It was November 1954. Gasoline was 22 cents a gallon. A copy of Life Magazine cost 20 cents. McCarthyism was a thing.
And at small Dongola High School, a basketball star was born.
“It just amazed me how you were supposed to take this ball and put it through this little round hoop up there,” Joe Aden said one day last week. “I never missed a day handling the basketball. Whether it was dry, or we had snow or mud, I’d go back to the barn where my dad hung a hoop. Sometimes, I’d come back muddy.”
It became clear four years later, and is still clear today. Few players in the history of Illinois high school basketball, then or now, could shoot and score quite like Aden. He finished his career with 3,031 points, second at the time to only Tamms’ Charlie (Chico) Vaughn.
The 78-year old Aden, who has been the mayor of East Cape Girardeau the last 38 years, scored all those points without the benefit of a 3-point line. He’s the oldest living player to tally 3 grand without the 3-ball.
For Aden, all those points wouldn’t have happened without all the work that went into it.
“I must have been 7 or 8 years old when I started playing,” he said. “We lived on a farm outside Dongola and my dad bought me a basketball and a goal. My mom told me I almost tore the house up.”
The Legend Begins
A few years later, Aden started tearing other teams up. In his first game for Dongola, Aden played for the junior varsity. At halftime of the varsity game, coach Dean Barringer yelled for Aden to “get in there.”
Aden didn’t respond, thinking he was talking about his cousin, Dare.
“He was talking to me,” Joe Aden said.
Barringer knew what he was doing. Aden never played another minute of JV ball. In his third varsity game, Aden dropped in 28 points during a 123-48 rout of Ullin, and the race to history got the green flag.
Averaging 20.1 ppg as a freshman, Aden upped that to 24.1 as a sophomore, when the Demons posted the best record of his four years at 18-10. That put him over 1,000 points going into his junior year.
His production skied into another level that season, as much by necessity as by skill. Dongola lost three good players and role players slid into their spots. Aden would have to shoulder the load and then some.
This bothered him so much that he pumped in a career-high 56 in his first game. Despite facing special defenses which routinely assigned two and sometimes three defenders to him when he had the ball, Aden kept scoring, usually at an efficient rate.
The Demons finished 11-14, but Aden hit for 33 ppg, giving him 2,025 points in three years. People started talking that he and Vaughn, who was scoring at a slightly higher clip, could break the all-time record of Centralia legend Dike Eddelman, who pumped in 2,702 points.
“They started writing about me and Charlie,” Aden said. “But really, I think of it more now than I did then. I just played hard, the way it was supposed to be played.”
College recruiting was a lot different than it is now. A small-town kid now, like Georgetown freshman Mac McClung, who became an overnight sensation in the summer before his senior year at Gate City (Va.) High School when video of his spectacular dunks hit the internet and then showed he had the all-around game to match, can get found anywhere.
Aden’s 33 ppg got him some recruiting letters from places like Miami (Ohio), Montana State, Dayton and Toledo. But there were no breathless updates on his recruiting visits or national TV coverage of his games.
The Quest for 3,000
Starting his senior season, Aden scored 31 of his team’s 43 points in an eight-point setback to Mounds. Three games later, he went against Vaughn, who pumped in 37 and had a slightly better team around him. Aden’s 34 wasn’t enough in a 73-63 defeat.
The surrounding cast still wasn’t quite up to Aden’s ability, so Dongola again carried a losing record into the district tournament – the equivalent of today’s regionals – at Anna. A 37-point night helped the Demons edge Ullin in the first round, and a 45-point outburst enabled Dongola to upset Mound City in the semifinals.
In the finals, it was a classic good news-bad news scenario for Aden. The good news was he scored 42 points on 19 of 26 shooting, clearing the 3,000-point mark for his career. The bad news was Mound City Lovejoy was better, rolling to a 75-58 win to end a legendary prep career.
“It was interesting,” Aden said. “We beat them earlier in the year and I think they had about two or three new players. Then again, we beat Mound City in the semifinals and they had beaten us three times earlier this year.”
He finished his senior season with 36.6 ppg, third-best in the nation, and just barely ahead of Vaughn’s 36.3 ppg.. Some of the names Aden outscored as a senior were Jerry Lucas, Rod Thorn, Terry Dischinger and Dave DeBusschere.
Lucas and DeBusschere won NBA titles with Red Holzman’s New York Knicks in the early 1970s, while Thorn and Dischinger also enjoyed lengthy NBA careers.
Aden and Vaughn were set to join forces at Dayton. But Aden never made it to the first workout of his freshman season there. Feeling lonely hundreds of miles from home, Aden left Dayton and instead opted for Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
He played four years there, averaging 18 ppg as a junior and 11.7 as a senior. It was a career distinguished enough to earn induction into the school’s Hall of Fame. Aden was also inducted into the Illinois High School Hall of Fame four years ago.
‘I don’t think I’d have been any worse’
Aden went into teaching and coaching after his playing days, retiring and then starting his long run as mayor of East Cape Girardeau. He intends to step aside from that post in 2020, so that his term will have lasted 40 years.
He still follows basketball regularly. His grand-daughter, Autumn McMahan, is a starter at Shawnee High School. Aden watches his share of college basketball on TV.
Ironically, Aden has a tough time shooting the basketball any more, even though he gets to the gym three days a week. A shoulder problem prevents him from hoisting the jumper that put him in the record books.
As it always does when athletes from one era are compared with the ones of today, the question looms: Could Aden do today what he did then, when players didn’t have the benefit of sophisticated diets, advanced training techniques or the 3-point line?
“With the training and the diets they have now,” he grins, “I don’t think I’d have been any worse.”