It is time the nation faced up to the real truth: its leading scorer in basketball is a farmer and he is on top of the charts for the second straight year. Forget those high-flying ghetto dudes like Bird Averitt, Fly Williams and Larry Fogle. This 26-year-old named Steve Platt from Huntington College in Indiana has a farm, man, plus a wife and two kids to go with his 39.5 scoring average. Except when he is driving toward the basket, his feet are on the ground.
"I know Steve's story must sound hard to believe but it's all true," says Peggy Platt as her husband takes time out from his chores to dribble across a manure-covered court and fire a jumper at a basket nailed to a red barn. Frank Capra should be there filming. "It's what Steve wanted—he loves basketball—and it's worked out just great."
Now a senior at Huntington and long before that a star for the Union Township Sharpshooters, Steve Platt interrupted his promising basketball career in 1965 so he could farm. He disliked school and, already married, was afraid he would be unable to support his family if he went to college. For five years he tried to fill the void in his life by playing with industrial league teams like B&K Root Beer in Bluffton and for the Zion United Methodist Church, sometimes appearing in games 30 miles apart the same evening. Then Keith Spahr took the coaching job at Huntington College. When he coached at Warren High School his teams had never beaten Platt. Now he was anxious to have Platt on his side for a change.
Spahr convinced the college it should offer Platt an unprecedented full-ride scholarship. Platt agreed to take it after two months of deliberation, and the 6'5" Hoosier has been the scourge of the NAIA ranks ever since. He led all collegiate scorers last year with a 36.0 average and he will climb as high as third place on the alltime scoring list behind LSU's Pete Maravich and Kentucky State's Travis Grant if he finishes this season at his current pace. Platt has already outdistanced Austin Carr of Notre Dame and Rick Mount of Purdue and he will soon pass Oscar Robertson, who did not play college ball in Indiana but came from there.
Before Platt arrived on the scene, one of Huntington's claims to fame was that Chris Schenkel had endowed the college with an athletic fund. It is a conservative institution supported by the United Brethren of Christ. Students are not permitted to drink, dance or smoke, and must attend chapel at least three times a week. However, a stained-glass-windowed chapel located directly behind the billiards counter in the Union Building presumably helps the students fulfill this requirement with a minimum of effort. The campus is one-third the size of the 500 acres that Platt farms and HC's 500 enrollment is only one-fourth that of Huntington High School, which consistently outdraws the Foresters for basketball games.
Because of his 18-hour-a-day responsibilities as husband, father, farmer and student-athlete, Platt is scarcely a part of campus life. "Most of the students know me," he says. "They like me. But I just have to run into class and run out again. I'm so busy changing clothes all day I feel like I'm wearing the hair off my arms."
Shortly after five each morning Platt pulls on coveralls and heads out to the barn to feed the hogs. He then shells corn and takes it over to the storage elevator. It is still dark at 7:30 when he gets back to the house to clean up and eat breakfast with Peggy, son Ty, 4, and daughter Polly, 2. He is generally in class all morning. After lunch (called dinner in Indiana), he works in the fields picking beans and corn or tends to other chores depending on the season. Basketball practice lasts until dinnertime (supper in Indiana) and afterward there are beef cattle to be fed. Finally there is homework, followed by the 10 o'clock news, a moment's peace and quiet and then the prospect of doing it all over again the next day.
"The toughest time of the year for us is harvesting the crops in October and November," Peggy says. "Sometimes Steve is out filling up trucks until after 10." How does he manage giant machinery in dark fields? "Oh, there are big lights on the combines. That's where most of the UFO reports stem from in this part of the country. Combines."
Steve cannot recall precisely when he first began shooting baskets, but his dad can and so, unfortunately, can his mother. "One day my wife went to town," says Darl Platt, who runs a fertilizer business and helps Steve farm. "When she was out of sight, I picked up the leaves to the dining-room table and took them out to the barn. There were five of them and I knew they fit together perfectly, so I put backing on them and painted them white to make a backboard. About that time my wife came home and climbed up on the ladder to help me put the thing up. It wasn't until I started pounding in the nails that she realized what I'd done. 'You didn't,' is all she managed to say."
For all he has done during the last two seasons, Steve Platt is still not the all-out hero of the townspeople, who cannot quite forget or forgive that he once was the enemy of Huntington High School. There were only 79 students at Union Township, just outside of Huntington—17 of them in Steve's graduating class—but with his future bride cheer-leading on the sidelines Platt nearly upset his city rivals in 1965. There are people who will never get over that scare.
"The barbershop is a good place to hear things like that," says Darl Platt. "I was in there one day and this fella came in who didn't know who I was. I remember him saying, 'I really love to watch that Steve Platt play ball, but I'll be darned if I'm going to root for him.' "
Platt serenely plays on. To him, basketball runs almost neck and neck with the farm and his family. Take the night of Nov. 16, 1971. With Peggy due to have their second child, Steve left home to play for Huntington in a four-team tournament. His sister Linda went along in order to call Peggy for reports and relay the news by hand signals to Steve on the court. When the labor pains were only nine minutes apart, Steve quit the game and met Peggy at the hospital. The baby was born at midnight and the new father had only one hour of sleep before morning chores. The next night he scored 40 points for the first time in a game and the Foresters won the tournament.
With so much expected of him, it is far tougher for Steve to have a big night at this stage of his career. "How many did Platt get?" a motel clerk asked a visitor recently. When he was told 36, the clerk was unimpressed. Sometimes so are opponents—before they hear the game totals. Often what has seemed like a 22-point evening for Platt turns out to be more like 42.
"A lot of my points come on three-point plays, tip-ins and layups," he says, "and I think a long jump shot is easier for people to remember. A lot of teams have been playing a box-and-one against us lately and several appeared to be more interested in holding me below my average than in winning the game. My toughest job now is getting the ball, not making it go in."
Huntington area players who have been coming up second best against Steve Platt for 10 years cannot even look forward to getting rid of him after his last college game. Most likely he will sign with the Fort Wayne semipro franchise in the new International Basketball Association. It will not be the NBA or the ABA, as Steve might like it to be, but he and his wife realize they would be giving up more than a farm if they moved away from Indiana.
"We're so plain," says Peggy, speaking for both Platts. "It's only a mile to our church and seven minutes to the college. We live a mile west of Steve's parents and a mile and half east of my parents. The grandparents are a built-in baby-sitter service for our children, who will go to the same schools Steve and I did. I guess you could say we've just never gotten out of the nest."
Hogging the early morning limelight, farmer Platt lofts a shot at his barnyard backboard.
Platt wheels in for a turnabout jumper.