Ask any informed basketball fan who the best player ever to come from this area of the state was, and the first name to come to mind would most likely be Sam Okey.
He was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of Cassville High School, and did go on to be named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at Wisconsin in 1996. His name is still very prominent in the Wisconsin basketball record book, ranking among the UW freshmen leaders in 11 categories.
But there is one name you most certainly have not heard of, one that most certainly deserves to be amongst the discussion.
The name of Hugh Harper is not a familiar one to many these days, but it is one you won’t soon forget once you consider the accolades of this true basketball pioneer.
The birth of a legend
Hugh Allen Harper, or “Duff,” as he was later called, was born Dec. 24, 1885 in Lancaster, WI to Charles and Clara (Moore) Harper.
His father was a very prominent figure in the Lancaster community, serving as superintendent of schools in Grant county for 13 years. He also was the principal of the Lancaster High School and editor of the Grant County Herald, as well as the chief clerk in the state department of public instruction.
His mother was also very active in the community, serving as the president of the Woman’s auxiliary to the State Medical Society, as well as a board member of the National Society of Colonial Dames in Wisconsin.
Hugh had two younger siblings, a sister Hester, and a brother Carl.
I suspect it was because of his parent’s involvement with various organizations that the family moved to Madison when Hugh was a young lad.
It was documented in some writings that Hugh attended elementary school in Lancaster and high school at Madison Central.
Upon his graduation from high school, Hugh enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he was soon introduced to a fairly new sport called Basket Ball (then two words).
Hugh’s days with the Badgers
Standing six feet, one half inch tall, Hugh was considered a man of good size in his day, and undoubtedly was very athletic.
It was said that Hugh had never played basketball until he attended the University of Wisconsin in 1904, but you have to keep in mind the sport was only invented 13 years earlier by Dr. James Naismith.
At that time the ball could not be dribbled because the players could not move with the ball. It wasn’t until 1910 that dribbling was allowed, but even then a player wasn’t allowed to shoot after dribbling. Not until 1916 was a player allowed to shoot after dribbling.
It didn’t take long to see that Hugh was a natural at basketball, and he wound up being a three-year starter for the Badgers at one of the two guard positions.
Playing in what was called the “Little Red Gym,” on Langdon Street, Wisconsin belonged to the Big Ten conference, which then consisted of eight teams. They were: Chicago, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Northwestern and Iowa.
In 1905-06, Hugh helped lead the Badgers to a 12-2 overall record and a Big Ten mark of 6-2, finishing second to Minnesota.
The 1906-07 season concluded with a share of the Big Ten conference title, the first in the illustrious history of Wisconsin basketball.
That year the Badgers went 6-2 in league play, tying with Chicago and Minnesota for the conference championship. Overall, Wisconsin was 11-3.
As a team captain for the 1907-08 season, Hugh led the Badgers to another share of the Big Ten championship title, this time with Chicago, both of whom went 7-1 in league play.
It wasn’t until March of 1958, 50 years later, that Hugh was informed by Bill Schroeder, managing director of the Los Angeles based Helms Athletic Foundation, that he was named to the 1908 All-American basketball team, making him one of the top 10 players in the country from that year.
The Helms Athletic Foundation wasn’t created until 1936, at which time they began retroactively naming All-American teams between 1905 and 1935. To give you an idea of how prestigious the honor is, today it would be comparable to being named a Consensus All-American.
To this day, only 14 basketball players from the University of Wisconsin have ever been named All-Americans by the Helms Athletic Foundation, and five players from Wisconsin have been named Consensus All-Americans.
Incidentally, Hugh’s younger brother Carl, also was named a Helms All-American for his play with the Wisconsin Badgers during the 1914 season.
Carl Harper played for the Badgers from 1912 to 1914, and was a member of the National Championship squad of 1914 that went 15-0 overall and 12-0 in Big Ten play.
During his three seasons with the Badgers, Carl never played in a losing Wisconsin game. The team went 15-0 in 1912, 14-1 in 1913 and 15-0 in 1914. Due to a sprained ankle, Carl did not play in the 1913 loss to Chicago.
It took a strong, athletic person to play the game of basketball in the early years, and as you may already know, basketball back then was a little different than what you see now.
In those days, once a player was substituted for, that player could not re-enter the game, meaning most teams played only five, or sometimes six, players the entire time.
Each club also furnished one official to call the fouls on the other team. It was said that few fouls were ever called, with slugging generally causing the only disruption of a contest.
Following a 38-9 Wisconsin victory over Northwestern, a newspaper writer had this to say about the Badger’s right guard, Hugh Harper. “Harper played one of the most brilliant games of his career, and besides caging baskets, he was here, there, and everywhere at the same time, breaking up plays and intercepting passes.” In that game Harper scored 11 points.
In a heartbreaking loss to Chicago one year, the demise of the Badgers was put on Harper in another newspaper clipping. “Our defeat was due mainly to the fact that Harper was not in condition,” read the article. “The big fellow held his man down in fine shape in the first half and got two baskets on him, but in the second half, the pace told. Not that Harper did not play a good game; but he has only had two nights of practice in the last month.”
