest son, for permitting me to use these photos in my book,” Sell said.
Sell said that he always thought that historical writings were much better if they contained comments from those who were part of a particular historical period. So he sent letters to more than 100 players and coaches and received responses from about one-third, some of which were in the form of heartfelt, multiple-page letters. He used many of these memories and reflections in his book.
There is a chapter on all five of the Algoma coaches over the 20 years, as well as a “Foreword” by Mandy Wautlet Kastner, daughter of Mark Wautlet, Algoma’s all-time leading scorer. In addition, there is a chapter on cheerleaders, listing all of the cheerleaders for the two decades with group pictures from some of the seasons.
The last game played in the old gym on Feb. 25, 1969, is also described in the book.
Sell said that as he was doing his research, he became fascinated by the non-sports stories in the Algoma Record-Herald that formed the background for the basketball successes of that era, so he included many of these events in a “Halftime” section of the book.
They included the appearances of presidential candidates Robert Taft and Earl Warren in 1952, national celebrities Frankie Avalon and Dion & the Belmonts in the summer of 1959, and Olympic hero Jesse Owens in 1960.
And as the basketball coaches and players were focused on their game, the events of the Cold War were lurking in the background, Sell notes in his book. There was a polio epidemic in Kewaunee County during the summer of 1955, the installation of dial telephones in the city, and a newspaper story about an Algoma athlete who played minor league baseball in South Carolina in 1964 and witnessed both segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, Sell said.
Photos will also bring back memories of shuttered businesses such as the Majestic Theatre, Beach’s and Gambles, he said.
Sells also wrote a chapter about Algoma basketball from 1969 to the present. While the boys teams have not known the successes of these two decades, he lauds the girls basketball team, which has since had 10 conference championships, including state titles in 1981, 1986 and 2013 and state runner-up seasons in 1985, 2011 and 2014.
“Head coach Mark Zastrow has built an excellent girls’ basketball program,” he said.
Preorders of the book were taken in March and are currently being distributed by his friend Alan Groessl, who was one of the five starting players on the Algoma’s 1948-49 basketball team. All of the starting players from that season became life-long Algoma residents, Sell said.
The book was published by Henschel House Publishing of Milwaukee. It can be ordered through Groessl at 920-487-5494, by calling Sell at 1-414-258-7931. The price is $49.95.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Alumni book tells of Algoma's 'Glory Days' of basketball and history