While back-roading earlier this summer, we drove upon this gentlemen sitting in front of a tiny hardware store in Freetown, and I knew we were going to get along just fine as he was wearing an Indiana University T-shirt.
His name was Russell Fritz, and he played high school basketball for Freetown in 1955 in a gymnasium in town, which was built in 1931 and used as a high school gym until the late 1950s. Freetown consolidated with Brownstown in the 1960s.
In 2003, with grant money, the gym was restored to its original condition. The building now serves as the Freetown Community Center.
This gym served its purpose in its day with a storied past. In the early 1940s, tiny Freetown High was the talk of southern Indiana, when it invited the Crispus Attucks High School basketball team, an all-black team out of Indianapolis, to Freetown for a game.
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Attucks was having trouble finding games to play, as public schools did not want to play an all-black team. So Freetown hosted Attucks, treating them like royalty with a small-town community dinner after the game.
It seemed like an odd match, a tiny backroads school in southern Indiana and a large public all-black school in the city of Indianapolis. But when it was all said and done, the respect between the two schools was so great that Attucks returned to Freetown for nine seasons.
On the night of the game, Freetown was overwhelmed with hyped-up basketball fans and curious onlookers because at that time, an all-black team playing in southern Indiana was unheard of.
Sure enough, the game sold out, and hundreds milled the small town’s streets waiting the outcome, while dozens of others climbed the rooftop and watched the game on the roof looking through the windows.
I got caught up in talking with Russell about the gym I forgot to ask him who won the game. But I do know that Freetown was very good that season, winning 19 games while losing only three.
It was a great day meeting people like Russell and his wife, Donna, who just happens to make the best-tasting caramel apple pie you’ll ever taste.
When we were leaving, we thanked Russell for the tour, and my wife, Sandy, apologized for disrupting his day and hoped we hadn’t bothered him too much. Russell responded, “If you’re too busy to be bothered, then you’re too busy.”
In the 1950s, Indiana basketball legend Oscar Robertson played for Attucks and led them to back-to-back state championships in 1955 and 1956.