Garrett basketball fans are mourning the loss of their gentle giant, Chuck Bavis— who wore jersey No. 54 — who passed away Saturday at the age of 71.

A 7-foot center, Charles L. “Chuck” Bavis led outstanding Garrett Railroader teams in 1964, 1965 and 1966, then started at center for Purdue for two seasons before a foot injury sustained in an automobile crash ended his career.

The future Indiana Basketball Hall-of-Famer made sacrifices along the way to achieve his title as perhaps Garrett High School’s finest basketball player.

As a high school freshman, Bavis stood 6-foot-7 and weighed about 270 pounds, according to newspaper reports, making him the butt of jokes whenever he walked on the basketball floor. But Bavis was able to overcome all of those handicaps with a tremendous desire to make a basketball player of himself.

Under the direction of Coach Ward Smith, Bavis was put on a very strict diet and development program. He lifted weights, carried a basketball around with him during the summer months, played every spare moment he could, and still managed to work on a neighbor’s farm to help build himself into a more rugged player in individual, according to an article in The Garrett Clipper.

The 1965 Railroader team compiled a 23-2 record and won a Northeast Indiana Athletic Conference title. At one point during that season, Garrett won 21 straight games.

The Garrett Clipper published this account of the regional final game against Fort Wayne North Side in the March 8, 1965 issue, in which Bavis scored 27 points:

“The state’s longest winning streak of 21 straight games came to an end on a Saturday night when the mighty Garrett Railroaders stumbled before powerful Fort Wayne North Side, 59-55.

“The loss ended the greatest basketball season in the history of Garrett High School. Not only did the team of Coach Ward Smith win the Kendallville Holiday Tournament, Northeastern Indiana Athletic Conference title and the Kendallville sectional, the team finished first in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel’s area basketball poll, and was ranked 14th in the UPI state poll.

“Bavis led all scorers with 27 points in the regional loss, his best tournament performance. In what was described as a Dream Game, the event was witnessed by a crowd of more than 9,000, carried on several radio stations and one television station.

During his high school career at Garrett, Bavis helped the Railroaders win three consecutive sectional titles and scored 1,463 points. As a senior, Bavis averaged 33 points, playing six games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, as the Railroaders went 24-0 before falling to South Side and future Mr. Basketball Willie Long in the regional in 1966.

Bavis joins the Boilermakers

At Purdue, Bavis was part of a highly regarded class of recruits that included 1966 Mr. Basketball Rick Mount. The first varsity game for Bavis and his classmates came on the opening day for Purdue’s new arena, now called Mackey Arena, with UCLA as the opponent.

In a preview of the game, Sports Illustrated magazine described Bavis as “remarkably handsome, with deep-blue eyes,” adding, “He could be the tallest leading man in Hollywood history …”

“After that article came out, you’ll never guess what my nickname became,” Bavis once said with a laugh. “Hollywood” stuck with him “for a long, long time.”

Matched against Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bavis held the nation’s top player to 17 points, but UCLA escaped with a 73-71 victory on a last-second shot.

One season later, the 1969 NCAA tourney put Purdue on a collision course with UCLA for a rematch in the championship game. But Bavis couldn’t take the sport’s biggest stage with his teammates. He broke his shoulder in an NCAA regional win over Miami of Ohio.

“I remember having some pain,” during the game, Bavis recalled. Afterward in the locker room, he said, “I pulled my jersey off, and my collarbone flopped right out in front of me.”

Without their center, the Boilermakers reached the NCAA tourney’s final game, but lost to UCLA by 20 points.

Bavis never played for Purdue again. Before his senior season, he lost part of his foot as a result of crashing his car in rural Garrett.

“As you look back on it, I’m very fortunate to be alive,” he said, admitting that he “didn’t handle it very well emotionally at the time.”

Bavis said he eventually decided that life would go on without basketball and prospered for many years as a sales representative for the awards business in the Midwest.

Hall of Fame inductee

His Purdue teammate, Ralph Taylor, served as president of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and contacted Bavis with news of his selection in 2010.

“I didn’t expect it at all. It had not ever entered my mind,” Bavis said. “It was a real shocker to me, but I’m obviously very humbled by the honor.”

Bavis added, “I don’t equate myself with the Oscar Robertsons and the Rick Mounts and the Bill Kellers” who already occupy places in the hall.

Jim Vogel, a teammate from the 1966 Railroader regional champions, introduced Bavis to a crowd of fans gathered at the Garrett Country Club for a ceremony in April 2010 to recognize four Garrett High School Hall-of-Famers, including Bavis, Jeff Stroman, Tony Miller and John Hutton. Bavis had been inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in March.

Vogel spoke about Bavis’ tremendous work ethic as a youth and recalled that Bavis would dribble a basketball from his home north of Garrett to courts at the park, then back home again.

“I thought I had the most awesome day of my life two weeks ago,” Bavis said of the state honor. “Then I come back here to Garrett, and as you can see, this is pretty awesome.”

Bavis and his wife Carol, had two sons, Jordan and Alex.

Services planned Wednesday

A funeral Mass will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Immaculate Conception Church in Auburn with calling one hour prior. Burial will be in Christian Union Cemetery in Garrett.

Calling will be Tuesday from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at Feller and Clark Funeral Home in Auburn.

A complete obituary was not available by press time.

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