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Roundtable — Butler just part of Preston hoop affair

the same year as Milan last-shot legend Bobby Plump. Of course, Plump would go on to become the Bulldogs' all-time leading scorer, while Preston was a walk-on for part of one year on the equivalent of a "B" team. "That's when I found out how good I wasn't," said Preston, who played high school ball at Lima in LaGrange County. After his graduation from Butler with a degree in pharmacy, Preston
Posted on April 2, 2010 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on April 2, 2010 at 4:23 p.m.

Phil Preston's Butler Bulldogs are finally in the Final Four.

It's the first thing I thought of as I watched the Bulldogs put a bow on that improbable achievement by disposing of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds Syracuse and Kansas State last week in the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, there are a lot of things that make me think of Phil Preston first.

Say "summer basketball," and I'll think of Preston first.

Say "patron of basketball," and I'll think of Preston first.

Say "No. 1 lover of basketball you know personally," and I'll think of Preston first.

I've run into Phil Preston so many times over my 25 years of covering basketball in this area and heard him tell stories about so many other games he's been to that I'm convinced he's a self-cloned twin, not just a man who happens to have twin daughters.

Virtually every time I've ever talked with him, he's talked excitedly and boldly with a spark in his eyes about the game at hand, another game or player he's been reminded of from way back, a game or player he's going to see or some combination of those things.

He talks about X's and O's quite a bit, but even more, he talks about people.

"Just love of the game and enjoyment of the people," Preston told me with a shrug almost 20 years ago when I first asked him why he had invested so much time, money and energy in the sport.

Preston, 73, still feels the same way.

He's now retired from formal basketball sponsorship and doesn't attend as many high school games as he once did, but he's still a Butler season ticket-holder, still goes to some prep games and still hits other college games.

Preston, who lives in Goshen, owned Wakarusa Pharmacy for 30 years before selling in 1992, but he remains active as a roving pharmacist for area CVS stores.

"I enjoy the people," Preston said this week of why he continues to work, immediately reminding me of that similar remark he made two decades ago about basketball. "I didn't like the paper work and documentation (that came with ownership), but I enjoy the people, talking to them, maybe helping them solve a problem."

Preston thus knows a lot of relatively anonymous people.

He also knows a lot of big-time basketball people. Way too many to list, though some have consulted him and his keen eye for talent.

Preston first sponsored an adult summer basketball team under the Wakarusa Pharmacy name in 1970. His teams, which played for 18 years, were powerhouses back when summer basketball was popular around the state. Wakarusa Pharmacy initially traveled all over and later ruled the power-packed Plymouth League.

Preston also became involved in sponsorship of AAU summer teams featuring top high school players from around the area and state.

He's formed many long-term relationships through his involvements.

Also long-term has been Preston's affection for Butler, his 1959 alma mater which faces Michigan State in Saturday's national semifinals.

Preston arrived at Butler in 1954 -- the same year as Milan last-shot legend Bobby Plump.

Of course, Plump would go on to become the Bulldogs' all-time leading scorer, while Preston was a walk-on for part of one year on the equivalent of a "B" team.

"That's when I found out how good I wasn't," said Preston, who played high school ball at Lima in LaGrange County.

After his graduation from Butler with a degree in pharmacy, Preston became active as a Butler booster. He became especially fond of Barry Collier, the school's basketball coach from 1989 to 2000 and now its athletic director.

Preston's own coach at Butler was legendary Tony Hinkle, the man for whom the school's famed fieldhouse is named.

"He'll be there Saturday," Preston said emphatically of Hinkle, who coached the Bulldogs for 41 seasons and died in 1992 at 92. "He'll be looking down. Boy, I remember how he used to take care of the baseball field at 7 in the morning (Hinkle also coached baseball and football at the school). He worked for peanuts, and look at the program now."

Indeed. I recall Preston saying before the season that this was going to be a special one for the Bulldogs.

I also remember Preston stating back then that sophomore Gordon Hayward was on his way to being a first-round NBA draft candidate. That's before I heard anybody else start to say it. Butler hasn't had a player in the NBA since 1952.

"It is pretty much a thrill to watch them," Preston said this week of the Bulldogs. "I've had a number of coaches and basketball people tell me they play basketball the way it should be played. They're tough, they're pretty sound, and this group of kids, I don't think they know how to lose. They have it in their head that they can beat anybody."

Preston, who embraces toughness above all else in a basketball player, wouldn't bet against a team like Butler even if he were objective rather than subjective.

"Hey, they've got a chance, and wouldn't it be something if they and West Virginia were in the championship game together?" Preston said, referring to the Mountaineers' top assistant being Billy Hahn.

Hahn is a 1971 Penn High graduate and the older brother of ex-Concord coach Jim Hahn, a longtime Wakarusa Pharmacy standout. Billy's in his second Final Four over 35 years as a college coach.

As for Preston, who celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with wife Shirley earlier this year and has four grown children, he's been to many Final Fours as a fan.

He'll certainly be at this one in Indianapolis.

And when CBS does its panoramic shot of the 70,000 people there, I'll once more think of Phil Preston first.

Anthony Anderson is The Elkhart Truth's assistant sports editor. Contact him at aanderson@etruth.com.




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