This Might Be the Greatest Basketball Story in the History of Pennsylvania
Former Olympic, football and baseball great Jim Thorpe’s funeral was supposed to take place in his native Oklahoma a few days after his death in March 1953. His body had been placed in a coffin and was prepped for burial in a small family grave about a mile from Thorpe’s childhood home.
But Thorpe’s third and final wife, Patricia, snatched the body from Jim’s sons (from a previous marriage) and allegedly began trying to sell it to towns near Carlisle, PA, where Jim had played college football. Technically, of course, she was selling the rights to his name. (The authorities don’t take kindly to dead bodies being put up for sale.) But it was a package deal. Buy Jim’s body, and keep his name. And so throughout the remainder of 1953 and into 1954, Patricia looked for a place that would want to bury her husband’s remains.
At that same time, the Pocono towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were hitting rock bottom. When the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company suspended mining operations in 1954, the town had nowhere to turn. And then came Patricia Thorpe. Her offers of opportunity (a Jim Thorpe Museum, a 500-bed hospital named for Jim Thorpe, and even promises of the NFL Hall of Fame) were what Mauch Chunkers were desperate to hear. None of those promises materialized, but they agreed to take the body and adopt the name. (Whether they actually paid Patricia for the body is still the source of a tremendous amount of controversy.)
On May 18th, 1954, the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk voted to consolidate into one town, which would be named Jim Thorpe. They would provide the Native American legend with his final resting place, and build a memorial for him as well. With no more coal, they were going to try to revive their economy around a dead Native American who had never once stepped foot in their town.
Three days after the vote to change the name, the Kmetz family of newly minted Jim Thorpe had a baby boy. They had planned on naming the child Jerry, but were so excited about the recent name change of the town, they named him Jim Thorpe Kmetz.
“Growing up, having that name, I always tried to be like him,” says Jim today. “I was never anywhere near as good as he was, but I tried the best I could.”
Kmetz is a shy, humble man who has lived his entire life in the small Pocono town that shares his first and middle names. His high-school basketball coach, Chuck Hanna, is quite the opposite.
“There is no greater basketball story in the history of Pennsylvania,” he says in the first 30 seconds on the phone. “The year before, they went 7-14. They were hoping for a .500 season.” He’s talking about a basketball season that occurred 40 yeas ago.
“It was my first year of coaching at Jim Thorpe. We didn’t have a single kid over six feet tall, so we had to start pressing (the opposing teams) the minute they stepped off the bus.”
The team was led by five seniors, including Jim Kmetz and all-state player Don Herman. Four years earlier, as freshman, they had gone 0-19. But they had stuck together, and by their senior year they knew each other’s every move on the court, moving almost as a single unit.
In fact, they made it all the way to the district championship, where it seemed certain their season would end. They were taking on St. Clair, district champions the previous two years running and state champs just two seasons before (they would win the district again in 1973). And while the Jim Thorpe Olympians didn’t have a single player over six feet tall, the St. Clair front line stood at six-foot-seven, six-foot-five, and six-foot-four (though you have to wonder, with Hanna’s flair for the dramatic, if they don’t get taller every time he tells this).
“You should have seen the opening introductions,” says the coach. “They’re paying the national anthem, and people are laughing (at how small we look.)”
“They thought they were going to have a cakewalk with us,” says Kmetz. “We weren’t given a prayer in that game.”
But in a packed gym in Hazleton, the Olympians of Jim Thorpe kept it close. The coach said, “In the third quarter they go up 10 points. The kids came back, tied it up, and then the fourth quarter was back and forth, back and forth.”
“I can close my eyes and visualize everything that happened,” says Jim Kmetz. “I can still visualize it all after 40 years.”
His former coach can too. “There’s 20 seconds to go, and St. Clair is ahead 50-49. Our guard was trying to throw the ball down low to our best player, Don Herman. But the guard dribbles to the corner and gets trapped. He throws it up with seven seconds left. It hits the front of the rim, and bounces out to the foul line. And who’s standing at the foul line?”
“It actually hit the ground after it hit the rim,” says Kmetz. “And I beat everybody to the ball. I had to turn to protect the ball, so now I gotta do a 180 in mid-air to get the shot off, and there were two guys, six-foot-four, right behind me.”
“He turns, shoots it, and it hits nothing but net,” recalls Hanna.
After the ball went through, Kmetz says, “I must have jumped three feet in the air. It was the highlight of my life.”
On March 8th, 1972, a player named Jim Thorpe from a school named after Jim Thorpe from a town called Jim Thorpe hit the winning shot at the buzzer to knock off the defending district champs.
The starting five, known as the Iron Five, all still live in the Jim Thorpe area, most of them within a few minutes of each other. “Two of the guys I see pretty regular, and the other guys I see at least a couple of times a year,” says Kmetz.
The undersized Olympians would go all the way to the state final four, where their dream run would end on a controversial call late in the semifinals. But while a state title would have been nice, it seems that the dramatic win over St. Clair was more than a large enough consolation prize.
A few minutes after speaking with Coach Hanna, I got an email from him. In our phone conversation there was something he forgot to mention: “When I die, I have told my wife that I want the headline in my obituary to read, ‘Chuck Hanna: Coached the Iron Five.’ Of all of the accomplishments in my life, that is the one of which I am most proud.”