Growing up, I remember the tales of this incredible basketball player named Mickey Crowe. I was in junior high and had only caught glimpses of him through brief local TV sports highlights, but I knew I liked him because he had everything I wanted. The ball handling skills of a Harlem Globetrotter, a jump shot that he’d launch from so far and high that it burned the nets on its reentry into earth’s atmosphere, and…he had long hair.
There are countless stories of when this nonpareil player took the court.
“I remember as a JV at St. Mary’s Springs we came out of the locker room,” Jeff Richter said “and there were people hanging from the rafters. We were used to playing in front of crowds that numbered in the lower twenties, made up mostly of our parents, the custodian, and the away-team bus driver. It was fun to pretend they’d all come to see us…but they hadn’t.”
Before the varsity game Mickey Crowe shot around in his sweats…barefoot. No socks. No shoes. And was flinging high, arching shots from just beyond half court. Mickey was just warming up. On that night he would light up the Ledgers for 39.
The story of how Mickey Crowe went from one of the most hyped and scrutinized high school basketball players in Wisconsin sports history to a person lost in addiction, depression and mental illness is examined in detail in his biography, “Over and Back – Mickey Crowe.”
Written by Post-Crescent Media digital specialist and sportswriter Brett Christopherson, the book chronicles Crowe’s meteoric rise as a high school phenom who graduated as the state’s scoring champ with 2,724 career points, to a stunning and debilitating downfall, to the arduous challenge of getting his life back in order.
“In February of 2007 I tracked Mickey down for a story,” Brett began. “I drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin where he lives, and met with him. That came about because we were sitting around the sports office one night, and I asked of my colleagues, ‘Anybody ever know what happened to Mickey Crowe?’ Now, I’m too young to have seen him play, but like many other basketball fans in the state, I’d heard the legendary tales of what this kid had done on the court, and his deterioration afterward…how he essentially disappeared.”
Nobody really knew. Some thought Crowe was dead.
“So I sent an email to my friend Mark Miller who works for the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook,” Brett said “and he put me in touch with Bill Uelman, the Eau Claire Regis basketball coach, and a friend of the Crowe’s. Bill said Mickey was in Eau Claire, was okay, but wasn’t sure if he’d want to do an interview.”
It turned out Mickey was more than willing to talk.
“We met in Coach Uelman’s office at Regis High, and had a great two hour conversation with Mickey. I turned that into an article for the paper in March of 2007. But it was on my ride back from Eau Claire I knew then already that with all the material I had in that short time spent, there was more than an article’s worth to tell the whole story.”
Brett had never received as much feedback on any prior work.
“The phone rang off the hook. I knew he still resonated. Eventually I met up with publisher Peter Clarke of KTI Sports out of Stevens Point. He was interested, and so I began working on turning the initial interview into a book.”
As many know, Mickey modeled his game, his droopy-socked appearance, and his style after his idol ‘Pistol Pete’ Maravich who was a peerless basketball player who deftly dribbled, handled and shot the ball for the LSU Tigers, and into the pros with the New Orleans Jazz.
“As a middle-schooler,” Brett said “Mickey would practice his moves, skills and shots modeling them after the crazy things Maravich was able to do. Lo’ and behold, he realized he could do some of the same things. He had the offensive skill and talent to pop shots from deep and dribble in and out of any defense.”
Mickey’s personality also mirrored Maravich’s.
“They both were eccentric, you could almost say they were kindred spirits from afar, one in Louisiana, and the other in Marinette, Wisconsin…because at that time Mickey’s father Marty was coaching at Marinette Catholic Central High School. Marty recognized what his son could do, and ended up getting a job coaching at the old JFK Prep in St. Nazianz as both teacher and coach. It ended up being a perfect spot for a father to hone his son’s offensive talents, let him run the offense, let him run the show. It was a preparatory school, a boarding school…there were no other parents around, it was a small Manitowoc County village…there was nobody there to tell him otherwise.”
It ended up becoming a circus.
“Marty Crowe was something of a legend in his own right,” Brett said “both a basketball and football coach hall of famer,’ having led a Marinette Catholic Central basketball team to the 1964 WISSA State Championship over an Appleton Xavier team that had something like a 49-game win streak led by Rocky Bleier, who many remember having gone onto football fame with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Marty was an innovator who could change styles and strategies and game plans to fit the personnel he had at the time. Marty was a confidant, gregarious, hard, demanding man with a sharp bark.”
