You would have to dig hard to find a sports oddity that quite compares to the Cleveland men’s basketball league.
Known as “Town Hall Ball,” it’s played four-on-four across a diminutive court that makes up Cleveland’s venerable Town Hall.
Started by Cleveland resident Gerry Struck, who never even played high school basketball, the league has been drawing hackers as well as former Division I college players from around the area for 40 years.
“It’s definitely one of a kind,” said Scott Matejcek of Cleveland, who organized the league from 1991 to 2013. “A lot of great ball players came from all over because they knew it would be good competition and a great time too. I met a lot of people and made a lot of new friends.”
Struck, said the league started out as a Jaycee project back in the late 70s. He wanted to get better use of the historic building.
“At the time, the Town Hall wasn’t being used much. There was a dance once and a while and a wrestling match one night every two weeks.
Struck was 35 at the time and played the first couple of years. Steve Biehn did a lot to get it started as did the McCabe brothers, he said. Both had teams.
“I didn’t have much to do with it except getting the guys together. It wasn’t just for me. It was for everyone. It was to get some exercise and to have a little fun. I’m surprised it’s still going, but new people came in, and there is more interest.”
There were players from Le Center, Le Sueur, Waterville, St. Peter and Belle Plaine, said Steve Rohlfing, who ran the league in its early years until Matejcek took over.
“People got a chance to play who didn’t play in college. It was quite the deal.”
Doug McCabe, the youngest of the McCabe brothers, who organized the league for two years after Matejcek, said players liked competing in the nostalgic, nearly 100-year-old wooden-walled venue. It was something like out of the movie “Hoosiers.”
“They loved playing in the small gym. They used to call it the ‘Chicken Coop’ because of the chicken wire that protected the windows.”
Chris Seely took over the league’s organization two years ago. About six or seven teams participate each season, he said, which starts around Thanksgiving and finishes at the end of March. It used to be a Wednesday night league, but now games are Thursday nights at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30.
There are two, 20-minute running time halves, said Brady Hahn, who has played on an off for a total of 14 years. Each player is allowed six fouls. Dunking is not allowed, and there are no three-pointers. Every jump ball is still jumped for; there are no possession arrows.
But it’s the small court, about two-thirds the size of a regulation floor, with little room out of bounds, that makes Town Hall Ball unique.
“You really had to create a lot of space because you didn’t have a lot of space,” Rohlfing said. “You had to be a good outside shooter too.”
Each team takes a turn as referees, Hahn said. This schedule is set up at the beginning of the year. Outside officials are hired to ref the tournament, which takes up a whole Saturday in March.
This year, there were players from St. Peter, Mankato, Lake Crystal, Le Center, Le Sueur, Montgomery, Janesville, Gaylord, Nicollet and St. Clair, Seely said.
“It brings a lot of people to town, which in turn helps bring business to town,” Hahn said.
Until the end of last season, the backboards were real wooden boards. Now there are new Plexiglas backboards with new rims. A scoreboard with a clock was recently donated by Cleveland school.
“We used to have a flip chart for score and a stop watch that the person running it would just yell out the time from time to time,” Hahn said.
Besides the unique rules and venue, Hahn said that the competitive yet fun, team atmosphere has kept the Town Hall League still going after four decades.
“Basketball is a sport that is easy to continue to play, and a lot of guys aren't ready to give up on their competitive nature just yet. This league is fun and different while still being very competitive and offering high level basketball. It’s physical exercise with a purpose.”