This was one of the Greatest
Upsets in Pennsylvania Basketball Playoff History
......and this was the "Iron Five" and their Coach
It took place during the 1971-72 basketball season in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. The ONLY town in America named after Jim Thorpe and the ONLY high school whose nickname is the Olympians.
In November of 1971, a new coach met a team with only 9 players left from the previous year and expectations were very low. The only positive was that four of the potential starters lived in the same two block radius in the town and were very close friends. The final missing link was a young man who had never played at Jim Thorpe. He was, according to old-timers, the only person who could play center on this team, although he was only 5' 11" tall. His name was Jim THORPE Kmetz. He was named after Jim Thorpe himself because he was born the day the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and changed their names to Jim Thorpe and his parents gave him the middle name of Thorpe to celebrate the town's name change.
Jim's older brother, Jack, was the best basketball player ever to play for the high school and his legacy loomed large over Jim. Jim never played organized ball because he felt that he could not live up to his brother's legacy, but he established quite a reputation in town from playing on the sandlots and in the summer leagues. Even though he was only 5' 11", he could jump high enough to dunk the ball and he was a terrific shooter; .but, most of all, he was a friend of the other four players and the final piece of the "puzzle" to be assembled. After a long period of coaxing, the new coach got Jim to play on the team and with his other four friends, they had a season to remember.
First of all, none of the five players were over 6 feet tall; Jim being the tallest at 5'11" and two others being 5'11" and the remaining two, 5'10."
They usually played the entire game because none of the substitutes were really capable of playing with them. The substitutes provided good practice competition but lacked game savvy, experience and the necessary skills to play.
The five starters, Don Herman, Dan Albeck, George Alberts, Jim Zurn and Jim Kmetz, were named the "IRON FIVE" and that name has stuck with them for the past 35 years.
They had a great year, a bunch of unknowns, smaller, quicker, great shooters, they were underdogs in every game they played, but they had chemistry; they were all friends; all the same age; all lived in the same two block area of town. They had nicknames, like "Worm," "Wild Man," "Putz," "Cat" and "Supa"names that still are famous in that town.
This team at Jim Thorpe wasn't picked to finish .500 before the year began and no one expected anything from them, even the players themselves weren't optimistic; as freshmen they went a whole season without winning a game and finished that inglorious year with a record of 0-17.
But they came together as a team this season and accomplished what they never would have even dreamed of a few years before. They won over 20 games and played for the League Championship. They qualified for the District #11 tournament and won their semi-final game to put them in the Championship Game against the defending State Champs from two years previous and the two-time DEFENDING District #11 Champions, the St. Clair Saints.
The game was played in March of 1972 in St. Joseph's Gymnasium in Hazleton, Pa. and the place was packed. The Jim Thorpe fans came out strong and so did the St. Clair fans who were looking to see their team set a record of winning three straight District Championships. The starting lineup for the Saints was experienced, playoff-tested, tough and tall with a 6' 7" Center, a 6' 6" Power Forward, a 6' 3" Small Forward, a 6' 2" Shooting Guard and a 6' 1" Point Guard, many were returnees and lettermen from their championship seasons of the past two years and they were ready that night to set a record of repeating as District Champions for the 3rd straight year.
It was a dramatic night, to say the least, and it began with the opening introductions, which had many of St. Clair's fans laughing loudly at the difference in height as the 10 players stood next to each other at mid-court for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. It was a sight not many who were there will ever forget. The five "Davids" from Jim Thorpe, not one over 6 feet tall, standing next to the "Goliaths" of St. Clair.
The minute by minute story of the game is a magnificent one, every moment was dramatic, every play important and significant, every coach's decision analyzed and discussed and the momentum moved from one team to the other with every possession up and down the court. It appeared to be a mismatch of enormous proportions, but the Olympians played their hearts out and found themselves in a position to win with just a few seconds left in the game.
With 10 seconds to go in the game and the score 50-49 and Jim Thorpe behind, a planned shot was taken and missed, the ball bounced to almost mid court, out of nowhere came Jim "THORPE" Kmetz and he picked the ball up; turned and shot and the ball went in at the buzzer to win the District Championship 51-50. The LAST SHOT was made by the boy who was named after Jim Thorpe.
The gymnasium went berserk in what was called the biggest upset in Eastern Pa playoff basketball, David had beaten Goliath. The fire engines met the team at the outskirts of town and led them through the streets of town filled with cheering townspeople, students and fans. School was cancelled and the town celebrated for days; it was a MONUMENTAL win and the Olympians, named after another champion Jim Thorpe were Class A Champions of District #11.
That 1972 victory was the last District Basketball Championship at Jim Thorpe High School. The team also went on through the playoffs and lost in the Eastern Finals to the defending State Champion (Mt. Penn). They played a consolation game and finished 3rd in the state, an achievement that still is recognized as one of the greatest ever in that area.
None of those five players ever played again……..anywhere………that season was their last in organized basketball………they continued to play on the sandlot courts and enjoyed their lives in their home town, They all went on to have families and become successful as an engineer, teacher, owner of a railroad, etc. AND they all still live in the SAME TOWN today (2007) and all within walking distance of each other; they are still great friends and now go to the games of their kids and watch them play, and their legend still lives on in that area of Pennsylvania.
It is an uplifting story of friendship; a story of an amazing group of five young men, FRIENDS THEN, NOW, AND FOREVER, who overcame HUGE obstacles and challenges to become champions. It is a TRUE STORY of success through teamwork, chemistry and dedication. This was a team of destiny.
It is the story of the "Iron Five." p.s. I was the coach of that team.
(Credit:George Hanna, 535 Carroll Drive, Irwin, PA 15642---724-864-4784).