The JFK Prep offense was said to be 3-pronged, Mickey shoot, Mickey shoot, Mickey shoot.
“There was no plan-B so to speak, but on the other hand, Mickey could pop it from 30-feet with two guys in his face. Opponents were always trying to get him out of his game. Sometimes he was on, and sometimes he was off. When he was on…it was magical.”
The state championship game would prove to be a microcosm of Mickey Crowe’s prep journey, a mix of happy and sad still shots that within the span of 32 minutes told a tale of a kid whose breathtaking talent was both celebrated and taunted.
A pulsating and packed arena. The ankle-high dribbling.
The spin moves and long-range rainbows against heavy pressure.
The appreciative applause of some, malevolent spewing from others.
The scoring binges and scorching shooting streaks.
The cheers from the detractors when he air-balled a pair of free throws and didn’t touch iron on three of his shots.
The avalanche of TV cameras and newspaper reporters that only brightened the lights.
The frenzied and magical last eight minutes, when he hit 10 of his 15 shots – many hurried and forced as he tried to rally his team – and scored all 23 of his team’s fourth-quarter points to become the first player in state history to amass at least 1,000 points in a single season.
An entire career on display.
Officially, the 1974-75 basketball season would come to a close shortly following that championship setback to Racine Lutheran, during a pep rally in the JFK Prep gym, where coach Marty Crowe raised the state runner-up trophy, introduced his Moors once more and announced Mickey’s Nos. 40 and 41 home and road jerseys would be pulled from the uniform pile and never worn again.
The relationship between father and son was complex.
“I know toward the end of Marty’s life there were regrets in how maybe Marty handled that whole situation,” Brett said “I’ve approached Mickey many times, fashioning the question in different ways, asking if his father, ‘had anything at all to do with you slipping into drugs and alcohol,’ and never once did Mickey ever blame his father, he took full responsibility for any decision he made.
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to what happened with Mickey. And I think this book leaves it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions. My opinion is that after high school when Mickey turned to drugs and alcohol, he did it as some sort of release, and that his mental illness was going to happen regardless.
Mickey was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1984.
“But he traces some of his strange thoughts,” Brett said “the ambitions of being a world leader, back to his childhood. I think it was something that grew slowly, and I’m sure the drugs and alcohol didn’t help. He’s a shy, introverted personality, where his father was outwardly confidant. And Mickey followed the advice of his strong-willed, stubborn father. If his father told him to do something, Mickey typically did what he was told. He trusted his dad. I don’t think there was any ill intent on Marty’s part, and I think like a lot of those who watched Mickey play, Marty became enamored by what was going on. Here was a kid whose play was packing gyms, cameras were on his every move, he was featured in Sports Illustrated as a Faces-in-the-Crowd athlete after back-to-back 50 point games as a sophomore. When he was a senior, Heywood Hale Broun from CBS News did a feature on him comparing Mickey and Marty to Press and Pete Maravich. How could you not get caught up in it all?”
Brett contacted four of Mickey’s teammates, two from his sophomore year, and two from his senior season, as he put the book together.
“I really wanted it to be in Mickey’s voice with context sprinkled in from some of those who were around to watch him play.”
John Woleske a strong rebounder, and a tough football player, and Mike Novak (Mike Novak’s son Steve played for Marquette, an is now in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors) were the enablers that really let the legend of Mickey Crowe grow, and take shape.
“They recognized his talent and protected him,” Brett said “of course they were playing in Marty’s system and had to conform, but they never squawked and said, ‘no way.’ It was their senior year, but they recognized the potential of this kid, and may have even enjoyed all the publicity and attention. They allowed the legend to be written, backing Mickey 100%, and do to this day.”
Jim Stadtmueller and Mark Miller, also former teammates, are behind Mickey too.
“Jim was critical of Marty at times at how he treated Mickey,” Brett said “but both knew and appreciated the talent they were playing with, knowing he was becoming a living legend. Nobody I spoke with in all my research for this book had anything negative to say about his high school days. I did run into a Silver Lake College teammate of his, when at the time Mickey was struggling with abusing beer and marijuana, there was a lot of frustration on that team. Gary Rosmarynoski I think had a problem with seeing the potential he saw in Mickey that just wasn’t being realized. Marty was the coach of that team as well, and the frustrated thinking was, ‘Okay, it was all about Mickey in high school, but we have other talent here on this college team, and it should be more of a team game.‘ I don’t think Marty could let go of his son’s one-man-show.”
