Over the course of its 150-year history, Centralia, Ill., has weathered more than its share of setbacks. The Illinois Central railroad traffic that put the town on the map in 1851 has long since disappeared. Coal mining virtually stopped overnight following a 1947 mine disaster that killed 111 miners. The oil boom, which at one time made the surrounding countryside resemble a derrick factory showroom, dried up in the 1950s.
But through good times and bad, Centralia (pop. 14,136) has managed to hold onto a constant source of community pride and pleasure. For nearly 70 years, the Centralia Orphans have been the “winningest” high school boys basketball team in the United States. With a lifetime record of 1,937 wins and 814 losses at the close of the 2002-03 season, the Orphans have celebrated more victories than any other boys’ high school basketball team in the country.
That winning legacy has kept this tight-knit town alive and optimistic even through bleak economic times. And it promises to be just as important in the future. Says one former player: “I want my kids to grow up to be Orphans.”
The father of the “Orphans”
The Orphans, formed in 1906, first entered the national spotlight in the 1940s, under head coach Arthur L. Trout. Trout truly “made” the Orphans, leading them to more than 800 victories over a 36-year career and christening the team with its truly unusual name.
Centralia is the only town in the United States—it’s probably even safe to say “in North America”—with a team named “Orphans.” But the team didn’t start that way. Early in Trout’s tenure, the red-and-white-suited players were known variously as Cardinals, Redbirds, and even Troutmen. But the coach apparently wanted something more distinctive.
According to some, Trout named the team after his favorite movie, the 1922 silent classic Orphans of the Storm. But the true origins of the name have become the stuff of local legend. In his book Trout: The Old Man and the Orphans, author Don Schnake suggests that some people thought the boys on the team looked “as sad as a band of unwanted orphans.” It’s also known that the frugal Trout had his players pick their uniforms from a stack of leftovers from past years. “When two players arrived on the floor at the same time in matching uniforms, it was by accident, not design,” Schnake writes. Again, fans were reminded of poor, neglected orphans.
Whatever the origin, the moniker stuck. And although some opponents may snicker when they hear Centralia’s cheerleaders shout, “O-R-P-H-A-N-S! Orphans are the very best,” the players take pride in having a name unique in all of basketball.
The town’s one constant
You won’t hear any snickering from long-time fan Bill “Pops” Taylor, who believes the Orphans truly are the very best. On a Friday morning, he sits in his neighborhood McDonald’s—wearing a brilliant red Orphans sweatshirt and a tan Orphans cap—sipping coffee and nodding greetings to the many folks he knows that come through the door. “I’ve been an Orphan fan since I saw my first game in 1954,” says Taylor, 59. “Orphans basketball is life. I live and die Orphans basketball.
“You ask anybody in here what the Orphans mean to Centralia and they’ll give you the same answer. Our unemployment is really bad, people are leaving town, but we can still fill Trout Gym. We still have more requests for season tickets than we have tickets available. This is our pride.”
“The high school definitely keeps the town alive,” adds Matt Shaw, a senior at Centralia High School and, in the opinion of Pops Taylor, the best center the Orphans have ever had. “Sports in particular is very important to the town, and it’s really a basketball town. If you love basketball you’re going to want to play for the Orphans. I definitely grew up wanting to play for the Orphans.”
Mike McManus, a 1987 graduate of Centralia High School and now a sports writer for the daily Centralia Sentinel newspaper, adds, “The one constant for this town has been basketball. It’s the one thing that always brings us together.
“When these kids came home from a tournament in Peoria with their third place trophy in 2002—the first state trophy they’d won since they placed second in 1963—I literally saw grown men crying.”
Successes—past and present
Folks in town still get teary-eyed when remembering the extraordinary success of the Orphans’ brightest star, Dwight “Dike” Eddleman, the team’s all-time leading scorer. During his high school years in the 1940s, he was the subject of a feature article in Life magazine. Later, he lettered in three sports at the University of Illinois, competed in the Paris Olympics (high jump) in 1948, and played in the NBA in the 1950s.
Today, the corner of the downtown Centralia Area Historical Society Museum devoted to local sports features a veritable shrine to Eddleman and his accomplishments. But he isn’t the only Orphan to move up to the pros. Others include Bobby Joe Mason, a Harlem Globetrotter for many years, and Dickie Garrett, who played briefly for the Los Angeles Lakers.
For most Orphans, though, basketball is not a career goal. “Basketball is a way to get them to college,” McManus says. He believes the current crop of Orphans is particularly destined to excel when they reach the college level. “I think that in the next four to five years, you’ll see a lot of talent run through here.”
“I think that as many as 10 of this year’s freshman class are potential college basketball players,” Pops Taylor says. “This year’s freshman class has more depth of quality players than any other class in the history of Centralia High School.”
A special bond
It’s clear that the Orphans aren’t coasting on the success of the Trout years. They continue to live up to their title as the nation’s winningest team, finishing the 2002-03 season—in a region of the country where basketball is king—with a 17-12 record under interim coach Chuck Lane.
Former Orphan forward Jordan Queen, a 2002 CHS graduate, believes pride in the team’s historic past plays a large part in driving its ongoing success. “We’ve always had pretty good coaches, and we’ve always had kids who were willing to work and be good. They don’t want to let the tradition down.”
That determination was one of the main draws for the team’s new head coach, Gus Gillespie, who was hired at the end of the 2002-03 season. Although a newcomer to Centralia, Gillespie has already glimpsed what Orphans basketball means to this town. “Every time you turn a street, there’s a basketball goal,” he says. “The feeder schools all have teams, and there’s a tremendous amount of youth involvement. I’m looking forward to working at a school and coaching in a community where people are excited about basketball.”
“There’s just a real special, small-town bond here,” sportswriter McManus explains. And an important part of that bond—a shared passion for high school basketball—is showing no signs of fading. “They’ll always love their Orphans here.”