Heavyweight Champ Joe Louis "Feeds" K-State Basketball Success

I recently added the book "Championship Basketball with Jack Gardner" to my K-State collection. For those that don’t know, Jack Gardner is the Bill Snyder of K-State Basketball. Prior to Gardner, there had only been a couple brief wisps of success in basketball interspersed between sustained losing. He coached three seasons with modest results prior to joining the armed forces in World War II. Mike Ahearn believed in him enough to hold his job and appoint interim coaches hoping Jack would return after the war. Not only would Gardner return, he would launch an over 40 year run of basketball greatness that today ranks K-State as a top 25 all-time basketball program.

Gardner’s parallels with Bill Snyder do not stop with winning at K-State in ways that had not been done before. For starters, Jack Gardner also understood his primary job was to develop young people through his sport. A player’s success after basketball was the goal and achieving winning basketball was the lesson.

"What greater reward is there for a coach than to have a former player return years later as a successful and distinguished man and say, ‘Coach, I’ll neer be able to repay you for what you did for me when I was in school.’ "

"Championship Basketball with Jack Gardner" explains how he ran his basketball program in detail. And extreme detail is the other way these two legendary hall of fame coaches parallel each other. Gardner was just as detail oriented. He built K-State basketball the same way Bill Snyder did football. Every minute, every drill, every everything was planned. No stone was left unturned. K-State basketball would strive to dominate every aspect of the game on and off the court. Gardner believed in planning practices for the entire season in advance to ensure all necessary drills were covered. Likewise team itineraries were just as detailed. He was an early believer in what he called, "If it moves, chart it", or what we call modern analytics.

Player fitness was also incredibly important and incredibly detailed. Like Snyder, he knew his players had to be able to outwork opponents. Fitness plans not only included strength and conditioning, but recovery was also planned as well as nutrition. In his book, written in the midst of his success at Utah, Gardner recalls a K-State story that helped him convince skeptical players the new coach’s menu was just what they needed.

Game day meals were also extremely planned. The players’ bone of contention was the pregame snack. Gardner only allowed them to have tea and toast. The players thought they should eat more right before the game.

During his first season, 1939-40, the team ended up traveling on the same train as world heavyweight champion Joe Louis. The players wanted to meet the champ and Joe agreed to see them. Player Frank Wolff, who would later be owner of The Wichita Sporting Goods Company, thought he could get the champ to prove Gardner wrong on the pregame snack. "What do you eat the day of a fight, Joe?" Joe Louis’ reply, "Well, I have a heavy breakfast consisting of six eggs and ham and follow with a noonday lunch of a twenty-ounce steak. But that’s it! I eat nothing more before the fight, I like to go into the ring hungry."

If going to the ring hungry was good enough for the champ, going to the court hungry was good enough for the players. He never had another issue with the pregame snack.

Just two years later, Joe Louis would enlist in the Army and be sent to Ft. Riley for basic training. Since the Army was segregated, soldiers were required to live in Manhattan in the segregated south east section of town on Yuma street. Joe would stay at the George Giles house at 826 Yuma, which still stands today. The Giles house is where prominent African Americans such as Lena Horne and Duke Ellington would stay when performing USO shows at the Douglass Activity Center for the African American Soldiers.

The Douglass Activity Center is located across the street from the Giles house. It is where young eventual conference color barrier breaking athletes Harold Robinson and Earl Woods would sneak peeks of Joe Louis training.

Coach David Baker, who was a K-State Baseball ballboy, player and eventually head coach, is currently the director of the Douglass Activity Center. He is also the only African American head baseball coach in conference history.

While he was stationed at Ft. Riley, Joe Louis was made aware of a situation where black recruits applications for Officer Candidate School (OSC) were being delayed for months. He was able to use his status and connections to facilitate their application processing. One of those applicants was none other than eventual 2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson.

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