Zigmund had anything but a rocky career during his playing days at Jefferson
By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon
Somewhere around the eighth grade, Mickey Zigmund saw a sequence of pictures in a magazine demonstrating all of a player’s footwork in stop action up to the point that he took a jump shot.
Zigmund studied that as if it were a textbook, then went out into his garage, where his family had installed a basket, and tortuously replicated each move, time and again.
“At that time, no one taught you how to shoot the ball correctly,” Zigmund said. “At all hours of the day, I’d go out there and practicing shooting, getting the footwork down and getting the shot off.”
That diligent practice came in especially handy for Zigmund, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Sunday, since the small gyms at the time allowed players little space to work their magic in.
“Everyone had small gyms,” Zigmund said. “Jefferson, Perry, Rowe and Edgewood all had little gyms. It was more congested in half court. The referee would be under the basket and you could use him for screens. I’d work hard at getting to the split in the zone, worked on getting shots off my dribble. One of the best at it was (Ashtabula’s) Bob Walters.”
Zigmund lived right next to the old Jefferson High School (which became the elementary school and has since been torn down) growing up. When teams threw their old basketballs away, Zigmund and his brother, G.T., would retrieve the old balls and play with them. G.T. was four years older and wouldn’t let Mickey get a shot off.
“He was huge to me,” Mickey said. “I said to myself, ‘One day I’m going to beat him.’ I did the same thing to my son (Steve). I never let him win.”
Mickey was the second-youngest of five boys behind Larry, G.T., Ken and Charles.
When Zigmund was in the fifth grade, Dallas Ensman, the principal of the elementary school, formed a team consisting of fifth and sixth graders, something Zigmund found “awesome.” The group wound up playing only three or four games.
“He lined us up and said ‘Go shoot a basket,’ Zigmund said. “We were so bad there were no more practices.”
But Zigmund persisted, going out for the junior high team, a squad dominated by the eighth-graders, who looked upon the seventh-graders as if they were vermin.
“Greg McNutt and I decided we would try out,” Zigmund remembers. “We went to Lenox, where they were practicing. They didn’t want us there, but I had the superintendent’s kid (McNutt) with me. My first basket was in the seventh grade against Austinburg. I banked in a long shot. I was so excited. The last game was against Geneva. A kid fouled out, so I got in. I made a foul shot, but we got killed.”
Zigmund’s mother helped him practice. She had played basketball in Kingsville, the old-style girl’s game that had three players on each side of half court.
“She never played defense,” Zigmund said. “She knew I needed practice.”
A Mr. Baker (first name unknown) coached Zigmund when he was a freshman. Baker had been an All-American in football at Allegheny.
“He was a god, all the coaches were,” Zigmund said. “I don’t know if he knew anything about basketball.”
By the time he was a sophomore, Zigmund had a problem — with his shoes. He wanted Converses, but the coach picked another kind, heavier shoes. Zigmund formed huge blisters on his feet, blisters that would later cause calluses that had to be sliced off after basketball season.
At the time, high school rules didn’t allow games on week days. As a result, teams often had to play back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday.
“It was awful,” Zigmund said. “It was worse when you played a team that hadn’t played the night before. By the second half of the Saturday game, my legs were sore. My shot would flatten out. I never played well on Saturday.”
Jefferson wound up going 18-3 his junior year, 1962-63, with Zigmund one of the starters.
“We had a new school, and I would pick the lock to get in to practice,” Zigmund said. “I loved that new gym (the old Falcon Gym). I took my little rim from my garage and nailed it up. Sometimes, Judge (Rich) Stevens went with me. Everything was so new. We weren’t intimidated anymore when we went on a big floor. Everything seemed to blend. Even my friends seemed cleaner.”
Zigmund and the other Falcons also got to see themselves on film for the first time, when Bill Herndon started filming the games.
“I was so excited,” he said. “I’d get to see a game on film. But I couldn’t believe how slow it was. I could see every mistake. I was so disappointed.”
Zigmund considers himself just one of a cast of good players his junior year, and certainly not the best.
“My teammates were good,” he said. “I rode in on the coat tails of Jon Freeman and Ken Taft. Jon Freeman, who later went to Case Tech, was the county’s leading scorer the whole year. Ken Taft had the biggest hands, did a lot of rebounding and was a good scorer. Our offense was a lot of one-on-ones and two-man games. I would shoot off picks.
“I was the two-guard; my game was strictly perimeter. I’d drive left-handed and as soon as I saw my man turn, I could shoot all game. I never drew a lot of fouls.
