In my first year out of college, 1970, I began my career as the JV coach at Lima Central Catholic High School and was rewarded with a front row seat for one of the greatest shows in basketball in that era.
His name was Joe Fisher and his career was already legendary in this area. He would finish high school as the leading scorer in LCC history with 1,756 points and his exploits lured many of the great college coaches in the nation to his living room to recruit this budding phenom.
News of this young prodigy went viral early in his career. Even as a fledgling CYO player in his junior high years, there was plenty of talk around Lima about Joe Fisher. He was two heads taller than any of his contemporaries and was already showing skills that were remarkable for a player of his size. Fisher can still recall the many hours he spent shooting on a neighborhood basket.
“I shot for hours by myself, lost in my own imagination,” he remembers. “I had a game where I had to make shots around the court from seven different spots and then back again. If I missed one shot I would start all over. I would not go home until I made all 14 shots in a row. Sometimes I was out there until midnight shooting. I was in love with the game.”
Fisher’s passion paid off. By the time he entered high school he was 6-foot-6 and had basketball skills that were uncommon for a player of his size and age. Fisher became a starter for the LCC varsity, an unheard of feat for a freshman in that era. The T-Birds were led by first year coach Len Volbert and their senior captain Ed Mueller, who would go on to play basketball for Coach Bob Knight at West Point. Fisher credits both of them for making the transition easy for him.
“They challenged me and at the same time kept my ego in check” Fisher recalls.
The game Fisher remembers most from his freshman year was their last, a tournament game against a powerful Lima Senior High squad that advanced all the way to State that season.
“We were heavy underdogs but played our best game of the year and it was my best game too,” Fisher recalls. Fisher ended with 17 points and double figure rebounds as the T-Birds nearly pulled off the upset. “After that game I knew I could play with anyone,” Fisher recalls. “It was a tremendous boost for my confidence.”
For the next three years, Fisher went on to lead the T-Birds and become a scoring machine. He grew to 6-foot-8 and played on some of the great teams in LCC history including the 1969 squad that many believe to be the most talented collection of athletes to ever wear the scarlet and turquoise.
My own recollections of Fisher start when I began my coaching career and suited up to play against him in practice. Keep in mind I had just finished playing four years of college basketball and wasn’t about to let some 17-year-old kid get the best of me. He did, nightly. In an age before weightlifting was the norm, Fisher had a powerful build and natural strength below a shock of blonde hair. His skill level was extraordinary and he was extremely bright both on and off the court. I knew first hand Fisher was virtually unstoppable and could score at will. I also remember he could care less whether he scored as long as his team won.
I was ringside for two of Fisher’s highest scoring games. Early in his senior season, LCC traveled to Van Wert and Fisher ignited. Fisher could score from anywhere on the court. That night he couldn’t miss, and when Coach Joe Gottfried pulled him from the game early in the fourth quarter, Fisher already had 43 points while missing only two shots from the field.
Joe Stoll, LCC’s long-time scorekeeper, leaned over the scorers table and mentioned to Coach Gottfried that Fisher was only two points shy of the all-time Lima city scoring mark of 45 points set by Lima Senior’s Bill McBride a few years earlier. Gottfried inserted Fisher back into the game and by the time he could get him off the floor, Fisher made 6-of-6 shots from the field to end the evening with 55 points. Later that season, in Fisher’s final regular season home game, Fisher dropped 52 points on Delphos St. John's. Fisher’s city scoring record held for a couple decades until the Spartan’s Greg Simpson scored 57 points against Toledo Start in 1992.
Fisher’s achievement did not go unnoticed by the top college basketball programs in the country. He remembers waking up one morning to find Adolf Rupp, Kentucky’s legendary basketball coach, sitting in his living room. He was not the only legend to find their way to Lima in pursuit of Fisher. North Carolina, Notre Dame, Marquette, Florida and Clemson were just a few of the colleges that vigorously pursued Fisher. What these colleges were unaware of was that Fisher already knew exactly where he wanted to play.
“I grew up a big fan of the University of Dayton,” Fisher said. “In the days before ESPN, the only games we watched on television were UD games. I can still rattle off the names of their best players in that era and Dan Sadlier, an LCC grad, had recently finished a great career there.”
Joe Gottfried, who took over the helm of the LCC program in Joe’s senior year, helped guide the recruiting process. He attributed Dayton’s success in wooing Fisher to plain and simple hard work on the part of coach Don Donoher and his staff.
“Someone from Dayton, often coach Donoher himself, was at almost every one of our games,” coach Gottfried recalled. Gottfried, who went on to a fascinating career himself, remembers Fisher mostly for his modesty and unselfishness. “He was a great kid, from a terrific family, willing to do anything for the team.”
Gottfried recalled that his son, Mark, was a 6-year-old fan at the time. Mark Gottfried would grow up to become the head basketball coach at the University of Alabama for 11 years and is now guiding the North Carolina State program that knocked Duke out of the undefeated ranks this past weekend. According to his father, “Mark grew up wanting to be just like Joe Fisher.”
Fisher’s career at Dayton was solid but did not impact at the level many of his fans back in Lima anticipated. He started for three seasons at Dayton. Although his college career lacked the spectacular moments that dotted his high school experience, he did contribute to some memorable games, including an NCAA regional tournament semifinal game against UCLA in his junior year. Fisher held his own in a head-to-head battle with Bill Walton, the most dominant player of his era. Dayton lost a heartbreaker in triple overtime that night but Fisher’s play is still fondly remembered by UD fans.
He also played one of his best games when the Flyers pulled off a huge upset of a Notre Dame squad that was ranked second in the nation at the time.
After graduating from UD, Joe had an offer to continue playing basketball for a club in Milan, Italy but turned down the opportunity.
“My passion for the game had passed,” Fisher recalled. “I was at a crossroads and made the decision to move on with the next stage of my life.”
It was the right decision. Fisher’s success in the business world was impressive. He was eventually recruited to Ohio Bell ATT and quickly rose to the position of National Sales Manager. His success allowed him to retire at a very early age and pursue a lifelong dream.
“Even though we were a family that did not have a lot, our parents instilled in us the need to help others,” Fisher recalled. “I was fortunate to be in a position of financial comfort and decided to use our blessings to work on behalf of those less fortunate.” Fisher and his wife Claudia currently reside in Viera, Fla. He has worked extensively with the migrant farming community there. Fisher has been instrumental in building apartments, a community center and day care facility that have made life more comfortable for that burgeoning population.
“The work has been very rewarding for me,” Fisher said.
After enjoying athletic and professional success that many only dream of, it is his work in recent years that Joe is most proud and that says all you need to know about a man whose impact today is far more impressive than his remarkable athletic and career achievements.
(Contact Bob Seggerson by email to firstname.lastname@example.org)