Charles “Chick” Nowling enrolled as a sophomore at Tonopah High School in the fall of 1931. The new kid in Tonopah, Nevada was probably nervous, but he’d come to town to play prep basketball for coach Henry Couts, who just happened to be Chick’s uncle and acting guardian.
An easy-going, handsome kid, Chick quickly fell in with the other students – having access to an automobile certainly didn’t hurt his prospects on the social scene. On the prep basketball court, Chick really excelled. Skillful with the ball and a natural leader on the floor, Chick’s gifts endeared him to his teammates, his school and his newfound state.
Living with Couts, Chick was thriving.
But here’s the first thing you need to know about Chick: he and Henry Couts were not related.
They may have presented themselves as family, but the two shared one true bond: a desire to win basketball games.
Coach Couts knew he had a competitive team that season, but adding Chick Nowling could put his team in contention to win the state tournament. Chick could shoot, pass, and handle the ball better than any prep basketball player in Nevada. In an era when players specialized in one or two aspects of the game, Chick could do it all.
Tonopah played teams all over the state, and Chick’s fame spread quickly. Large crowds crammed into Tonopah and anywhere the Muckers played. He was indispensable in leading Tonopah to the championship game of the 1932 Nevada State High School Basketball Tournament.
The Mudders lost to Reno, 20-19, but Chick’s performance did not go unrewarded. He earned a spot on the all-Tournament team and was later named All-State.
Chick’s star was soaring in the West, shining brighter than it ever had in his native Indiana. Nowling started his high school career playing for Plainville. He lost his last high school game four years later in the sectional final to the Washington Hatchets.
In Nevada, Chick was peerless, exceptional. In Indiana, he was pretty good.
Myths give way to speculation
Here’s the other thing you need to know about Chick Nowling: he might have been the oldest sophomore in all of Nevada. He turned 19 shortly after he arrived in Tonopah.
Allegations were made throughout the season about Chick’s eligibility to play in Nevada, but Coach Couts was confident they could be easily refuted. Couts told the Nevada State Journal that Chick “did not play basketball in Indiana.”
Couts might have been overconfident, but regardless, Chick’s situation only became muddier with time. The Reno Journal Gazette reported in July of 1932 that Coach Couts and his nephew had returned to Indiana and were expecting to return to Nevada in the fall.
Speculation is that Coach Couts contacted Plainville High Coach Herman Keller back in Indiana and proposed that Chick come play for him in the fall of 1931. It was understood that if Chick could get to Tonopah, Couts would provide food and lodging, and Chick would play for Tonopah High.
With six dollars in his pocket, Chick started hopping trains from Plainville, riding the rails some 2,000 miles before ending up in Tonopah.
It’s hard to fathom an 18-year-old kid like Chick making such a journey. How often was he without food and did his fears ever overcome him? What were his motives to make such sacrifices to go after such a questionable opportunity? Was it for the love of the game? Was it for his own survival?
For I think for Chick it was probably a relatively easy decision to take the chance.
Growing up on the bottom
Chick Nowling was born in 1912 to Joseph and Francis Nowling. According to Chick’s nephew, Larry Sims, the Nowling family was “Appalachian poor.” Poverty in the extreme, the kind that scattered people in droves as they fled Appalachia.
“My mother was the youngest of 11 children. The Nowlings grew up in Plainville in a three-room house with small porches on the front and back,” Sims writes in In his book, My Life on the Edge. “ Every night, at least two of the kids slept on each porch. My mother told me how she and her sister Ruth had snow blow in on their bed when they slept on the front porch.”
Sims told me the family never owned a car.
He wrote in his book, “As far as I know, Pop (Larry’s grandfather, Chick’s father) never had a regular job. He did have a team of horses and kept busy hauling coal and doing other odd jobs for people in the community. Mom Nowling and most of the kids worked in a canning factory in Plainville to help with the family income. . .. I often wondered how they were able to raise 11 children in that little house on such meager income and with such meager transportation.”
A secret scrapbook
Chick died in 1984. His wife, Wanona, died in 2017, at the age of 102.
A few weeks after her death, the family discovered a scrapbook that chronicled Chick’s exploits in 1932 and his life in Nevada. It also held Chick’s diploma from Plainville High School – unsigned.
Bob Nowling, Chick’s son, believes his mother kept the book hidden because of several pictures of her husband and his classmates living it up and enjoying their time together.
“I think Dad was kind of a ladies’ man,” Bob Nowling told me somewhat sheepishly.
The scrapbook was probably made by one of Chick’s girlfriends. It’s full of pictures of Chick, his teammates, classmates and multiple articles about Chick’s successes as a Tonopah Mucker. Whatever else the scrapbook may be, one thing is certain. It stands as a testament to Chick’s stardom.
Nowling and his two sisters never knew the archive even existed.
From his home outside of Bloomington, Indiana, Nowling explained to me that when his dad shared prep basketball stories they were more about Plainville. He rarely mentioned Tonopah.
Nowling found it frustrating that growing up, people in Plainville knew more about his dad’s exploits than his own family. Wanona surely never meant to hurt her children when she tucked away Chick’s old scrapbook. One of his sisters shared with Nowling that if she had known of her dad’s accomplishments, she would have felt more self-confident growing up.
Nowling agrees completely.
