In a few short months, our community will have the opportunity to settle into a darkened theater and see movie stars depicting a pivotal moment in Granite City history.
“Men of Granite,” based on the book by Dan Manoyan with a screenplay written by Armand Kachigian, is slated to star William Hurt and Susan Sarandon. The film tells the story of the 1940 Happy Warriors basketball team, who rose above stereotypes, poverty, racism and lack of knowledge to complete a 28-5 year, achieving victory during a dramatic state championship game.
The project is set right here in Granite City (known by those outside our area as “a steel town in Southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis”), home of the Happy Warriors. The city was a true melting pot during that era, both in terms of culture and economic social classes.
Emerging from the Lincoln Place district, an area settled largely by immigrants, four young Armenian boys with no money and little knowledge of the sport of basketball were able to prove barriers are in the eye of the beholder.
They learned how to play at the Lincoln Place Center, a settlement house built by the neighborhood adults, with materials provided by the steel mills. They mastered the game by playing it, day after day, hour after hour.
Not only did they elevate the game of basketball in the state, but they earned the respect of other players and spectators both in and out of the city.
John Markarian and Andy Hagopian, both in their 90s, are the two surviving members of the original 1940 team. Both say they are excited about both the book and the film.
“There were 10 players on the team,” Markarian said. “Seven were from Lincoln Place — four Armenians, one Hungarian, one Bulgarian and one Yugoslavian. The other three ethnic boys were from downtown.”
Evon Parsaghian and Sam Mouradian were the other two Armenian players on the team. Andy Phillip (born as Andras Fulop) also captained the team and went on to play at the University of Illinois and later for the Boston Celtics. Phillip is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, after being a five-time NBA All-Star.
Hagopian says he is proud of the accomplishment of their team’s history and the recent attention that history has received, as well.
But this isn’t just “the boys’ club.” Sophia Prather (depicted by Oscar winner Susan Sarandon in the film), a schoolteacher in her 50s, plays a significant role in both the film and the history of the team. Under her instruction at Lincoln Place Settlement, the boys learned to reach for the stars and respect all people, no matter what nationality, with leading by example. Prather watched over her “boys of Lincoln Place” (the original title of the film) as a protective mother, pushing them out of their neighborhood gymnasium and onto the high school court.
Today, there is a school in Granite City named for Sophia Prather that carries on her memory to teach equality for all people and provide opportunities for all children.
Oscar winner William Hurt portrays head coach Byron Bozarth, who leads the boys to the Illinois state championship.
Keep an eye out in upcoming issues of AdVantage News for more extensive coverage of the history of the team, the book and the film.