It’s highly unlikely that Harry or Bess Truman ever filled out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament.

It’s highly unlikely that Harry or Bess Truman ever filled out a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Although basketball was invented in the early 1890s by Dr. James Naismith, what we know today as “March Madness” did not develop into an international television event until recent decades. Nevertheless, Harry and Bess Truman were well acquainted with the game, and both maintained a life-long friendship with one of the game’s greatest coaches, Forrest “Phog” Allen, who gained fame as coach of the University of Kansas from 1919 to 1956.

Phog Allen and his five brothers (Homer, Elmer, Harry, known as Pete, Hubert and Richard) grew up in a house on North Union Street in Independence, within blocks of the Truman and Wallace homes. The boys attended school in Independence with both Harry Truman and Bess Wallace.

While Bess and her three brothers would have frequently played baseball and other sports with the Allen boys, Harry Truman had to sit on the sidelines because of his thick glasses. (Today, with safety goggles, contact lenses, and Lasik surgery, young Harry might have been a quick and feisty point guard. No doubt he would have been a floor leader, and probably elected team captain).

Following a visit to Independence by James Naismith of the University of Kansas, who introduced his new sport to the locals, the Allen boys quickly organized their own basketball team. Soon, the Allen brothers became widely known for their skill; and, in 1901, they defeated the Modern Woodmen from Fond du Lac, Wis., a team that claimed to be the “national champions.”

In 1905, while a freshman at the University of Kansas and member of Naismith’s basketball team, Phog began his own coaching career, and the star of his YWCA girl’s team was the future first lady of the United States.

Bess had already gained a reputation as an outstanding player during her year of study at the Barstow School. In Barstow’s first game against Kansas City’s Manual Training High School, Bess led her team to a 12-10 victory amid the cheers of “Yo ho, Yo ho! Barstow!” According to her daughter, Margaret, Bess was not only a star forward on the basketball team, but the winner of the shot put event in a spring track and field meet.

Meanwhile, Bess and her friends, including Mary and Elizabeth Paxton, organized a YWCA team which young Phog Allen agreed to coach. Bess and her teammates wore, in Mary Paxton’s recollection, “white middy blouses, black ribbed stockings, tennis shoes and balloon-like black serge bloomers which came below our knees.” In a daring move that defied traditional standards of modesty, the girls refused to wear heavy skirts over their bloomers. Mary Paxton remembered the Wallace boys attending their sister’s games, “cheering from the sidelines and may have even have placed a few bets on us.”

Mary claimed that Bess Wallace was “our best forward. If you tossed Bess the ball, you could be fairly sure that she would score, even at a phenomenal distance” (three-point range?).

Although he never played basketball, Harry Truman maintained his acquaintances with the Allen boys. In 1949, he sent a note from the White House: “Dear Fogg (sic)… bring the captain of the (University of Kansas) team down and I’ll be glad to talk to both of you. I’d like to see you anyway – it’s been a long time since we have had any personal contacts. The last time I was in San Francisco, I saw Pete and had a nice visit with him.”

In 1960, former President Truman wrote from Independence to the retired KU coach “You do not know how very much I appreciate your letter of March 22nd. I will never forget our association in school, and I have followed your career with more interest than you will ever know.”

Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.