Remembering Ron Bontemps’51, a Giant from Beloit’s Golden Age of Basketball
Hinz had scored 22 points in a win over Knox College that had hiked his career mark to 1,776.
Bontemps had starred for the Bucs 55 years before that, scorching the nets at the old Field House with 1,770 points in 83 games over three years. Freshmen back then weren’t eligible for the varsity.
His response to his record falling was typical for the soft-spoken gentleman.
“Records really are meant to be broken,” Bontemps said. “I think it’s wonderful he was able to break it.”
Nicknamed “Bones” due to his lanky 6-foot-3 frame, Bontemps was the leading scorer on three Dolph Stanley-led teams that went 72-12 and won three straight undefeated Midwest Conference championships from 1948-51. They played in the National Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament as well as the National Invitation Tournament when it was a bigger deal than the NCAA Tournament.
On May 13, Bontemps passed away at the age of 90 in Morton, Ill.
The Stanley years amounted to a golden era of Beloit College basketball, and Bontemps was one of the feature players. They were so dominating they were eventually booted out of the conference.
“The conference got upset with us for being too good,” Bontemps said back in 2006.
It wasn’t just that the Bucs played big-time basketball teams in addition to their conference foes. They were clobbering them. With no divisions or classifications within the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Beloit could hold its own or better against just about any program anywhere.
Under the legendary Stanley’s guidance, the Bucs were 242-58, an .807 winning percentage. They beat all sorts of future NCAA Division I programs, like San Diego State, Houston, Fresno State, Washington State, Arizona, DePaul, Loyola, and Florida State, to name a few.
With an apology to Hinz, Bontemps is still considered the best basketball player ever to play at Beloit. The late Joe Kobylka, who graduated with Bontemps in 1951, saw both standouts. He was a part-time sports writer for the Beloit Daily News as well as the Round Table in 1951 and the announcer at Buccaneer home games during Hinz’s tenure.
“It’s been a pleasure being able to see both,” Kobylka said in 2006. “They’re similar in their aggressiveness on the glass. Bontemps was sinewy. They used to say his elbows were like razors. He did most of his scoring inside. He didn’t have the shooting touch Josh has.”
Bontemps had been an All-State player for Taylorville High School, which went 45-0 and won the 1944 Illinois state title. He went into the U.S. Army after graduation and served in World War II. Discharged in 1946, he attended the University of Illinois for a time, but his former prep coach, Stanley, talked him into attending Beloit.
Bontemps rejoined former prep teammates John Orr’49, Donald “Red” Janssen’50, and Fran Stahr’51 to build the Bucs into a powerhouse. Using a fast-breaking style of play, Beloit set a Chicago Stadium record for most points in a game in a 94-60 thumping of DePaul before 13,101 fans in 1951.
“It was never about individuals on that team,” Bontemps said. “We played fast and Stanley made sure we were all in great condition. During timeouts, we never sat down. We mowed down a lot of teams. That was a fun time.”
The Bucs averaged 85.3 points per game that season and were invited to the NIT at Madison Square Garden. Beloit lost its first game to Seton Hall, 71-57.
Bontemps was far from through with basketball. While employed by Caterpillar Corp., in Peoria, Ill., he played for the company’s national champion AAU team. When the Cats defeated NCAA champion Kansas, Bontemps earned a berth in the 1952 Olympics. He helped the U.S. capture the gold medal, winning eight games in Helsinki, Finland, including a 36-25 gold-medal victory over Russia.
Bontemps and his wife, the former Norma Jean Smith of Beloit, also a 1951 graduate, settled in Morton, Ill. She passed away in 2009.
His Olympic jersey hangs in the foyer outside Flood Arena, but his obituary in the Peoria Journal Standard included only a line about his gold medal, giving just as much focus to the fact he taught Sunday school, was an active member of The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and served as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels.
Ron Bontemps had his priorities in order.
Jim Franz is the sports editor for the Beloit Daily News. This article was reprinted from the Beloit Daily News with permission.