The Strange History of the Evanston YMCA and Northwestern Basketball

By John Volk

On Jan. 31, 1907, Northwestern men’s basketball secured its first victory of the season. A headline on the front page of the next day’s The Northwestern (now The Daily Northwestern) proclaimed that Head Coach Louis Gillesby’s hope of the team winning at least one game was fulfilled. Three straight losses was not how he wanted to start the season, and the loss in the second game to crosstown rival University of Chicago stung.

But this? This was a signature win: a 16-14 victory over the Evanston YMCA, the first game in what would become one of the most strangely lopsided rivalries in Northwestern history.

Two years earlier, the Wildcat basketball team took the floor for the first time. It played four games in its inaugural season, winning two and losing two under Head Coach Tom Holland in his only season with the team. The two losses bookended that 1905 campaign, both coming against Chicago, but the finale was a two-point nailbiter, and wins over Beloit and Iowa spoke to the promise of the newborn squad.

The next October, 30 students signed up for the team with new physical director Louis Gillesby, a job that oversaw both the basketball and track teams. Fifteen players showed up on the first day of practice held, coincidentally, at the local YMCA. The paper remarked this group gave the program bright prospects for the coming 1906 season. The players practiced every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m. sharp, gearing up for a strong year two.

When winter rolled around, Northwestern men’s basketball was nowhere to be seen. The school’s Athletic Association decided there weren’t enough fans in the student body. It was too much of a hassle, they thought, and pulled the team’s funding.

Minimal fan interest was nothing new in those days. Ahead of the biggest football game of the year, an October 1905 showdown with Chicago, Yell Master James Wilkinson posted a message in The Northwestern:

“With the proper support, is quite within the range of the possible for our team to beat Chicago this year even more decisively than it did two years ago, and, so long as we have a fighting chance to win, any Northwestern man who expresses doubt about our ability to do so ought to be thrown in the lake. That the student body has not the proper spirit is shown by the fact that barely a hundred were out to witness the open practice yesterday, and half of those were girls, who are beginning to show the men something in the way of college loyalty.”

Luckily, the basketball fans that did exist at Northwestern did not have to go all winter without their favorite sport. There was another team in Evanston, the YMCA team led by Harrison McJohnston, one of Chicago’s top centers and the man elected captain of the Northwestern team that never materialized.

The Evanston YMCA hosted Yale for a two-game series in early January 1906. Yale had only lost one game the year before and came into Evanston as a crown jewel of the East Coast. It wouldn’t have its captain with it though, out with a “stiff leg,” forcing an Evanston native into that role. The stand-in, referred only by his last name Fargo, led his team onto the court to thunderous applause from a crowd made up of Evanston residents and Northwestern students alike. But the pleasantries ended there. The Evanston YMCA defeated the juggernaut Bulldogs and their hometown captain 16-10 the first day and 36-16 the next.

The excitement created by those YMCA games might be the reason the 1906 season was the only one without Northwestern basketball. The team returned for 1907, and the school took basketball seriously this time.

In late November 1906, Chicago papers reported that Northwestern was denied admission into the Big Nine’s basketball league. But this couldn’t be true because Northwestern didn’t ask to be a part of the league in the first place. Instead, Gillesby, who had taken over as head coach, led a delegation that asked the league to match a few members of the league with the Wildcats in the upcoming season. This request was granted.

Four teams were constructed for each class at Northwestern and they scrimmaged against each other throughout the fall. From these teams, Gillesby took the best players to form the varsity team. George Swift starred in those contests, a sophomore who carried his class to a championship as the leading scorer in a 19-7 win over the freshmen.

Swift was named captain of the varsity team, but not at his natural center position. Harrison McJohnston returned for his senior season and the center spot was his. Swift would have to play forward instead.

January marked the start of the season, and Northwestern quickly found itself in a hole: zero wins, three losses. Optimism dwindled with the Evanston YMCA next on the schedule, the same team Northwestern fans watched dismantle Yale a year earlier.

This year, however, the YMCA didn’t have McJohnston. He was a Wildcat.

The teams met in the YMCA’s gym, which served as the home court for both sides and had secured new lights and seating the prior November. It was set for the first ever Evanston clash.

It was a scrappy, ugly game, like most of its time. In those days, there was no three-point line and if a player dribbled, he had to pass; a player who just picked up his dribble wasn’t allowed to score. The teams combined for 30 points, and nearly half of those came from the free throw line.

