59... a moment in time
Ken Smith's 59-point explosion for Rock Creek 70 years ago was only a small part of his life story
By KARL PEARSON
13th in a series...
Happy birthday, Ken Smith.
Perhaps the biggest party that has ever been held in his honor will take place Sunday at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. A crowd of somewhere between 350-450 people should be on hand for the occasion.
Unfortunately, they're getting to the party a little late this year. Ken Smith was born on March 13, 1919.
Actually, the real reason everybody is showing up this year is for the seventh annual Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Awards banquet. Smith will be sharing the spotlight with 13 other people from around Ashtabula County who are being inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame at 3 p.m., not to mention many of today's top coaches, players and officials.
But, by all accounts, Ken Smith would have enjoyed such a party. He loved to laugh and have a good time.
"Ken loved a good joke and he loved to laugh," his wife Joan said. "He loved to have a good time."
His family also noted that Smith would have appreciated the irony of being the 13th inductee to be spotlighted for their big day.
"Dad was born on Friday the 13th," his daughter, Connie Mracek, said. "He would have got a kick out of being the 13th."
Unfortunately, Smith will not be on hand to join in the celebration. He died in January of 1993 at age 73. His daughter will accept his award.
His wife and daughter believe Smith would appreciate the recognition from the ACBF and might even be a little bewildered by it.
"He'd would probably be a little surprised by this because I think he considered himself a better baseball player," Joan Smith said. "I still think he'd really appreciate it."
"I think he'd be very pleased with this honor," Connie Mracek said.
But Smith's basketball credentials are also solid, to say the least. He was a part of Class B county championships during his sophomore and junior seasons of 1936-37 and 1937-38 at the now-defunct Rock Creek High School for the team coached by Lewis J. Wiragas.
There is one achievement, though, that stands above all his other accomplishments with the Pirates in what was an otherwise non-descript 5-7 senior season of 1938-39. For, on Feb. 11, 1939, Smith scored 59 points against Colebrook High School in an 89-14 victory for what was then a state and county single-game record. It was an amazing feat in an era when scores were often in the teens and jump balls were held after every basket.
A couple of Smith's old basketball teammates have survived him. They vouch for his credentials as a hall of fame member. Both live just a couple of doors down from Joan Smith in Rock Creek today.
"Ken was good," Lucius Brettell, one of his classmates with the Pirates, said. "He was very good in everything. He was just an all-around good player. He was a very good, popular person, too. He deserves to be in the hall of fame."
"Ken was a very good scorer and a very good defensive player," Ed Kendzerski said. "We played schools like Jefferson, Orwell, Rome, Dorset and New Lyme-Deming and he did well against all of them. He should be in the hall of fame."
Ken Smith (seated, far right) is shown with the members of Rock Creek
High School's Class B Ashtabula County High School Athletic Association championship team from 1937-38, his junior year. Other members of
the team are (kneeling, from left) Glenn Kellogg, Walter Ray, Ed
Kendzerski and Rudolph Martin and (middle row, from left) coach
Lewis J. Wiragas, Charles Sakryd, Jim Armstrong, team captain Fred
Lenart, Jack Hammond, Smith and Don Freeborn and (back row, from
left) John Lenart and Ray Ronae. Smith will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Sunday.
As excited as all his family members are about Smith's selection, there is one person who is particularly pleased — his great-grandson, Nicholas Mracek, a fifth grader at Homer Nash Kimball Elementary School in Madison.
"Nicholas plays basketball in the Madison Youth Basketball Association and is on their traveling team," Connie Mracek said. "He asked his mother one day, ‘Doesn't anyone in our family play sports?' He was so excited when he found out about my dad going into the hall of fame for playing basketball."
Nicholas will be at Sunday's induction ceremony with the rest of his family.
Ken Smith was born in Cleveland, the son of Mary B. and John G. Smith. He was the youngest of six children, following Florence, William, Leonard, Gordon and Laverne.
The Smiths moved to Rock Creek when Ken was in the seventh grade. According to his wife, they lived on what is now Rome-Rock Creek Road.
Ken was always a sports fanatic, getting involved in baseball first and then branching out into other sports. He didn't get involved in basketball until he entered high school.
But apparently, Wiragas quickly identified Smith's talents and utilized them. Kendzerski and Brettell spoke to those gifts.
"I was the center for our team at a little under 6-feet," Kendzerski, who only teamed up with Smith through their junior year, when the Pirates were 8-4, before he dropped out of high school, said. "Ken was probably only 5-7 or 5-8.
"The thing is, he was real fast. He could go up and down the court so quickly. He stole the ball a lot to do a lot of his scoring, but he was a good shooter, too."
"He was real fast," Brettell agreed. "He could score and he was good on defense."
Smith and the rest of the Pirates responded well to the coaching of Wiragas, who also coached them in baseball.
"Mr. Wiragas was a very good man," Kendzerski said. "He coached the girls, too.
"He was very strict, but he didn't holler and yell a lot. He was always very calm. When he talked, you listened. We were almost always very successful."
Smith's big game in his senior year was the one that most attention is focused upon, but Kendzerski said it wasn't the only big scoring night his teammate enjoyed during his career.
