Born played key role on, off court at KU

All-America center was first to recommend Jayhawk coaches recruit Chamberlain

By Bill Mayer, Contributing Editor , Sunday, February 24, 2002

Lots of high-powered people helped recruit Philadelphian Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball at Kansas. The list of heavyweights on that project is awesome. But it was a Jayhawk hall of famer who first experienced firsthand Wilt's great capabilities and notified Phog Allen and assistant Dick Harp that Uncle Dippy was worth a good, hard rush.

That was B.H. Born, now of Peoria, Ill., who says his first encounters with The Big Dipper were "almost terrifying."

Bert, at the time a 6-foot-9, 190-pound willow in Medicine Lodge, created quite a stir by announcing in the spring of 1951 that he was KU-bound. He'd been recruited by countless schools. Phog Allen so coveted the slender trophy that he brought him up here several weeks early and boarded him at the home of some influential KU alums. Wanted to keep the kid from being spirited away by some marauding gypsy, like maybe Kansas State's Black Jack Gardner?

"In effect, he semi-kidnapped me," laughed Bert when he was here for the recent 50th anniversary of the 1952 KU national title team, on which he was a sophomore backup to Clyde Lovellette. "But I can't imagine enjoying a college career more anywhere else."

In the early 1950s, many college court standouts spent summers working for resort hotels in New York's Borscht Belt up in the Catskills. The players would have day jobs, then play games against teams from other hotels to the delight of their guests many of them New York area folks who loved good basketball.

As a high schooler, Chamberlain with his great height and agility was grabbed by the Kutsher's resort. Born was summering up there, too, playing for another hotel. He chuckles about that first night his team played Kutshers and Wilt. His coach indicated it might be prudent for the established Born to go a little easy on the high school kid.

"He turned me inside out," said Bert. "I'd never seen college guys do some of the things he did, dunking, blocking, running along with the speediest little guys ... it was almost terrifying. Go easy? Several times I just wanted to save my life. I think he got something like 29 off me, and I was supposed to be able to play defense."

Forthwith, B.H. notified the Phogger and Harp of this phenomenon. Not that many others weren't after Chamberlain, but Born could speak from firsthand combat experience. Right away, Bert started recruiting Wilt quite legal then. They wound up with a good relationship. KU heeded the advice, and The Dipper spent three heralded seasons here.

Born had tough early times, and the devilish All-American Lovellette made it particularly hard on him. You sense there still may be some hard feelings, understandably. For example, during practices in old Robinson Gym, Clyde would walk over to a window pole and address it with something like: "Gee, B.H., you've gained a little weight lately, right?

In practices his freshman and sophomore years, the gutty Born often got pounded to a pulp by the strong, physical Jelly-Belly, which some critics called Lovellette because of his ever-present abdominal watermelon. Phog perhaps had encouraged Clyde to "get him (Born) ready." Clyde needed no urging.

Came the end of the 1952 season and student manager Wayne Louderback was told to collect KU team ballots for the all-opponent team. At center on Born's list was Lovellette.

"There's nobody in the world better or tougher than he is," responded Born when questioned. He refused to change it.

Talk about determination and guts, the plucky Born had all anyone could assemble. He rose from a 1.6 per game scorer as a sophomore to an 18.9-point, rebounding and defensive All-American on the 1953 NCAA runner-up club. He was the first player ever to be named tourney MVP playing for the losing team in the title game. Had he not fouled out, KU might have won instead of losing by a point to Indiana.

B.H. joined the AAU powerhouse Peoria Caterpillar-Diesels and played five years.

"It reached the point where the front office began to ask how long I'd be gone this trip, and 'when can you get that work done?' It was basketball or a career," B.H. says. "I quit earlier than I needed to physically, but it sure helped my career."

Now retired, Bert is no longer a slenderella. During the 1952 reunion, he was wearing a heavy back brace after recent spinal surgery and was in considerable pain. But he and his wife and family enjoyed the occasion to the fullest. He and Clyde are sociable but not bosom buddies, which you can understand if you know how the impish Monster of the Music Hall used to ride Bert.

Born, by the way, helped set up a fund at the local Boys and Girls Club in memory of Kent Heitholt, son of Bill and Dorothy. Kent was born here during Bill's KU cage career (1952-55).

Not long ago, Kent was sports editor of the Columbia, Mo., Tribune and went to his car in the company parking lot one night after work, about 1:30 a.m. when lots of morning paper people go home. He was accosted by two guys (there were casual witnesses who haven't identified anyone) who beat him to death and took his car. Police haven't found the killers.

But that's the kind of thing Bert Born has long done as a good citizen on top of his brilliant career in college and AAU ball. His No. 23 jersey deservedly hangs in Allen Fieldhouse. If Wayne Simien, KU's current No. 23, does as well by KU and society as B.H. Born, his shirt should go up someday, too.