Politics led Mickey off the social mainstream grid, but he showed up on the Secret Service radar.
“He followed President Reagan around,” Brett explained “ending up living in Washington, D.C. sometimes homeless, scouring city parks for used marijuana joints so he could still get his buzz. He had an odd job every now and again to make a little money, but he was obsessed with the thought of nuclear war. The Cold War was going on, and Reagan happened to be president at the time, Mickey thought Reagan was a man of democracy. It was a little delusional, but Mickey thought he might become a key player in world issues…and that’s where the mental illness really came into play, just not thinking clearly. He would get Reagan’s D.C. itinerary and follow him around, and shout thought out, but ‘different’ questions. Reagan would often turn and look, and one time the two actually had an exchange, where Reagan answered one of Mickey’s questions.”
Some thought Mickey was stalking Reagan, but he always wanted it to be known that he wasn’t against Reagan, he was against the thought of nuclear war.
Crowe was in the crowd during the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981.
“He was only yards away from him,” Bret said “and to this day Mickey is convinced he saved Reagan’s life because that day he couldn’t think of a question to shout out and possibly garner a look from Reagan, but the president was instead whisked to the car when the shots were fired. Had Mickey shouted something before John Hinckley Jr. pulled the trigger, Reagan may have stopped and given him a clear target.”
The Secret Service knew of Mickey, and had been tracking him just to be safe.
“Mickey was interviewed by the national TV news,” Brett said “and he was interviewed by the Secret Service. Later that night Crowe went near the hospital where Reagan was recovering, and a woman approached him and said she recognized him from TV, which really concerned him. He was paranoid that he would be somehow implicated or set-up in the plot to kill Reagan.”
All of that sort of led to Mickey’s moving back to Eau Clare where his mental state continued to deteriorate to the point where he believed there were surveillance cameras and bugs listening to him, plotting to set him up as an anti-Christ.
“Just bizarre stuff,” Brett said “to the point where one day his sister Maureen finally called the police because she was concerned with his well being. He was committed to a mental health facility where he was finally able to get the care he needed.”
Crowe went into a self imposed exile, mostly because he was embarrassed by what he had let happen to himself. He did resurface and did some interviews in 1993 when Anthony Pieper of Wausaukee High School broke his scoring mark of 2,724 points. Crowe is still number two on the state all-time list, and he did it without the luxury of the 3-point line.
The crowd stood and applauded. Eyes filled with tears. It was a bittersweet moment – the recognition of a memorable and successful season combined with an unwanted, yet unavoidable, farewell.
“Nobody wanted it to end,” teammate Jim Stadtmueller said.
But it already had, back at the Milwaukee Arena, moments before the media crush would spill into the Moors’ small locker room.
During the postgame trophy presentation, as he trotted his wiry frame onto the floor to receive his individual runner-up award, the state’s all-time leading high school scorer responded to the standing ovation with an impromptu bow.
Marty, taken aback and thinking the gesture was a “smart-alecky” stunt, dismissed his son to the dressing room. Mickey, however, said the move was a sincere show of gratitude, an emphatic thank you for the support given by those in the arena and from the many others who cheered and encouraged through what at times was a tumultuous career.
But as it turned out, the bow – unbeknownst to all that March day – signaled a forever conclusion. For it was then that the curtain came down on The Crowe Show. Sadly. Finally. And for good.
Today Mickey lives on his own in an apartment collecting a supplemental security income from the state, basically enough funds to take care of his essentials.
“He passes the time talking walks, creating music, watching TV news,” Brett said “he follows the Packers, Brewers, Bucks, Badgers. He lives a functional life, you wouldn’t think much of it really. And that goes back to my original meeting with him, I didn’t know where the conversation would go, but I was surprised how sharp his memory is, how funny and engaging he is. He’s been attending book signings, and conducting interviews. I think getting his story out there has been therapeutic because he’s getting everything off his chest, and answering what the heck happened to him. I also think he believes his story is a cautionary tale to those who think they have it all, that you have to keep working, you can have a great life without having to be famous or rise to the greatness that you may think you deserve. Having collaborated on this book, Mickey says it’s helped in changing his life ‘from drift…to direction.’ “
Books are sold at bookstores across the state and online at kcisports.com