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Freeport and Iowa Hawkeyes basketball legend Carl Cain remembered after dying at age 89

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

Carl Cain barely played as a junior at Freeport High School. But then, the 1951 Pretzels were one of the most dominant boys basketball teams in Illinois history, winning their three games at state by an average of 21 points.

“I felt fortunate just to be on that team,” Cain, who scored one single point in that 1951 state tournament, said four years ago, when he was named the greatest player in Freeport history and fourth-best in Rockford history. “I believed I could have played a lot more, but I was an underclassmen. Those guys had made great names for themselves before I was elevated.”

According to the University of Iowa, Cain died on June 2. He was 89.

Despite that inauspicious start, Cain went on to accomplish things that no local basketball player — not even NBA All-Star Fred VanVleet — has ever done.

More:Rockford’s greatest basketball players No. 4: Carl Cain high-flying champion

Cain followed the star of that 1951 Freeport team, Deacon Davis, to Iowa. With the Hawkeyes, Cain became the only Freeport- or Rockford-area player to play in two Final Fours. And the only local basketball player to win an Olympic gold medal.

“He was a big name,” Cal Cummins said of Cain. "He was one of those guys when you were younger you could idolize and look up to,” said Cummins, who coached Freeport to four consecutive NIC-10 football titles in the 1990s and was one of Freeport’s greatest high school football players in the 1970s. “I would think, ‘Geez, I would like to be there some day doing the things he was able to do, not only in high school, but throughout his career.

“As a youngster going to high school basketball games and events, I would see those names on the wall and hear older people talking about what those guys had done. That was even true in high school. People would say, ‘Could you guys accomplish those things, too?’ He helped you set goals. You wanted to be just like him.”

At 6-foot-3, Cain was short for a forward even in the 1950s. Still, he averaged14.2 points and 14 rebounds in 74 games at Iowa. And that included even in the biggest games. Cain had 17 points and 14 rebounds in Iowa’s 76-73 loss to LaSalle in the 1955 Final Four. The next year he faced the great Bill Russell, who won two NCAA titles at San Francisco and 11 NBA titles with the Celtics. Still, Cain had 17 points and 12 rebounds in an 83-71 loss to San Francisco in the 1956 NCAA title game. Russell had 26 points and 27 rebounds.

More:Rockford-area greatest basketball players No. 11: Deacon Davis state champ Globe Trotter

“Carl was a tremendous jumper,” Nolden Gentry said in that 2020 story. Gentry led Rockford West to back-to-back state titles in 1955 and 1956 and followed Cain and Davis to Iowa. “He was 6-3 and playing against forwards that were 6-6 and 6-7 — but they couldn’t out-jump him. He was very smooth. He was a true All-American.”

Cain and Deacon Davis, who was also named a top-five all-time player in Rockford-area history, were players who loomed big in Freeport for decades.

“The Freeport athletic icons were always Carl, Deacon Davis and Preston Pearson (a running back who played in five Super Bowls),” said Paul Hoefer, a 1974 Freeport grad whose daughter, Kelsey, played NCAA Division I volleyball and was one of four 1,000-point scorers on Freeport’s back-to-back Class 3A state runner-up girls basketball team in 2008 and 2009.

Part of that legend was being picked to play on the 1956 Olympic team, a team every bit as dominant as the Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson. That Olympic team won all eight of its games by at least 30 points, including 101-38 in the semifinals.

But, like that state title game five years earlier, Cain barely played. He had entered the Army right after graduating college and hurt his back at Fort Leonard Wood. Despite struggling during Olympic practices, he was scheduled to start the Olympic opener against Japan, only to see his back lock up while he was tying his shoelaces before the game. He played only in the final game, scoring one point in the gold medal win over Russia.

Cain called that “an overwhelmingly difficult experience for me” in the story four years ago. He wound up spending six months in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was eventually diagnosed with a herniated disc. He was drafted by the NBA’s Rochester Royals but retired because of his back.

But he still had ties to basketball. His sister, Beverly, married K.C. Jones, an NBA Hall of Famer who was Bill Russell’s teammate both at the University of San Francisco and with the Boston Celtics, whom he later coached. Russell came along with Jones on a few trips to Freeport to see Beverly. That has led to two often-told stories that Hoefer said could be true or simply urban legends.

One is that the first time they came to Freeport, Russell and Jones got lost and called the Cain house for directions from a phone booth. The other is that Russell’s limousine got a flat tire at the wedding of Jones and Beverly Cain and they changed the tire while Russell sat in the car.

“I don’t know if that is true, but Bill Russell was definitely in Freeport,” Hoefer said.

Stories of Cain in the 1950s also sound a little unbelievable, but the truth was he had a high-flying 1990s game at least 20 years before it became commonplace. Gentry said the Hawekeyes used to throw alley-oops to their under-sized forward.

“Carl would fake his man and head for the basket and Sharm Scheuerman, a guard on that Iowa team, would throw the ball up near the rim,” Gentry said. “Carl was able to get up, dunk it, and his man wouldn’t even know where he had gone.”