As a junior in high school in Southern Indiana in 1975, I was baffled over how a visiting basketball player who was 7 feet, 2 inches tall could have left our New Albany High School gym one night with only two points to his name.
John Hollinden of Central High School in Evansville was described in a newspaper story as “frail” at only 198 pounds – that’s about 40 pounds below the ideal weight for 7-foot-2. A staffer on our high school radio station which broadcast the game said the towering 16-year-old looked uncoordinated and lost on the court.
That seemed to me out of synch with an era when 7-foot-2 meant awesome dominators like Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Artis Gilmore, who would shortly power the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship across the river in Louisville.
Moreover, this was Indiana – where even being 6-foot-5 or so generates expectations that you will be savvy at hoops.
A Hoosier over seven feet tall not being good at basketball? That’s like a member of the Cousteau family being afraid of the water!
So, I put thoughts of John Hollinden and his sorry predicament out of my mind, until a year later when, as senior, I picked up the newspaper to read about that year’s Central-New Albany game.
There was the name Hollinden in the box score – well what do you know, the frail can’t-do toothpick-shaped klutz didn’t go away. Then I looked at his point total – 26, whoa!
Welcome to Hoosierdom, John Hollinden. And my apologies for writing you off early. It was a lesson to my 17-year-old self not to be dismissive or belittling toward an endeavoring person just because their obstacles at first appear immense.
For John Hollinden, his pitiful performance the previous year contrasted with 26 points as a senior was to be a lifelong pattern of extraordinary height alternately being a curse and a blessing.
By graduation time he was 7-foot-4, and was offered a scholarship at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Ok. There, though still an underweight 220 pounds, he impressed coaches with his stamina and coordination, which bespoke that John Hollinden was forever past his days of struggle to catch up with growth spurts. And that was fortunate, because he wasn’t through: John was 7-foot-5 when his freshman season at ORU started in late 1976 and he reached 7-foot-6 by the spring.
And that caused more problems. John, not yet suitably strong for the physical college game, didn’t get much playing time his first season, and fans who packed opponents’ arenas to see a person now billed as the tallest college basketball player in the nation sometimes booed and shouted insults at the giant they felt should have made their cost of admission pay off with a superhuman performance to tell their grandchildren about someday.
Long used to people – like me back in 1975 — being initially unimpressed with him, John was undeterred. Still, it was becoming taxing for him just to leave campus, as every single person he would encounter would stop in their tracks and ask the inevitable questions about his height and avocation.
For such occasions, John printed up a t-shirt bearing the words: “My name is John Hollinden. I’m 7 foot 5. I do play basketball.”
Such resourcefulness is typical of giants, who must custom order their clothes, beds and shower stalls. The sense of humor displayed by his informational shirt, however, showed that unlike many 7-foot-plus basketballers who dislike constantly drawing notice away from the court, John was comfortable being a spectacle.
“I enjoy meeting people, especially when we’re visiting different cities,” he told his hometown paper the Evansville Press in 1979. “The attention doesn’t bother me.”
After two years of less than abundant playing time at Oral Roberts, John decided in 1978 to transfer to Indiana State University at Evansville, delighting fans in his hometown still reeling from the deaths of the entire basketball team of the crosstown University of Evansville in a plane crash en route to a game months earlier.
In a city where the name John Hollinden had been a household word since he was a 9th grader, he could put away the t-shirt explaining himself, but had he needed it, the height listed would require updating: John, after the one-year off from playing sports the NCAA requires of a transfer student, was 7-foot-7 as he joined the ISUE Eagles roster in the fall of 1979.
His constant weight training and protein diets had been adding needed bulk, but his body’s refusal to stop growing kept John’s weight at about 25 pounds under where the sport demanded it be.
“He’s not an NBA-type dominant center,” cautioned Wayne Boultinghouse, coach at ISUE (now called the University of Southern Indiana). “We don’t want to be overly optimistic…. It’s difficult to measure what John will mean to our team, but I’m sure he’ll be a plus.”
Evansville Press staffer Mark Tomasik wrote: “Wayne Boultinghouse believes the attention Hollinden attracts will help promote the Eagles program. And he’s certain Hollinden can handle the demands on his time.”
Indeed, John happily accepted ISUE public relations as an extra duty.
“If reporters want to talk with me or photographers want to take my picture, it’s all right,” he told the press. “I just put myself in their position. I’d want to do the same.”