There was one game where Hugh scored seven of Wisconsin’s nine points in a 16-9 loss to Minnesota, making one field goal and five free throws.
One newspaper article saved by Hugh’s grandchildren, described Harper’s talents like this: “His game is not spectacular, but is more of a defensive game. Most of the time he is at the far-end of the court intercepting passes and breaking up the opponent’s play. He is an exceptionally good man at the long pass game and usually gets the ball to his teammates under the basket if there is any opening at all. He is an expert dribbler and a good shot, being able to basket the ball from most any distance.”
Hugh received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Wisconsin in 1907 and attended agricultural courses there until 1910.
Harper goes on tour
While playing basketball for the Wisconsin Badgers, Hugh also was playing for the National Guard Company F team from Portage. Hugh served six years in the National Guard with the Third Wisconsin Regiment.
Hugh joined the Company F team in 1909 after receiving a letter from Captain Guy Goodell, asking for his services.
The team quickly became the best in the country, and traveled from coast to coast beating nearly everyone along the way.
Hugh was a starter on the Company F team during the 1909-10 season, leading them to a record of 23-3.
While most of their games were relatively low scoring, they did manage to collect a 102-3 victory over All America Shoes of Milwaukee, and a 112-7 victory over Montello on Christmas Day.
Company F averaged 39 points per game that year and gave up an average of 16. It was said that when the team played games in Portage, they always had a 30-piece band, and that they would pack in 1,500 fans and turn away 500 more.
At the end of the season, Company F entered into the National A.A.U. Basketball Tournament held in Chicago, which consisted of the top 16 teams in the country.
According to one newspaper account, the A.A.U. tournament was “played under the mutual understanding that no fouls should be called except for slugging.” It was said in the article that the games were as rough as a varsity football contest.
In the opening round of the tournament, Company F defeated the tournament favorite, winning 29-15 over the Illinois Athletic Club, regarded by many as Chicago’s best team. In that game, Hugh scored three points and had four fouls.
After two more victories, Company F played in the championship game against the Premier Lodge of St. Louis. Hugh scored four points in a 36-14 route.
For winning the National A.A.U. Tournament, Company F was awarded the “Spalding Trophy,” and individual solid gold medals were donated by the Central Amateur Athletic Union, who hosted the tournament.
Years later, the “Spalding Trophy” was given to Hugh by team manager Capt. Guy Goodell, for keeping a complete clipping service of the team’s exploits.
Upon their return to Portage following their national title, the team was greeted at the train station by 4,000 people, a brass band and a procession of flag-decked autos.
Following their success at the National A.A.U. tournament, Company F got back together for the 1910-11 season, which was spent touring the country, playing as many games as possible.
The team left Wisconsin just after Thanksgiving that year and started out in Chicago, where they then went to St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha on their way to the Pacific Coast.
After a tour that lasted several weeks in the Pacific Coast, the team returned eastward through the southern states and finished up the season on the Atlantic Coast.
The team played 77 games on their nation-wide tour, winning 71 of them. It was said that Hugh would eat two quarts of ice cream every day during the season.
They played all the athletic clubs from coast-to-coast and all the great college teams. They played 13 great college teams on their trip and defeated all of them.
They played games in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, California, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and of course Wisconsin. The entire tour took four months, playing an average of four games per week.
Since the National Basketball Association (NBA) wasn’t organized until 1946, this was as close to professional basketball as you could get in those days.
A Japanese tour was even said to have been arranged for the team, but being too late into the season, the overseas journey never came about.
Once the coast-to-coast tour had come to a conclusion, Hugh returned to Lancaster, where he stayed with his uncle Perry Moore, and aunt, Miss Linda Moore.
In 1912, Hugh helped coach the Lancaster High School basketball team, which defeated Patch Grove, 38-22.
Life after basketball
With basketball behind him, Hugh farmed just outside of Lancaster for many years. He married Florence Burr, and together had four daughters (Mrs. Dorothy Tucker, Mrs. Robert Naumann, Mrs. Allen Stokes and Mrs. Harold Tadget) and three sons (William, Hugh Jr. and Dr. Carl).
He was very much involved in local government and held a number of prominent positions throughout the years.
He was secretary and president of the Grant County Farm Bureau from 1922 to 1930, and was president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau board of directors from 1926 to 1928.
In 1930 he was elected to the state assembly, where he wound up serving 11 terms as Grant county’s assemblyman. Hugh also served 10 years as chairman of South Lancaster township and was at one time chairman of the Grant county board.
He was chairman of the Assembly Highways Committee, and was elected to his third committee term in 1961. He was also a member of the Labor committee, and the Legislative Council.
He had served on 11 standing committees including the Joint Finance, Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures, Education and State affairs, as well as on various interim committees including Educational, Highways and Water Resources.
He also spent a great deal of time and effort establishing the Wyalusing State Park youth camp and was instrumental in placing 86 wild turkeys to the Muscoda and Blue River vicinity.
Hugh Harper suffered a massive heart attack and died on Thursday, Aug. 8, 1963. He was laid to rest at Hillside Cemetery in Lancaster.