“I wish I would have known this stuff when he was still alive because if I asked him directly, he would have told me,” Nowling said. “The man would not lie.”
Regarding Chick’s motivations for going to Nevada all those years ago, Nowling is confident that Chick thought he was going to Nevada to play college basketball.
“Dad had just seen his older brother Joe get a baseball scholarship to Indiana Central College and he figured he was a better athlete than Joe,” Nowling said. “So it seemed logical to Chick that he was also getting a scholarship.”
As a youngster, Nowling found his father’s varsity letter from Tonopah in a drawer. He grew up thinking that Tonopah was a college.
Chick might have been tight lipped about Nevada, but an article found in the scrapbook from the Washington Democrat (Washington, Indiana) was not so discreet:
Charles Nowling, a former Plainville high school prep basketball player, is going like a house in flames as a member of the Tonopah (Nevada) high school basketball team. In a recent game, he annexed sixteen of his squad’s twenty-nine points. Nowling is the son of Joseph Nowling of Plainville. During the time he was playing with the Midgets, Nowling rated as one of the best guards in southern Indiana.
An unconventional player with a basketball mind
Nowling recalled a time when he and some of his friends had been in the Plainville gym with his father. Chick talked about one of the plays he and his teammates often ran to start games. Chick would take the center’s tip and quickly shoot from half court.
“Me and my buddies kind of rolled our eyes when we heard his story,” Nowling said, “Dad was in his work clothes and work boots. He went to center court and shot an underhand shot from half court. The shot hit the backboard, but nothing else. We were kind of like, ‘Sure, you did this play.’
“Dad took two more shots and made them both. He just turned and walked off.”
Chick Nowling was a multi-skilled prep basketball player, and his knowledge of the game was like having a coach on the floor. He gained a deep understanding and appreciation of prep basketball from his high school coach, Herman Keller. Later in his coaching career, Keller won back-to-back state titles while coaching at Evansville Bosse. He then served several years as an assistant commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. In 1968, he was inducted into the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Throughout his life, Chick was in awe of Coach Keller,” Nowling said. Chick’s success in basketball was rooted in playing for Keller. Chick was his biggest fan and he closely followed Coach Keller’s career.
Although Chick never coached, his mind was never far from the game. When Bob was three or four, Chick made a small rim for him from some wire and hung it in their house. He got a small ball for Bob and had him practicing shooting and ball handling skills.
Chick watched him carefully and if he started favoring one hand over the other in shooting or dribbling, he would stop him and make him use his other hand for a specified amount of time. When Bob was older, Chick would play one-on-one with Bob in the backyard.
“If I took it to the rim, I had better go hard, because my dad was physical,” Nowling remembered. “He never did anything dirty; he was just going to play you hard.”
When Bob was in junior high, Plainville’s coach was Burke Scott. Scott was a starting guard for Indiana University’s 1953 National Championship team and played for Branch McCracken. Chick’s family lived close to the school, and Chick and Coach Scott became quick friends.
Chick was often found in Coach Scott’s office talking prep basketball and sharing in some vices that were kept well hidden from the players and the school’s administration. Nowling shared with me, “One time Coach Scott told me to do whatever Dad says when he is giving your coaching sessions.”
The truth revealed
By the fall of 1932, Chick and Coach Couts had moved on from Tonopah. There would be no junior season for Chick in Nevada. The dreams of a state championship would not be reprised.
Not that their improbable, not-so-above-board run to the state finals the spring prior could ever be taken away. The Reno Gazette-Journal had this to say from an article dated September 26, 1932:
It was charged at the time that one Lincoln high player was brought to Panaca from Utah to play basketball and that one of the Tonopah players had played for four years in the East and was not eligible to represent Tonopah and that the records in his case had been improperly made out. Late this afternoon the board (State Board of Education) had taken no action.
It seemed Tonopah wasn’t the only school bringing in out of state talent. Still, I could find no records indicating any actions were ever taken by the State Board of Education.
But I find this story intriguing. Coach Couts wanted to win. There’s nothing new about that. But for Chick, I think it was different. I believe it was a matter of survival.
Remember, this was in the midst of the Great Depression. Chick had 10 siblings and was barely getting by in Indiana. He loved prep basketball. Why wouldn’t he go?
The Nevada State Journal from September 7, 1932, said the following:
The September 26th hearing will go into all phases of the controversy in the hope that the information gained will be useful in avoiding such incidents in the future, according to (W.W. Anderson Superintendent of Public Instruction). Hopefully, incidents regarding the eligibility of players were addressed. Maybe the basketball season of 1932 was a learning experience for those that governed the game in Nevada.
When young basketball players become old men, it is amazing how their success in the game expands. Maybe they go from a mediocre bench player to a starter for most of their senior year. Maybe it’s impossible to resist turning 6 points scored into 16 when you’ve got your grandkids gathered at your feet.
This was not the case for Chick Nowling. He was a remarkable player who lived a remarkable journal – and a player whose scrapbook can prove it.
Special thanks to Richard Bratton (Chick’s barber for many years) who inspired us to tell this story.
Enjoy unique prep basketball stories? Check out Johnathan’s oral history about the historic Thomson-Westside basketball game. Joe and David have collaborated before — check out their story about a legend who said no to the Celtics.