Renew the Galesburg-Pekin rivalry

By John Ring

So who is the biggest rival for the Silver Streak boys basketball team?

The answer is still Quincy. After that, it’s hard to tell.

Rock Island and Moline have historical rivalries against the Streaks but it’s been so one-sided the last few years that you would be hard pressed calling it a true rivalry.

But years ago, the Silver Streaks had another rival, just as much hated as the Quincy Blue Devils. They play that school next week to open the Regional Tournament.

And that’s Pekin.

The rivalry between these two schools in the 1950s and 1960s was as heated as any in the state. There were several reasons why.

Both schools were state basketball powers. The Silver Streaks and the Chinks— they changed their name to the ‘Dragons’ in 1980— would be ranked in the Top 20 every year in the old one-class system. They were serious contenders for the state championship.

They also had a pair of fiery coaches— John Thiel and Dawdy Hawkins. Along with having a good knowledge of the game, Thiel and Hawkins were both colorful and quotable. This added some spice to the rivalry. And it’s no coincidence that both schools have renamed their respective gyms after Thiel and Hawkins.

It was a Regional rivalry at its best. The two schools sit just an hour apart. They both had a solid fan base that supported their teams.

And the final variable is something that most Pekin basketball fans are shy to talk about. That’s the race issue.

Thiel’s powerhouse teams of that era routinely featured three or sometimes four black starters on the court. The Chinks were lily-white , just as they are today. Pekin seems to be the town that time forgot.

Dozens of Silver Streak players over the years were subjected to the worst of all heckling from fans in a sold-out Pekin gym in an era of civil rights and racial strife.

"We would see Pekin on the schedule and kind of cringe but we just had to focus on playing ball and getting after it," said Mike Wilder, who played for the Streaks from 1976-1977. "I remember those were real physical, tough games. You’d hear some name calling from some of the fans but you tried to block it out. It was just intense down there. But in 1976, we had a great team and it didn’t matter where we played or who we played. I imagine that today, it would be better down there."

From 1958 to 1978, the two teams played every year, with the Streaks holding a12-9 advantage in 21 games played. The games weren’t always particularly close— the average margin of victory was 15 points.

Pekin upset Galesburg in 1959, when the Silver Streaks eventually finished 3rd in the State. After shooting the lights out in an 84-70 win, Bumpy Nixon said of the Chinks, "Those cats were hot."

After winning the next four games against Pekin, the Streaks lost in 1964 by a 72-67 score. Many thought the two teams would meet for the state championship for a rematch but Cobden upset the Streaks in the quarterfinals 57-52. Pekin won the title that year by knocking off the Appleknockers.

During the 1965 season, the date of the game was changed so it could be televised on a Saturday night. Thiel was unhappy with the move because Galesburg was hosting state-power Chicago Marshall the night before in Galesburg. The Streaks defeated Marshall 79-72 but had to turn around and play at Pekin the next night, where they lost by the same score—79-72.

Pekin also won a state championship in 1967, a year they defeated Galesburg easily by a 65-51 margin.

Since 1979, the two teams have met only five times, the last being in the Regionals in 1991, which Galesburg won 71-64.

There were several reasons for the dissolving of the rivalry.

"There’s no doubt there were a lot of causes but basically, the Pekin coach [Hugh Friday] didn’t get along at all with Barry Swanson, who was the Galesburg coach in the early 1980s," said Tom Wilson, a longtime Galesburg basketball broadcaster. "Friday was quite a competitor but wasn’t well liked by other coaches. He was a young, cocky kid and he played ball at Pekin High School."

Another reason was the emergence of the Western Big 6. While Galesburg had previous played in the Illini Conference (composed of teams in the Peoria area, including Pekin) they now looked more north to play teams.

"Our previous coaches were getting sent to Sectionals up north," said Galesburg Athletic Director Mike Robson. "So it was natural to want to schedule schools that way. I know that [former GHS AD] Mike Hellenthal explored the idea of playing Pekin in basketball about eight years ago but nothing came of it. I had also heard rumors about treatment of minorities, which we would look into if we did schedule them. I know that [Streaks coach]Jeff Houston has talked about getting them on the schedule."

Pekin Athletic Director Mike Plunkett would like to play the Silver Streaks.

"I would think Pekin versus Galesburg would be a great thing due to the great tradition of the two programs," said Plunkett. "If it looks like we will stay in the same Sectional complex, maybe it will happen. But I would like to see it happen because of the tradition."

"I’m not sure we have a real rival, other than our conference opponents. When we’re good and other local teams are good, like Morton, Washington and Limestone, the games can get pretty intense."

"It was a big thing," added Wilson of the rivalry. "Tickets were at a premium and they had some classic games."

"It was exciting," said Jimmie Carr, who was a Streaks guard on the 1959 team. "It was what high school basketball should be about. It didn’t get any better than Pekin versus Galesburg."

In girls basketball, the Silver Streaks have played— and defeated— Pekin in all eight games they have played. The Dragons will be also be playing in the Thanksgiving Tournament next season in Galesburg.

While Pekin and Galesburg still compete against each other is several sports— soccer, golf, volleyball and baseball, to name a few— they have no boys basketball connection, aside from a freak accident like this game coming up next Tuesday.

"No, I don’t know a thing about it," replied current Streak Curtis Kilgore to a question about the Galesburg-Pekin rivalry. Curtis’ reply is probably typical of one his age. Through no fault of his own, Kilgore knows nothing about Pekin and Galesburg basketball.

This game is a natural. Personalities should be left out of it. What’s happened in the past is done. Both teams would bring fans to the game. Both schools have a rich tradition in basketball.

Bring back the Silver Streaks playing the— Dragons.