John Markarian remembers the red-carpet treatment he and his Granite City Warriors teammates received from town residents upon returning from Champaign after winning the state basketball championship in 1940.
“It was like a parade,” said Markarian, 92, one of three players from the team who are still alive. “You looked up and down and they were all out there in the streets. We were on the bus coming in and you could see all the way from the high school down to Lincoln Place, across the tracks where we were dropped off. It was about a 10-block area.”
The Warriors were coached by Byron Bozarth and became known as “Men of Steel.” They defeated Streator 45-31 in the first round, then overcame Dundee 35-30 in the quarterfinals. They rallied for a 41-38 victory over Moline in the semifinals, then came back again and posted a 24-22 win over Herrin in the championship game.
The tournament was held at venerable Huff Gymnasium, and the attendance for the championship game was 7,052. Granite City, which finished 29-5, was led by Andy Phillip’s 53 points, including 15 in the low-scoring title game. George Gages and Andy Hagopian tied for seventh with 30 points in the tournament, while Evon Parsaghian was eighth with 26.
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Phillip and Gages were named to the all-tournament team.
Markarian and six of his teammates were of different nationalities, and all of them lived in Lincoln Place. Their families had traveled overseas to the United States in search of work, and wound up in Granite City where jobs were abundant.
Markarian still lives in Granite City, and his boyhood home at 1628 Olive Street remains. Markarian has not been inside the home since he left in 1953.
Markarian marvels about how the Warriors came together in the 1939-40 season.
“Seven of the players were ethnics,” Markarian said. “We lived across the tracks and we had a gymnasium and community center. That’s all we could entertain ourselves with was playing basketball. I’m Armenian. We had four Armenians on the team, we had one Hungarian, one Bulgarian and one Yugo. That’s seven of them. We had a variety of nationalities living down in Lincoln Place, across the tracks where the factories are, the foundries.”
Markarian and Hagopian are Armenian.
Hagopian, 92, who also still lives in Granite City, was able to play only a few minutes in the championship game. He did so despite suffering a separated left shoulder while diving for a loose ball in the semifinals against Moline.
“I couldn’t play much,” said Hagopian, adding that he wasn’t even taken to a doctor before the championship game. “There was nothing I could do except root (from the bench). Coach Bozarth inserted me at the start of the game as a courtesy, but he took me out right away. But we had Andy Phillip. As long as we had Andy, nobody was going to beat us.”
Markarian can chuckle about it now, but he said a mental lapse could have come back to haunt the Warriors in the waning moments of the championship game.
Granite City led 24-22 when Bozarth told Markarian to enter the game.
“There were 10 or 12 seconds to go and the coach says, ‘Markarian, go in there and you tell the guys to do this and this and this,’” Markarian said. “Well, when it was time for me to go in, I went straight to the guys instead of to the desk to let them know who I am and who I was replacing.
“The message was: ‘When you guys come down to the middle of the floor, take that basketball and throw it way up in the air,’ because the gymnasium was high. That’s what I did. That was the only thing on my mind.
“(Officials) called a technical foul on me. (Herrin’s) best player took the free throw, but he missed and I felt good. We won 24-22. So when I talk about it now, I tell people, ‘I just wanted to make the game a little bit more exciting.’”
Markarian described Bozarth as “kind of a quiet guy.”
“It was mostly the team, really,” Markarian said of the Warriors’ resolve to win the state championship. “The assistant coach, Leonard Davis, helped out and he had a lot of drive, too.”
Hagopian said winning the title “was a great thing that everybody should experience.”
“We were lucky; you have to have a little bit of luck,” Hagopian said. “But as long as we had Andy, we were in the game. We were the underdogs in all four games. Coach Bozarth didn’t do much substituting. The five of us played the whole way until I got hurt.”
The other member of the team still living is Everett Daniels, who resides in Indiana.