"I remember Ken scored about 40 points in a game when we were sophomores," he said. "I think that was against Williamsfield."
Other members of the team during the era when Smith roamed the court at Rock Creek and helped produce the two county championships included Jim Armstrong, Don Freeborn, Glenn Kellogg, Fred and John Lenart, Rudolph Martin, Walter Ray, Ray Ronae and Charles Sakryd.
His big night
But it was left until that night in 1939 for Smith to turn in his greatest performance. He racked up his 59-point night with 28 baskets and three foul shots.
A flowery description of that game that appeared in the Star Beacon follows:
"The most glittering display of individual scoring wizardry ever witnessed in Ashtabula County Class B basketball was unveiled here Friday night," the article read. "Ken Smith, Rock Creek's stripling will-o-the-wisp forward, projected 59 markers through the pay-drapes in setting one of the highest one-man totals in Ohio scholastic history.
"Incidentally, there was a basketball game played, in which Rock Creek mauled Colebrook, 89-14. The high-scoring hysteria which has marked Class B play this year drew a fine focal point Friday as Smith, slender senior ace, tossed everything from everywhere into the home hoops.
"Smith got hold of the branding iron early in the first period and began leaving his mark. By the time the smoke had cleared away at the end of the inaugural half, Rock Creek had nestled 47 tallies to Colebrook's nine, and the fair-haired boy had forged himself 32.
"Colebrook's lethargy and Smith'a legerdemain continued throughout the wind-up cantos. While scorching 16 baskets into the records, Smith found an opportunity to grab three charity flips for his 59-point total."
Noted area photographer Bob Barbian, who wrote for the Star Beacon at one time, had a retrospective on the game and that season at Rock Creek some years later.
"Although the Rock Creek Pirates suffered their worst basketball season in their school history in 1939, they had their opportunity to rewrite the record books," Barbian wrote. "This year, the Pirates had desire, spirit and many of the other qualities that tend to compose a championship ballclub.
"But only one minor element was missing. Rock Creek scored fewer points than any of its 16 regular-season opponents. Also they dropped one tournament game and an exhibition tilt to grads of last year.
"But on Feb. 11, 1939, a Rock Creek forward, namely Ken Smith, poured in 28 baskets and three foul shots for 59 points, a new state record. The Rock Creek team was a high-flying outfit that year, and its 89-14 triumph over Colebrook on that night should be of some consolation to the loyal Pirate fans.
"Smith's speed, plus ability to drive in and shoot completely confused Colebrook. The rout was played under the old rules, using the jump ball after each basket."
After the Pirate ship
There might have been an opportunity for Smith to pursue sports after high school. Wiragas organized a tryout for him with the Columbus Redbirds minor-league baseball team, but apparently it didn't bear fruit.
Other forces intervened. Smith's father died in August of 1939, shortly after he graduated from Rock Creek. He went to work for the Sanborn Wire Co. in Rock Creek. His mother lived until she was 94, according to Joan Smith.
At the same time, war clouds were hovering over the world. He was drafted into Army in the fall of 1941, just before the U.S. entered World War II.
Smith was in the service throughout the remainder of the war, starting out in the infantry. Eventually, he got to England, where he was in charge of his barracks, then worked in harbor craft on a tugboat. He continued on into Europe with Allied forces, going on into France.
Joan also graduated from Rock Creek High School, but had never met Ken while he was in school. When she entered high school, the students were enlisted to correspond with servicemen, and she was assigned to write to Smith.
When Ken returned from overseas in 1945, he and Joan finally had the chance to meet. They were married in 1946 and enjoyed 47 years of married life.
Ken Smith served his country in World War II.
Connie Mracek is their only child. She presented them with two grandsons — Kevin Mracek, who lives in Dorset with his wife, Mary Ann, who works for the Air Force, and Kevin Mracek, who lives in Madison with his wife, Cherie, a first-grade teacher at Homer Nash Kimball. Kevin and Cherie are the parents of Emily and Nicholas.
Smith worked at Great Lakes Tractor near his home from 1946-49. He also owned his own business, Smitty's Store to Door, selling groceries and meat.
In 1950, he began working at Rockwell Brake in Saybrook Township. He remained there in the plating department for 30 years, retiring in 1980.
Smith continued to live in Rock Creek after returning from the service. He was deeply involved in the community, serving as a volunteer fireman and as a member of the Rock Creek Conservation Club.
"Dad was instrumental in organizing the first Rock Creek Volunteer Fire Department pancake breakfast in 1966," Connie said.
Smith enjoyed his leisure and his retirement.
"He loved hunting and fishing," Joan said. "He used to love going to Canada every year to fish.
"He loved to play golf. He enjoyed horse racing, he loved to dance and he liked to garden."
Nicholas Mracek's assertion that he is the only athlete remaining in his family is not entirely accurate. Emily, an eighth grader at Madison Middle School, also has played basketball.
"She played in seventh grade," Connie Mracek said. "She was asked to play this year, but she was the only girl they asked, so she decided to become a cheerleader."
Somehow or another, the legacy of Ken Smith, the Rock Creek sharpshooter, lives on.