Chances are if Larry Bird had not put Indiana State on the map, Dick Atha would be the university’s most famed basketball alumnus.
Had things gone according to plan for Indiana State Hall of Famer Richard “Dick” Atha, he would have gone on to basketball notoriety as a Purdue Boilermaker after graduating from Otterbein High School back in 1949.
“I was from a small town and a decent ballplayer, and no one was really interested in me,” Atha said. “One of our town patrons arranged an interview with the Purdue coach, who ultimately got fired. When I went in to see him, he was standing at the window looking out.
“He finally came over and sat down. I didn’t know whether to talk or spit. I was pretty shook up. He looked at me and said, ‘Young man, why are you coming to college?’ Like an idiot, I said, ‘To play basketball.’ He went ballistic on me.
“That was the end of the interview. I picked up my hind end and ran out of there.”
As it turned out, Purdue’s loss would be Indiana State’s gain. John Longfellow, seeking to rebuild a senior-laden team originally built by former coach John Wooden, identified Atha as someone who’d be able to help the Sycamores continue their success.
“I really wasn’t much of a ‘plan’ guy,” said Atha. “I was outside playing basketball, and my high school coach and Indiana State’s coach, John Longfellow, were at my home. Mr. Longfellow was scouring the state of Indiana and a lot of small towns. John Wooden had left in the spring of 1948, and he had something to do with picking John Longfellow.
“He had scared up 15 young men, because of the team John Wooden had brought to Indiana State, 10 were seniors, and they had won the NAIA national tournament. John Longfellow started us practicing in March after they’d been off about a month, we played some of the remaining guys in a game, and we beat them.”
It wound up being the jumping-off point to a tremendous four-year stay at Indiana State for Atha, who was named the school’s top freshman student-athlete in 1950 and then went on to start all 85 games of his varsity career.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder led the Sycamores in scoring twice and was named an Indiana Collegiate Conference all-star as a sophomore, junior and senior. Among his top highlights were playing on the first team to represent the United States in the Pan-American Games — a squad that won the 1951 gold medal — and being named an All-American in 1953 after helping Indiana State to a third-place finish in the NAIA national tournament.
“Argentina had a really good team, and we beat them in the championship,” said Atha, recalling the Pan-Am Games. “It was probably one of the biggest crowds ever to see a basketball game (at the time). Most of their fans were fenced off on each end in a great big arena. After we beat them, they spit on us and things like that — it was kind of an unpleasant experience.
“But we did get to shake hands with Juan and Evita Perón, and they actually signed our document that said we were in the championship. It was something; Evita only lived for about a year after that. She was sitting inside the fence, of course, and was kind of pale because she had cancer.
“But she just shone like the sun. It was a memorable experience.”
Atha played well enough during his time at Indiana State to have attracted the notice of the New York Knicks of the fledgling National Basketball Association, and the team drafted him in the sixth round in April 1953.
It wasn’t long thereafter that Atha would be drafted once again.
“I was from a small, sparsely populated county and the minute I got out of school, I got drafted into the service,” Atha said. “That draft notice arrived in November. I had reported to the Knicks and was working out with them.
“I had to go to Fort Leonard Wood, where I played on a very, very good basketball team. In the Army you have a skilled job, so I became a dental assistant. Just a few weeks before the all-Army tournament, I got a notice that people with my (job) — there were only 5-6 at Fort Leonard Wood — were being sent to Germany.
“That was one of my biggest disappointments, that I didn’t get to play in the all-Army tournament. Our team finished third.”
The Knicks retained Atha’s rights during his military service, and once he was discharged, he headed back to New York to begin his professional career. Atha averaged 3.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists in roughly 12 minutes of action per game off the bench in the 1955-56 season.
“I made $4,000, lived in New York City, stayed in a hotel and saved $1,100,” he said. “Now, a player like I was makes over $1 million.”
After missing the 1956-57 season, Atha was traded as part of a five-player deal to the Detroit Pistons. He averaged 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 18 games in the team’s inaugural season in Detroit before turning the page to the next chapter of his life.
“After two years, I hung it up,” he said. “I had a teaching degree. I started at Indiana State in what I think at that time was the biggest freshman class ever (at the time), and they were trying to diversify their curriculum. I enrolled in business administration, but in 1949-50 everybody took Education 100, 110 — something like that.
“I got kind of caught up in it and said I’d like to coach. So I got my teaching degree in physical education, but I had taken several business subjects as well. I couldn’t teach shorthand, but I taught things like general business, bookkeeping and typing plus phys ed. I got a job at a small school, we had six periods in a day and I had six different classes.
“I even taught driver’s ed, which I should have gotten combat pay for.”
Not long thereafter, Atha actually wound up at Purdue, where he earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. He eventually added the title of guidance counselor and basketball coach to his ever-growing list of responsibilities at the only school in tiny Oxford, which is located in north-central Indiana.
Atha had been there 10 years when Oxford and several other small local communities consolidated into what eventually became Benton Central Community Schools.
It was at that point Atha hung up his whistle and turned his focus to the administrative side of education. He became principal at Benton Central High School beginning in 1971. He served in that role until 1984, when he transitioned to athletic director, before retiring in 1997.
It was 20 years earlier, in 1977, when Atha was at the forefront of a seminal moment for Benton Central. With the basketball team locked in a four-overtime game, Atha started a “B-I-S-O-N!” cheer on the sideline that still resonates through the school today.
“When I started college, I wanted to be known as a player,” Atha said. “Then when I got done playing, I wanted to be known as a coach. You know what I am today? I’m known as a cheerleader. For 40 years I’ve been doing that B-I-S-O-N cheer.
“I retired 20 years ago, but I’ve always hung around the school — lined football and baseball and soccer fields and so forth — and my wife and I ran the concessions. But when the going gets tough, or gets exciting, who steps up?
“Not a player, not a coach — the old cheerleader, Dick. And I’ve had great response with that. This year at homecoming they had all the kids in the gymnasium, and the football coach asked me to come out for the pep section.
“We knocked the roof off the building with the B-I-S-O-N. But I don’t have a skirt or anything.”
Atha, a father of eight, grandfather of 24 and great-grandfather of 18, was elected to Indiana State’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1999, he was chosen as one of 12 players to comprise Indiana State’s all-century team with, among others, a guy named Larry Bird.
“My career wasn’t real astounding, but I don’t think I could have ever enjoyed basketball more than I did at Indiana State,” said Atha, who turned 86 on Sept. 21. “I became lifelong friends with the guys I played with.
“My career turned out more gratifying than if I would have gone to Purdue. I feel like that. I’m very happy with that.”