In fact, it was more than drawing cameras that John Hollinden soon excelled at; he finished the 1979-80 season the 2nd best shooter (56 percent) and the fourth best rebounder (8.3 per game) in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. John’s towering defensive presence, Boultinghouse said, was a major reason ISUE gave up the least points per game of any GLV team.
“When I talk to other coaches, they always mention the influence of Hollinden,” Boultinghouse said. “His intimidation can’t be measured by statistics.”
Back home again on the banks of the Ohio River, the once frail high schooler and target of insults as a collegian now had hit his long-awaited stride. John Hollinden made the All Great Lakes Valley Conference team.
As his senior season ended in 1981, though John was primarily interested in playing in the European basketball league, he put his name in the draft of the NBA, that league for which coach Boultinghouse had figured his 7-foot-7 star was not dominant enough. The Dallas Mavericks drafted John in the 11th round, but he signed a contract with a Swedish team in the European league.
Days before his scheduled departure for Sweden, John Hollinden looked the picture of a man comfortable with himself, an accomplishment that was as towering as his physical stature, considering his awkward beginnings as a Hoosier hoopster. (Evansville Press columnist Tom Tuley recalled a stiff and jittery 14-year-old Holliden giving one word answers while doing his first interview with media as a 6-foot-9 freshman at Central High.)
Now, gymnasiums full of sarcastic doubters were behind him and life in Europe’s great cities was ahead for the musically talented, athletically gifted and bright young man from Evansville.
It never happened.
The day before he was to leave for Sweden, John was driving alone for pleasure on a road outside the city when his car crashed. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Days later, doctors said the 23-year-old would never regain movement or feeling in his legs.
The 7-foot-7 John Hollinden, listed among the 20 documented tallest people in history, would permanently be at eye level with the rest of us, from his wheelchair.
Don’t think for an instant that bitterness or anguish entered John’s life, even though it’s true, here was a guy who was going to be the marvel of Europe’s fast spreading fascination with basketball. And now he can’t walk because he, as it were, missed the plane by a day. No, in the years to come he wouldn’t be dunking, blocking and passing to cheers in Stockholm, Barcelona and Brussels, nor politely posing for 10 times the press pictures, nor cheerily telling inquiring passersby in seven languages how tall he was.
John Hollinden’s unmatched ability at overcoming the roadblocks that seem always to come with his extraordinary endowments would now go into overtime.
He became a speaker at schools in the Evansville area. He helped out with the Tri-State Food Bank and the United Way. An accomplished musician who played several instruments, John joined the Mid-America Singers at his renamed University of Southern Indiana.
His friends and former coaches described John as a good Christian, in the sense of Christian as caring about others and seeking a peaceful outlook.
He was still the center of attention, with his niceness, glibness and busy civic involvement drawing raves, as the name John Hollinden immediately prompted admiration and gushing among Evansville-area people. Before, they considered whether they could do as much as he did if gifted with a 7-foot-7 frame; now it was his giant resilience that left fans wondering if they would be capable of John Hollinden’s strength in the face of such terrible misfortune.
Despite his undaunted resolve and good cheer, John’s condition was straining him. Leg infections, common among paraplegics because of their inability to position their legs properly to avoid physical stress and bedsores, began plaguing him in 1985, four years after the car crash.
By early 1990, “he knew his time was coming,” John’s former high school coach John Wessel recalled in an Evansville Courier interview.
The infections worsened and John had both legs amputated in January 1991. “I went to see him in the hospital after that operation, and he had more grit and determination than the law allows,” Wessel said.
In October 1992, however, John Hollinden died of cardiac arrest brought on by complications from infections. He was 34.
In the obituary story, Wessel recalled the trying days when his young Central High prospect’s unaccommodated rapid growth left most of us in the stands dismissing John Hollinden as a sideshow.
“There was a game during his sophomore year when he got ridiculed pretty good,” the coach said. “I tried to console him afterwards, but he said, ‘It’s OK, coach. Someday, they won’t.’ ”
Southern Indiana folks watched as a young man given the greatest reach ever in our near-religion of a game more than once found himself in that age old fix of his reach exceeding his grasp. While the more cynical among us kept giving up on him as a failed star, John Hollinden — when towering above us and then confined below — just kept figuring out how to reach in new directions.
Brian Arbenz, who once dreamed of being over 7 feet tall, today is contented to be a foot shorter than that while recalling the inspirational life of John Hollinden. Arbenz formerly worked as a sports writer in Southern Indiana.