St. Joe company that finished courts helped change college basketball

03/29/2014 2:04 PM

03/29/2014 2:04 PM

Back in the day, Kansas City became known as a college basketball tournament capital with a horrible floor.

From 1936, when the first game was played in Municipal Auditorium, until 1947, the court consisted of rock-hard oak blocks, 2x4s set on end. They were embedded in the building’s concrete surface and players hated it. Shin splints and sore feet were common, said Jack Cramer, a well-known trainer and sports medicine pioneer told The Star in 1947.

“On the old floor, boys used to come off with big blisters on the bottom of their feet,” Cramer said. “After a game on the old floor, it took the boys two weeks to get back in shape. Never exactly slowed them up, except mentally. The shock from the continual pounding you know. Just like running on concrete.”

By 1947, three NCAA championships and about 20 other NCAA Tournament games, plus a decade’s worth of the NAIA Tournament had been contested on the original floor. It had to go.

You could almost hear trumpets when the truck from DeNatale Floors, Inc., of Charlestown, Mass., arrived in December. Municipal’s first portable floor, made of softer maple, was laid. Kansas City even paid extra for it, buying the floor for $12,500 over another offer of about $4,000 less because of the quality.

The floor measured 114 by 68 feet, much more floor than needed for a 94- by 50-foot basketball court, but for some reasons this was a point of pride. It shined, thanks to two coatings of Star Gym finish supplied by the Hillyard Chemical Company of St. Joseph.

By this time, Hillyard had played a pivotal role in basketball’s development, by changing the surface of courts.

The earliest organized games were held in barns, armories, lodge halls, dance floors and basements, anywhere enough space could be found to hang baskets 10 feet above the floor.

The buildings started catching up with basketball’s soaring popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as field houses started opening on campus. But in many gyms, floors remained a problem. Early wood courts could be dark and slippery because oil dressings were the best treatment. Sometimes sawdust had to be spread across the floor.

Newton “Pop” Hillyard noticed this when he traveled around the Midwest as president of a company that sold disinfectants and stain removers.

Hillyard loved basketball, and he loved his son, Marvin, who played high school basketball and had asked his father to sponsor a team. Marvin died during the flu epidemic, but dad honored the request. By the mid-1920s, the Hillyard “Shine-Alls” won two national AAU championships in Kansas City.

The company’s floor finish made an even bigger impact.

Municipal, college and high school gyms didn’t just need floors, they needed them to be safe and, ideally, look good. Hillyard’s products did just that.

“He saw people sliding around on a court and knew he could do something about it,” said Hillyard president Jim Carolus, who sits on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Board of Trustees. “Then it took off.”

Doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden in New York became a popular staple beginning in the 1930s, and they were played on a Hillyard finished floor. So were the NCAA Tournament games of the 1940s.

Floors at Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, the Cow Palace in San Francisco and Municipal in Kansas City were among the 15,000 basketball floors coated with Hillyard products.

In 1952 and 1953, Hillyard crowed that all venues for college basketball tournaments in the NCAA, NAIA and junior colleges were played on a Hillyard finished floor.

Hillyard’s relationship with the NCAA continues today. The company supplies the official floor mop — the Hillyard Surefoot Game Mop — of the NCAA Tournaments for all divisions.

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