LAWRENCE, Kan. - As KU faces off against UCLA in basketball today, it brings back memories of seven foot legends Wilt Chamberlain for KU and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabaar) for UCLA. But they weren't the first.
In the fall semester of 1927, University of Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen quietly planned a basketball revolution. With little fanfare, Phog Allen enrolled the first known seven foot basketball player in classes at Lawrence.
In the 1920's, a player 6' 4" was considered extremely tall, and a player seven foot tall was unthinkable. Harry Kersenbrock enrolled at KU, and quickly earned the nickname "Big" from his KU classmates. At the time, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity, so Kersenbrock played for the freshman team.
This was 1927 - long before anyone had heard of giants Bob Kurland at Oklahoma A & M, George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, or even Wilt Chamberlain.
Kersenbrock was raised in Crete, NE, and people didn't know what to make of the sometimes clumsy "freak of nature."
Pop Klein, the coach at Crete High School, first recommended that Harry Kersenbrock enroll at the University of Nebraska. Klein even took the seven-footer to Lincoln, NE to introduce him to the head basketball coach at Nebraska, Coach Bearg. The Nebraska coach declared that Harry was too tall and clumsy to play for NU. So Kersenbrock settled for tiny Doane College.
While attending Doane College, Pop Klein made another run at getting the University of Nebraska to show an interest in his star pupil. Nebraska had a new coach named Charlie Black*, and he also said Kerenbrock was oversized and would not fit in at Nebraska.
While attending Doane College, Harry Kersenbrock attended the KU-Nebraska basketball game in Lincoln. He knew that Phog Allen had been making inquiries about him, and Kersenbrock approached Phog Allen in Nebraska. The always innovative Phog Allen jumped at the chance to sign Harry Kersenbrock. Kersenbrock had a successful first year at KU, playing on the freshman team.
Following his freshman year at KU, Kersenbrock was on a canoe ride with a friend on the Blue River back in Nebraska. On the evening of June 28, 1928, the canoe capsized.
His friend swam to shore, but Kersenbrock disappeared under the water. His body was discovered under the rushing water an hour later.
Phog Allen was devatated. In fact, the next year (the first full year in Hoch Auditorium) the Jayhawks had their worst record under Coach Allen, 3-15. Years later, when other schools introduced players who were 6'10" or taller, Allen became bitter, calling players like Bob Kurland "glandular goons," and even proposing that the height of the basket be raised to 12 feet.
Allen changed his tune about big men when he convinced Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain, 7' 2", to enroll as a freshman at KU in the 1950's. But Allen never got to coach Chamberlain, as Kansas mandatory retirement age of 65 forced his retirement.
The University of Kansas' basketball history might have contained another glossy chapter but for the tragedy on the Blue River in 1928.
Today, seven-foot players are not rare, and height is prized by coaches everywhere.
For whatever reason, people are taller today than they were eighty or a hundred years ago. Phog Allen, the innovator, the visionary, wanted to be the first coach to introduce
a Goliath to the game. But Kersenbrock's untimely death changed everything.
Major source: "Brass Tacks," by Cy Sherman, Lincoln Star, 1-30-30.
*The University of Nebraska coach "Charlie Black" was not the KU Hall of Fame Basketball player of the same name.