Shot in the dark

Former pro basketball player
found hard work key to success

Chilton spent 33 years
teaching high school in Madison

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(April 2009) – In the 1960s, professional basketball fans from all over the world knew the names of Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, George Mikan and even Chuck Connors, who later went on to television fame as the star of “The Rifleman.” There was also a player familiar to basketball fans in this area who actually played ball with those legendary players: Tom Chilton.
In 1961, after a superstar college basketball career at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., Chilton was asked to play an exhibition season with the St. Louis Hawks, now the Atlanta Hawks.

Judy & Tom Chilton

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Judy and Tom Chilton pose in
their Madison, Ind., home.

During that season, Chilton suffered a serious knee injury and then was drafted into the U.S. Army during the “Berlin Wall” crisis. After his stint in the Army, he returned to the Hawks in 1962, but he experienced a career-ending re-injury to the same knee.
The loss of his professional basketball career, however, did not deter Chilton from pursuing other dreams. His practical outlook on life and solid work ethics led him down other paths.
“I was born into a very poor family, and I didn’t want to stay that way,” said Chilton, 70, at his home in Madison. “I took the opportunity I was given to go to college, and I finished my education with a degree in coaching.”
He was able to secure a teaching position in Jennings County, Ind., and then later spent 33 years at Madison Consolidated High School teaching physical education and driver’s education before retiring.
Before college, Chilton played basketball for the high school in Austin, Ind. He graduated in 1956 at the young age of 16. He led his team in scoring during his junior and senior years. Because of his age, Chilton was not eligible for a college scholarship.
With no money for college, Chilton moved to Indianapolis, where he worked for a year at a factory. He played ball for the parks department in the city during that year.
It was a chance encounter with a sports writer when he went home to visit his parents that changed the course of his life. Phil Cole, who wrote the sports column, “Cole Bin,” for the Madison Courier, had taken notice of Chilton when he played for Austin.
While in Johnson City to cover a football game, Cole told the East Tennessee State University’s basketball coach about Chilton. The coach wanted Chilton to come try out, but Chilton was reluctant.
Then one night while shopping in a store with his parents, Cole ran into Chilton and once again encouraged him to go try out. “My parents thought it would be a chance of a lifetime and pushed me to do it,” recalled Chilton. After the coach met him, he was offered a full scholarship.

Tom Chilton

Photo provided

Tom Chilton is
pictured here
during his college
basketball days.

During his years at East Tennessee State, Chilton racked up an impressive record. He was “All American in Basketball” in 1961; “All Ohio Valley Conference” in 1959, 1960 and 1961; “First Team Ohio Valley Conference and All Time Basketball”; He held the school record for most career points with 1,801; most points scored in one season at 771; and most points scored in one game at 52. His average 26.1 points per game is still a record at the school, as is his most-points scored in one game.
He led the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring and rebounds and was selected to be “Converse All American” in 1961. During that season, Chilton was second in the nation in scoring and 10th in the nation in rebounding.
“Tom Chilton was one of the finest players to ever wear our uniform,” said current head coach Murry Bartow.
In 1980, Chilton was inducted into the East Tennessee State University Athletic Hall of Fame and his number 42 jersey was retired. In August 2007, Kevin Tiggs, the 2007 National Junior College Division II Player of the Year, requested and was granted permission to wear the number 42 for the last two seasons of his career at the college.
“Chilton was and is a legend here at East Tennessee State, so wearing his number comes with a great deal of responsibility,” said Tiggs in a press conference. “I want to play in a way that will make him proud.”
Chilton was honored and thrilled Tiggs wanted to wear his number, which will go back into retirement after Tiggs leaves the program.
Chilton has applied the same attributes that made him a star basketball player to every other career he has had. “Tom is not afraid to work,” said Judy, his wife of 48 years. “His drive and motivation and his desire to continually move forward have made him successful.”
His advice for pro-basketball hopefuls: “It takes lots and lots of practice, and somewhere along the way there has to be talent. You can’t just walk in and take someone’s paycheck,” he said. “You need to get an education because you may need to fall back on it some day.”
Chilton practiced what he preached.

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