“But some games, you can’t win by shooting jump shots. They would open things up underneath, though. I was not the big scorer or ballhandler.”
Freeman and Taft graduated in 1963, much to their opponent’s delight.
“I was the only one back,” Zigmund said. “It was disheartening. I thought everything would change, that we weren’t going to be very good in basketball.
“But we had Danny Foster, Rick Havens, Larry Smith (who was a Division I pitcher at Cleveland State) and Bobby Vance, the point guard, 5-8 but a good ball handler. Judge Rich Stevens came off the bench, with David Ray, Mike Johnson and Fred Johnson. We were so small, 6-foot and 6-1.”
With that group, the Falcons went 11-7 in the regular season, 12-8 overall.
When he graduated, Zigmund was only 17 years old, and was “academically intimidated.”
He had letters from Baldwin-Wallace and Findlay College. When he went to visit B-W, he saw little interest in the coaches’ eyes. He was put on a waiting list there.
He enrolled at Findlay without a scholarship. He made the team, but was at the end of the bench.
“I was slow,” he admitted.
He had been a good baseball player at Jefferson and had an opportunity to play that sport at Findlay. He wound up starting at first base and (occasionally ) third base.
“My first game, we played Ohio Northern,” Zigmund said. “Stan Bielech, who was from Jefferson, played for them. He started as a freshman. Stan played three sports at Jefferson: football, basketball and baseball. I don’t know where the volleyball thing came from (Bielech was a very successful coach at Geneva). The disappointing thing about baseball is they had torn up the baseball field and we couldn’t play there.”
During his time at Findlay, Zigmund also wound up playing baseball against Tim Mizer, who was a longtime basketball coach at Jefferson. Mizer was playing for Malone College at the time and is now in the Malone Hall of Fame. Findlay itself also had two more eventual Jefferson coaches, Al Graper and the late Bill Phillips, on the team.
At the beginning of his senior year at Findlay, Zigmund was offered the job as junior-varsity basketball coach.
“One thing I learned is that I never wanted to coach varsity basketball,” Zigmund said. “Tom Henson was really a good basketball coach. It was a good school for me to be at. I made a lot of friends.”
Zigmund soon learned he had a dilemma, trying to juggle that job, playing baseball, student teaching and writing the necessary papers for graduation. So he wound up not doing his student teaching.
That would hurt him later. He got a job at Pymatuning Valley, teaching and coaching, after graduation. But he did so on a temporary certificate. After two years at PV, he lost the job to someone with a regular teaching certificate.
“I had no job,” Zigmund said. “A lot of people were going into teaching to get a deferment and stay out of the draft.”
By that time it was 1970. The Vietnam War had proven very unpopular in America, eventually leading to campus unrest and the killing of four students at Kent State by the National Guard.
Zigmund was classified as 1-A, the most likely group to be drafted. On Sept. 7 of that year, all deferments were cancelled and it was announced that there would be a lottery. Anyone drawing a low number was extremely likely to be drafted.
“They had these big ping-pong balls with numbers for each day of the year,” Zigmund recalls. “Of 366 numbers, 1-120 you’re gone. Mine was 88. I knew I was destined to go. On Dec. 1 my number came up; on Dec. 17 I got my draft notice to report for induction on Jan. 21.”
Zigmund took the money he had invested in retirement and paid off his car. He made his house payments out of the money he got from the service.
He did have some luck. Since he could type, he was made a clerk and wound up serving 16 months in Germany. Then, in May of 1971 President Richard Nixon announced that the troops were going to be pulled out of Vietnam.
No teaching job awaited Zigmund when he got out of the army, so he went into work in construction, learning drywall.
One day in 1976, he was in Stambaugh’s when Jim Henson, who had left Cardinal to become head football coach at Grand Valley, came into the store. Henson asked Zigmund to be coach at Grand Valley. Zigmund wound up teaching and coaching there for 26 years, 25 of them as head baseball coach, 13 as JV basketball coach and 13 as a football assistant, while teaching English at the high school.
“Jim and Tom Henson (who also left Cardinal in 1976 to take over as Mustangs’ basketball coach) as AD’s were awesome,” Zigmund said. “They let me get games. I tried to get as many games as I could, because there weren’t any opportunities to play in the summertime.”
Zigmund retired a few years ago. He supplements his retirement income by trading old baseball cards (1952-1956) on Ebay. He also does a lot of walking.
He has two children by his former wife, Cynthia, Steve and Lindsey. Steve, 32, just graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree. He works for Young Democrats in America in Washington.
Lindsey, 32, has a master’s degree in addiction counseling and works at Town Hall II in Kent.
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.