Before Thompson, before Darling and Murrell, there was Wier
—by Bill Haglund
Kids growing up in the 1950s, like kids today, had their daydreams. They dreamt of one day exceeding the limits in whatever their chosen activity.
Sure, there were some who wanted to be great singers, great dancers and, probably, great scientists. I didn’t know any of those kids growing up, nor did my few friends in the tiny, tiny place we called “home.” No, my friends and I set our sights on one day starring on the baseball diamond or on the basketball court.
Shoot, we even dreamt that one day we’d be a quarterback as good as Otto Graham or George Blanda, even though the only football we knew was what we read about in the newspaper or listened to on the radio.
But, the 1950s was a magical time for would-be star athletes.
You need look no further than Ames where Gary Thompson had become an all-American basketball player. Of course, Thompson was just one of the basketball heroes of the 1950s. A couple of years before he began a stellar career at Iowa State, Chuck Darling did the same at the University of Iowa. And, who could forget Red Murrell, the great Drake basketball star?
Those were the first basketball greats kids my age knew on a first name basis, even though we’d never met either one. But, we could pretend that “Gary” was dribbling the ball up court and that he’d either shoot or pass the ball inside to “Chuck.” We even tried to emulate the two-handed overhead jump shot that Murrell used to gain Bulldog fame.
Ah, the stuff dreams are made of.
Even then, though, we knew that those great basketball players in Iowa were held to a higher comparison — Murray Wier.
We’d never seen Wier play a game, never heard a radio broadcast of a game in which he played. We knew him only by reputation, and had only heard the stories told by older folks in town.
“Greatest player ever to wear a uniform in the state of Iowa,” was an honor often bestowed upon those who’d seen him play, listened to games on the radio and read about him in the newspapers.
And, as great as they were in their own rights, Thompson, Darling and Murrell found their talents on the basketball court being compared to those of Murray Wier.
Though we marveled at the exploits of collegiate players, few of us had ever actually watched any of them play. I suppose that’s why it was easy to believe everything we heard about Murray Wier. Many of the older folks said he was the greatest. It must be so.
In a way, I suppose, Murray Wier thus became my first real hero of the basketball floor. In my mind’s eye he was the greatest player who ever lived.
He’s grown up in the tiny Southeast Iowa community of Grandview (in Louisa County several miles east of Columbus Junction) and moved to Muscatine where he played his senior season of high school basketball. From there, he went to the University of Iowa where he led the nation in scoring with an average of 21 points a game in 1947-48. He stood only 5’9” tall — too small for today’s game.
He was named all-Big Ten as well as the conference’s “most valuable player,” and his reputation was enshrined in the minds of Iowa youth for generations.
He went on to play professional basketball for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and Waterloo Hawks, forerunners of the current Atlanta Hawks, but professional basketball was hardly recognized in those days. When he became head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Waterloo East High School, a position he held for 24 years. His teams won 374 games and lost only 170, winning the 1970 state championship.
Finally, in the 1960s, I became acquainted with Weir, although I spoke to him only once. As a young sportswriter in Fort Dodge, even though I didn’t cover Fort Dodge High School, I met him after one game to say “hi.” It was almost a life fulfilling moment. I’d met one of my boyhood idols, a man whose reputation had made me try harder when I was just a lad, a man who implanted dreams of basketball stardom in my head.
I never reached that level as a player. Meeting Murray Wier, though, brought me closer than I’d ever been.
Murray Wier was 89 when he died last week at a retirement home in Texas. Today’s youngsters no doubt try to emulate Kobe or LeBron or Curry. For the youngsters of the 1950s, however, it was Murray Wier.
His legacy will live forever.
Bill Haglund is a former staff writer for the Dallas County News and the Boone News-Republican. He can be reached at email@example.com