The Evanston YMCA took a one-point lead early in the first half, but a field goal from first-year forward Hubert Heren put Northwestern back up a few moments later, a lead Northwestern would hold.

Late in the second half, the YMCA scored four points in rapid succession, cutting the deficit to two. An article in the next day’s The Northwestern describes what happened next:

“It was only mere luck that kept them from evening the score, as the ball hovered over the basket several times and a goal seemed imminent.”

The YMCA couldn’t get another shot to land. Northwestern won 16-14.

Swift led the way. He put up 10 points, six of which came from trips to the charity stripe. Heren was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, contributing four points of his own, including that early go-ahead basket. McJohnston, meanwhile, neutralized his replacement on the YMCA team. It seemed the Northwestern side had finally come into its own.

The team had the next two weeks off for exams. The next game on the schedule, at home against Iowa, was the second Big Nine contest. 

It was the perfect opportunity for Northwestern basketball to show its newfound strength. Coming off a huge win against the YMCA, the team could make some noise by defending its turf against a major conference foe. Maybe that YMCA win would spark a new era in Northwestern basketball history, one characterized by winning. After all, it had a star center and a young corps around him capable of making a run.

For the life of me, I cannot tell you what happened to that Iowa game. It was on the schedule: February 15. The conference had promised it to Northwestern back in November. And the reporter covering the YMCA game noted “a very interesting game is expected.”

For one reason or another, it vanished. It’s not in the team’s record book. It’s not in Iowa’s record book either. It didn’t get a recap in the paper. Most likely, the schools just didn’t play for some unknown reason. But maybe the game happened, and nobody recorded it. I can’t tell you.

Whatever happened, a cloud of misfortune followed Northwestern out of that missing chunk of February. No new era came out of the win over the YMCA.

Chicago destroyed the Wildcats 34-6 in Chicago in the next game. Only one contest remained in the 1907 season, a home matchup with the Haskell Indian Nations University. Ahead of the game, one of the Wildcats’ starting guards burned his shoulder on a steam pipe. They lost 38-21. Northwestern finished the season 1-5.

Northwestern played the Evanston YMCA seven more times between 1907 and 1913. Of those seven games, Northwestern lost them all.

Without Harrison McJohnston, the 1908 season started with a win over Indiana, but Northwestern lost game two to the YMCA 27-18. The Wildcats won only one more game that year and lost six straight to end the campaign, including another loss to the YMCA.

They lost to the YMCA again in 1909, a 1-7 season and their first as a part of Big Nine basketball.

In 1910, Hubert Heren, one of the heroes in that win four years earlier, was a senior and the team captain. Gillesby was still the head coach. The team went 0-9. The magic and excitement generated by that win in 1907 was gone

Gillesby, the only remaining piece from 1907, left the team after the winless season. An announcement in The Northwestern from May 1910 urged prospects to look past the losses:

“The mere fact that the Purple has not held conference honors in the past few years is no reason why any fair minded prospective athlete should not select Northwestern as his alma mater. Reputation is history and a thing of the past; it will contribute nothing toward making a better athlete.”

Northwestern didn’t find a steady replacement for Gillesby, and the basketball team progressed slowly, but positively, after his departure. The Wildcats won three games in 1911, then four games in the 1911-12 season (the varsity team’s schedule now started in December). The Evanston YMCA still got the best of Northwestern three times in those two seasons.

December 1912 arrived. Northwestern had a new head coach, Dennis Grady, and came out of the gate firing. They crushed Lewis 51-16 in the season opener and won eight of their first 10 games. Northwestern basketball fans had never seen a stretch like this.

On Feb. 1, 1913, Northwestern basketball started its day with a 26-21 win over Indiana. The team moved to 8-2, the best start in the program’s early history. But that wasn’t the only game Northwestern played that day. After Indiana was the white whale: the Evanston YMCA.

Exactly six years and one day since an 0-3 Northwestern had beaten the YMCA by two points for the first time, an 8-2 Northwestern faced the YMCA for the last time. 

In 1907, the YMCA missed its game-tying shot when the ball seemed to hover above the basket. This time, Northwestern put up a two-point shot. On its flight into the hoop, the referee called time. It didn’t count. 

Northwestern lost by two.

Credit to the Daily Northwestern archives for the feature image.