Carl Cain was a state champion.
He was an Olympic champion.
He nearly was an NCAA champion.
Yet, when he was inducted into the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Hall of Fame, Cain told the paper: “I was only a half-step above being ordinary.”
More like the modest Cain was a half-step above the crowd. A 6-foot-3 forward, Cain was short for his position even in the early 1950s, but he always played far bigger than his height.
“Carl was a tremendous jumper,” said Nolden Gentry, who led Rockford West to back-to-back state titles in 1955 and 1956 and followed Cain and fellow Freeport great McKinley “Deacon” Davis to Iowa. “He was 6-3 and playing against forwards that were 6-6 and 6-7 — but they couldn’t out-jump him. He was very smooth. He was a true All-American.”
Cain, our choice for the No. 1 greatest player in Freeport-area history, averaged 14.2 points and 14 rebounds in 74 games at Iowa, helping the Hawkeyes finish second in the Big Ten as a sophomore before winning back-to-back league titles his last two years.
“Every game I played, I depended upon my jumping ability,” Cain said. “It’s just native ability. Nothing special. That was the way I was born. I had those kind of gifts to jump high and run fast.”
Cain found Iowa because Iowa found Deacon Davis, who led Freeport to the 1951 state title. Cain, somehow, barely played on that team, scoring only one point — total — in the Pretzels’ three state tourney games, which Freeport won by an average of 21 points.
“I was the only junior on that team,” Cain said. “Deacon Davis and some others carried the brunt of the success of that basketball team. I felt fortunate just to be on that team. I believed I could have played a lot more, but I was an underclassman. Those guys had made great names for themselves before I was elevated.
“I was not a significant part, but it was great to be on it. It was a unique experience to be part of that high school winning team, but I was just a team member. My involvement in high school was not much until I was a senior and those fellows had moved on.”
Iowa recruited Davis after Freeport won state. Davis invited Cain to come with him on his recruiting visit. Soon Cain was a Hawkeye, too.
Cain first became a starter at Iowa when Davis was injured and he inherited his old Pretzel teammate’s spot. Together, they helped Iowa reach the Final Four in 1955, with the Hawkeyes losing 76-73 to LaSalle. Cain had 17 points and 14 rebounds in the loss.
The next year, Iowa started 3-5 but then won 17 games in a row to reach the NCAA title game against defending champion San Francisco. Cain had 17 points and 12 rebounds, but future 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell had 26 points and 27 rebounds to lead San Francisco to an 83-71 victory.
“That was just a great opportunity to play against some great players,” Cain said.
A short time later, Russell and Cain were on the same side. The result was both dominant and bittersweet. The 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team was as dominant as the Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson. It won all eight of its games by at least 30 points, with an average victory margin of 53.5 points, including 101-38 in the semifinals. But Cain barely played.
“Carl went into the Army right after graduation,” said Gentry, a lifelong close friend of Cain’s who was his neighbor for 20 years in Des Moines before Cain and his wife, Katherine, moved to Ohio to be closer to their three daughters. “He and K.C. Jones (Russell’s San Francisco and Boston Celtics teammate) were stationed together. They both made the 1956 Olympic team. When K.C. got out, he went to the Celtics, but Carl hurt his back and decided to give up basketball. Carl’s had back problems ever since 1956.”
Cain first began having back problems at Fort Leonard Wood. He also struggled during early Olympic practices. There was some talk of replacing him, but he improved and looked strong in practice. He was slated to start the Olympic opener against Japan when his back locked up trying to tie his shoes before the game. Doctors sent Cain to the hospital. He didn’t get out until before the Gold Medal victory over Russia, where Cain scored his lone Olympic point on a free throw.
That gold medal was some of the best — and worst — basketball memories of Cain’s life.
“At the time it was one of the highlights of my athletic career,” Cain said. “But I will put you in my place and let you figure out how it felt. It was an overwhelmingly difficult experience for me. It wasn’t one I sought. It wasn’t one I cherished. It was a great disappointment.”
Cain spent six months in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., eventually being diagnosed with a herniated disc. He was drafted by the old Rochester Royals of the NBA, but quit basketball because of his back.
Instead of an NBA career, Cain worked on the assembly line at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California, then became a probation counselor and probation officer, and then worked for a bank in Des Moines before becoming the director of consumer affairs for Iowa Power and Light Co. in 1977.
“My future looked bright at the professional level when I was drafted by the Rochester Royals, but I couldn’t play because of the injury to my back,” Cain said. “Looking back, I am blessed and fortunate to have the experiences I had as an athlete. I played with some outstanding basketball players. When I look back on basketball, it was a big part of my life, a significant part of my life.
“We had great success at every level. I was just grateful to be part of it. I got some attention that my teammates didn’t, but I can think of a number of things that are far more important to me now, and even at that time.
“My parents always kept me very grounded. I didn’t get a chance to be a hot shot. I was a team player. I got some honors, but I always considered that I was just one fifth of a total five group. A team player is what I was all about.”
A team player with a high-leaping flair that was virtually unheard of in the 1950s.
“Carl would fake his man and head for the basket and Sharm Scheuerman, a guard on that Iowa team, would throw the ball up near the rim,” Gentry said. “Carl was able to get up, dunk it, and his man wouldn’t even know where he had gone.”
Matt Trowbridge: [email protected]; @matttrowbridge