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Kevin Hieronymus

Ruklick named one of 50 Wildcat greats

Joe Ruklick’s numbers have stood the test of time at Northwestern University.

He still holds the Wildcats basketball career records for point per game (19.9) for and ranks second in rebounds per game (13.2). Those numbers hold true 54 years upon his departure from the Evanston campus to embark on a brief stint in the NBA.

Now, Ruklick, 74, who first made his name in basketball at Princeton High School, is being featured as one of the 50 Wildcat Greats in the upcoming Alumni magazine published by Northwestern.

The list includes athletes in all sports ranging from basketball, baseball and football to field hockey, soccer and lacrosse. The most notable Wildcats are Ruklick along with Darnell Autry (football), Billy McKenney (basketball), Otto Graham (football, basketball, baseball). The most notable absentee is former Cubs catcher and current New York manager Joe Girardi.

You can vote for Ruklick by visiting www.northwestern.edu/magazine/summer2013/feature/fifty-wildcat-greats/#44. You can even make a case for St. Bede’s own J.A. Happ, who graced the pitching mound at NU in the early 2000s as an all-Big Ten pitcher before launching his professional career.

There is a nice feature on Ruklick entitled “Baskets and Bylines,” chronicling Ruklick’s career in basketball and journalism.

Ruklick said he is grateful for the honor.

“The Northwestern news takes me back to my beginnings in Princeton, where it was a blessing to live and benefit from the kindness of its citizens,” he said. “It’s a fine and wonderful place. And I was blessed by the good fortune that placed Coach Sheffer there. He, a man of highest principle, epitomized the best of Princeton. Somewhere today he’s reminded that he achieved one of his purposes on this earth, that of teaching the town’s highest values to young men like me.

Ruklick came to Princeton at age 11 when his mother fell ill with tuberculosis. What was to be a short stay, proved to be life-changing thanks to the late Tiger coach Don Sheffer.

He was cut from the freshmen basketball team, then recruited by Sheffer, who by chance met the tall, but awkward Ruklick in the hallway that day. Sheffer invited Ruklick to varsity practice that year and taught him how to shoot the hook shot. By his varsity years, then 6-foot-9, Ruklick became an unstoppable force, adept at shooting the hook shoot with either hand.

He led the Tigers to the State Tournament in 1953-54 and a return trip in 1954-55 to make good on a fourth-place trophy in the old one-class system. He was named as a prep All-American his senior year, averaging 27.0 ppg his senior year.

The Princeton High School booster club recently honored the Tiger great with a pre-game ceremony at PHS and replicas of his PHS, NU and NBA uniforms hang in the Corridor of Champions.

With offers from many top collegiate coaches, including legendary Adolph Rupp of Kentucky’s and Ray Meyer of DePaul, Ruklick chose Northwestern for its recruiting integrity and for being the only school that “noticed I was a good student.”

With freshmen being ineligible to play back in his day, Ruklick made the most of just three seasons in the Wildcat uniform from 1956-59. He stands third all-time in rebounding (868) with a high average of 13.9 a game his junior season. He is 13th in scoring with 1,315 points.

From Evanston, Ruklick was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. There was one problem and it was a big one.

The Warriors also drafted the late Wilt Chamberlain, an athletic 7-foot-1 superstar who rarely came out of games. As Wilt the Stilt’s back-up, Ruklick only averaged 8 minutes and 3.5 points per game in three seasons in Philadelphia. When the Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, Ruklick opted to retire to move into the business field.

Ruklick and Chamberlain became forever linked in the history books on March 2, 1962 in Hersey, Pa. It was Ruklick who made the assist on Chamberlain’s legendary 100th-point basket against the Knicks. Ruklick was put into the game upon the request of Chamberlain because he feared some of other white players on the Warriors were racist and would not pass him the ball.

Despite their various differences, Ruklick, white from rural Midwest and Chamberlain, black from the big city (Philadelphia), they become life-time friends until Chamberlain’s untimely death in 1999 at the age of 63. Chamberlain always joked with Ruklick he liked him because he had “dumped” 52 points with 31 rebounds in his college debut playing for Kansas in 1956 against Ruklick and Northwestern.

Shortly before his passing, I got to interview the Big Dipper for a story on his friendship with Ruklick, entitled, “the only color that mattered was the color of the ball.” It is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written in my 26 and a half years here,

Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR sports editor. Contact him at khieronymus@bcrnews.com.

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