Athletics & Recreation
Although polio limited his own mobility, nearly every high school player in Huntington County over the past 60 years can trace their basketball beginnings to the vision of Ezra Williams that emphasizes basic skills, team play, and sportsmanship.
Williams, the son of a farmer, was born in 1913. He was an athlete, palling around as a kid with future Indiana Basketball Hall-of-Famer Boag Johnson and officiating basketball games. Williams married Laberta “Pat” Wechsler, with whom he had nine children over 15 years.
Williams was working for his uncle in the fall of 1950 to bring in the corn crop when he began feeling unwell. Diagnosed with polio, doctors placed him in an iron lung to facilitate breathing. Williams spent three months in the iron lung and a total of five months in the hospital with Pat at his bedside.
Paralyzed from the waist down and told he would never walk again, Williams would eventually regain some use of his legs to be able move short distances with assistance. The lifelong farmer was forced to give up his occupation and move into town.
But he never gave up basketball. Dismayed to discover there was no outdoor lighted court in town where his children could play, Williams got a city crew to pave a court behind his house and install lights. The court quickly became a basketball magnet, allowing the Williams kids and many of the area’s top hoopsters to play into the night.
Williams, a passionate supporter of the Huntington High School team, soon looked beyond his own neighborhood. When Huntington lost to teams from smaller schools, he identified fundamental training as a missed opportunity – some schools had elementary teams, but many did not.
Williams came up with a plan to start a youth basketball league, and approached the YMCA to provide a location for games. The Midget League started in 1959 with approximately 100 boys in grades 4-6. He recruited college students and parents as coaches, and developed specific rules of offense and defense designed to teach the basics of the game. Williams made sure all those who wanted to take part could do so; boys without money for basketball shoes always found a pair waiting for them.
Williams never missed a game at the YMCA despite his limited mobility. In the days before ramps for the handicapped, Williams would crawl up the steps to get inside the building and make his way to the court. He and Pat kept the scorebooks, and the Williams children helped run scoreboards and timers.
While running the Midget League and holding a fulltime job at Memcor, Williams also coached a YMCA men’s team. His Huntington squad finished state runner-up in 1960, and placed fourth in the national tournament a year later. He was an easy choice for YMCA Man of the Year in 1960.
Young boys were learning the game at an early age, and gifted players were being discovered. One of those talented boys was 10-year-old Kim Howenstine, who began having coordination troubles and collapsed on the court during a game.
Tests showed he had an inoperable brain tumor, and he died that October.
The loss of the young boy hit hard. Williams became close with the Howenstine family, and to honor a life cut short, the Midget League was renamed the Kim League.
Williams shared his youth Kim League plan with anyone who came asking, and it was adopted by numerous communities across Indiana and the country. His sons Nello and Rollo moved to Gillette, Wyoming, where they started a program similar to their father’s youth league. Gillette became a basketball powerhouse in the state and regularly produces top talent.
Williams, who was recognized for his community service by being named Chief of the Flints Springs Tribe in 1973, never let his disability define who he was. But if not for polio, Williams’ son Kevin suspects his father might never have created the original Midget League, preferring to remain a farmer, a life he enjoyed. And thousands of children might not have benefitted from his vision of exposing them to basketball at an early age.
Williams died in 1986, but the Kim League continues. Expanding to include girls and adding leagues for players starting as early as pre-kindergarten, the league now boasts more than 500 children on 60 teams who are helped by more than 100 volunteers involved.