Bolton’s 50 At 40

By Allen Palmeri

In 1956, the Battle Creek Lakeview star center set an individual MHSAA tournament
record which has outlived all other marks in all other sports

The date was March 21, 1956, and seating capacity in the Hastings High School gymnasium has been expanded to 2,000 this Wednesday night in anticipation of a marvelous Class B quarterfinal basketball game between two sizzling teams. New bleachers beckone d behind both goals as Battle Creek Lakeview, 18-2 with a 16-game winning streak, prepared to battle Kalamazoo State High, 19-2 with a 17-game winning streak.

The bleachers weren’t sufficient. About 2,500 fans were able to shoehorn their way in, ringing the court and leaving others in the school’s hallways and out on the sidewalk as one of the most spectacular individual efforts in MHSAA Boys Basketball Tournament history was about to unfold.

In one corner was Lakeview center Bob “Sticks” Bolton, a 6-9 rod of fury. In the other corner was State High’s mountain range of a front line, with peaks standing 6-6, 6-6 and 6-5.

“We looked forward to the game with quite confidence, because we really respected them for the tremendous team they had,” Bolton recalled. “We knew it was going to be a battle royale because of their size.”

The game within a game of one-on-three was no contest as Bolton simply pulverized the peaks. He poured in 50 points in a 90-73 Lakeview victory, setting a final round record for single game scoring that has withstood decades of assaults by the likes of Ralph Sampson, Spencer Haywood, Earvin Johnson, Jay and Sam Vincent, Antoine Joubert, Jay Smith, Mark Brown and Chris Webber.

In fact, when you look in the MHSAA history books, you can’t find another individual record since the Association began in 1924 with the kind of longevity that Bolton’s has.

Bolton, 57, can reflect on the 40th anniversary of his record from his current perspective in Marquette, as pastor and administrator of Bethesda Baptist Church and Bethesda Baptist School. Amazed that the record has lasted this long, he wrote this intro ductory sentence in a letter on the 39th anniversary of the game, dated March 21, 1995.

“Yes, it is that time of year again, when I often stop and think about how gracious the Lord Jesus was in the ability He gave me,” Bolton wrote.

How much ability? Enough to score 12, 20, 10 and 8 points through four quarters against State High. He was particularly impressive in the second quarter, when he wound up scoring 20 of his team’s 21 points. Overall, he sank 17 of 27 shots from the fiel d and 16 of 20 from the free throw line.

A former official with Hastings Public Schools, a courtside observer that night, has struggled through the years to find a performance to top it, settling on the 44-point effort by UCLA center Bill Walton in the 1973 NCAA Finals. Walton made 21-of-22 fi eld goals in the finals, hitting 11 of 12 in the title game, leading the Bruins to an 87-66 victory over Memphis State. “I thought that was quite a compliment,” said the ever-modest Bolton.

Sportswriters of the day were astounded. After watching the humiliation of State High, Bob Wagner of the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote, “Sticks Bolton is one of the finest high school players of his size to ever appear on the court. For a big boy, he has a fine sense of balance, a deft touch to his shots. He scores on a soft one-hander, a sweeping hook shot and tip-ins. On defe nse he came out of nowhere to intercept passes or block shots.”

Before the MHSAA tournament, George Maskin of the Detroit Times wrote that Bolton was the state’s top college recruit. Though his offense (32-point average in the regular season and 36.0 in the tournament) was evident, Maskin also made note of Bolton’s defense. “The Sticks never loafs,” Maskin wrote. “When Lakeview goes on defense, the Sticks generally draws the opposition’s No. 1 scorer to guard. The Sticks keeps his rivals so busy, the opponent frequently winds up with one of his poorest nights.”

Though State High took the brunt of Bolton’s blows during the tournament, his effort throughout Lakeview’s run was just as spectacular. The memory of increased efficiency has created a recurring warmth that flows through Bolton every March. The five-ga me stretch also helped cement the considerable Bolton legend in the city of Battle Creek.

When Marshall tried to stall away the district opener, Bolton had to settle for 18 points in 40-20 victory. In an 80-58 win over Albion for the district championship, he punched in with a 34-point effort.

In carrying Lakeview to its first regional title, Bolton went ballistic, pumping in 42 points against Three Rivers and a school-record 46 points against an East Lansing team coached by Gus Ganakas. He then went out and topped that in the quarterfinal.

In the semifinals two days later, Bolton was whistled to the sideline with 25 points with a little over half the game played, fouling out in a 74-69 loss to eventual champion Stephenson. Opposing center Mel Peterson, who went on to play for Wheaton College and the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, had scored 21 points when Bolton fouled out.

Though the memory of that game is painful, he fondly recalls his five-game scoring spree as “lifting my game to a higher level as the competition got tougher and tougher. Praise the Lord for that!”

Bolton went on to play collegiately at Western Michigan University, where he cracked the 1,000-point barrier, set a school rebounding record and outscored future NBA Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond on two of three occasions. After his college career, in a s emi-pro championship game, he managed to outplay another Hall of Fame center, Walt Bellamy.

But his passion for basketball was never the same after high school. His dedication, vigor and enthusiasm gradually shifted towards the ministry. Those qualities often come out now in crisp Boltonesque syaings, such as:

“It’s better to train boys and girls than to repair men and women.” Translation: He really likes to work with young people, and their parents.

“A crucified man can take no further steps of his own.” Translation: He considers himself dead to his desires and alive to his work as a pastor in the ministry.

His wit may be quick, but Bolton doesn’t want to be a politician.

“I jokingly remarked to our congregation one time that I ought to resign and run for the highest office in our land, the office of President of the United States,” Bolton said. “I could tell by their grins that they were saying, ‘Pastor, you are already in the highest office in the land, why lower yourself to run for President?’

“Yes, being a pastor of a local church is indeed the highest position in the land for one of God’s servants.”

Life as a pastor, though, does not mean a life of basketball abstinence. Still fit at around 200 pounds, Bolton tutors various big men from area high schools and Northern Michigan University. He coaches a team of combined Christian schools and also lik es to officiate.

“The Lord Jesus has helped me realize that when I’m in the center of His will, that’s the best place to be,” Bolton said. “Although other people don’t know I’m in Marquette, God does.”

And Bolton has been gently reminded again this month about a special anniversary...a special night in Hastings with a special number. Forty years, 50 points. Ten years from now, could their be a 50-50 celebration?

“It’s impressed on me how thankful I am to the Lord Jesus that He gave me that ability and competitive desire,” Bolton said. “Wow, that’s really someto establish a record like that. I’m thankful that it’s His grace that enabled me to do it.”

Allen Palmeri is a news/design editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne. He was a sports writer at the Battle Creek Enquirer from 1984-89.