BY SHELBY NIEHAUS
As the Altamont Indians and the Windsor/Stewardson-Strasburg Hatchets warm up before play on a Wednesday evening, in the middle of the NTC tournament in Altamont, a rotating cast of longtime basketball fans march along the outside of the court on their way to prime courtside seating in the black seats. Most of them, on their way past the corner seats, stop to wave to a man sitting with his daughter and grandson. One asks in passing if he rooted for Neoga when they played the night before.
“Well, no, not really. I don’t root for anybody,” comes the answer.
The man in the front visiting corner is Paul “Joe” Milchman, who has been involved in the NTC in some fashion for over 70 years; he first watched the games in the mid-1940’s before entering high school, and played on Stewardson’s team in 1945-1948, where he was a guard. He also began a career as an official when he was only 14, refereeing independent ball games and junior varsity matches nearby.
Milchman later got a license as a 20-year-old in Arizona, and racked up a total of 23 years on the court in black-and-white. For much of that refereeing career he was living in Arizona, though he moved back home in 1973. At that point he started attending NTC tournament games religiously, putting him at 48 no-absence appearances at the games in a row, though he’d attended six other tournaments before 1973; all total, he’s seen 54 tournaments in part or in full.
Though he started out a Stewardson player, Milchman no longer holds allegiance to any one team. He just enjoys watching the games, he says, preferring long days with many games. “I like to sit and watch a lot of games,” he told the News and Banner. His favorites have been in Charleston, Vandalia, the handful of St. Anthony tournaments, the Shelbyville Shootout, the St. Elmo Holiday tournament, regional tournaments, and, of course, the NTC. Milchman even sat for 29 straight state tournaments, he told 97.9 WXEF in 2013, before the tournament was moved up north to Peoria.
And even beyond basketball tournaments, Milchman is a true sports fan. In years past he’s followed virtually every major sport offered in the area, save for track and field. The black seat ticketholders sitting nearby during Milchman’s interview confirm his love for softball in particular, though Milchman himself says that, between not driving anymore and a lack of major tournaments nearby, he doesn’t go to see softball, baseball, or football much these days, nor to regular season games for basketball. One year, his love of baseball, basketball, softball, football, and local tournaments took him into the stands for more than 600 matches; assuming a tournament never played on a Sunday and only half of all tournaments scheduled games for a Wednesday, Milchman averaged 2.1 games daily.
Milchman’s constant appearance at NTC tournaments has brought his a great deal of media attention through the years, especially as he approaches his 50th straight tournament. The Altamont News and St. Elmo Banner has elected to leave out some details of Milchman’s story as they were covered in a Jan. 23, 2013 article for 97.9 WXEF. Please see “Joe Milchman Loves National Trail Conference Tournament, Has Attended Every Game for 40 Years” on thexradio.com for more about Milchman.
Insight From A Superfan
Milchman is, in the News and Banner’s opinion (and in the opinion of many longtime NTC fans), one of the best firsthand sources for insight on how the NTC tournament has changed since its early days. When he was on Stewardson’s team, the tournament’s eight teams played a single-elimination bracket, with only seven games total over the course of three or four evenings; now, in a double-elimination bracket, the NTC plays out over 14 matches and six days of play. To Milchman, “seven placed games… is ridiculous.”
One of the most memorable changes to the NTC in its history was the move from Beecher City to Altamont. Milchman enjoys the tournament in Altamont more, noting the courtside black seats as a major perk (though, until he was offered an extra seat courtside from a friend, he used to view the tournament from Altamont’s upstairs seating below the horseshoe). Milchman says he wouldn’t like to see the tournament move away from its current court.
Longtime basketball fans may remember a switch that changed the nature of the game, starting in 1979 and coming through the high school circuit in the late 1980’s: the introduction of the three-point shot. When the three-pointer arrived in Illinois high school circuits, Milchman said, he was initially against its implementation. “I thought it would be too much,” he said, noting that a team down by 15 points could now tie up a game quickly with a few well-placed shots from the front corners of the court. However, Milchman grew to enjoy the three-pointer afterward.
As for rules Milchman would be glad to see dialed back: the amount of fouls a player can accrue before they’re fouled out of a game. “I really think we ought to go back to four now,” he said.
“You think it lets players get away with too much?” asked the News and Banner.
“I think that,” Milchman replied.
When Milchman spoke to 97.9 WXEF in 2013, he noted to reporter Millie Lange that he felt the 2013 tournament would be his last. Now, with 48 straight tournaments down, he’d like to get to 50.
“I’d like to get to 50 and then quit,” he laughed.