The Infrequent History of Purdue 7-Footers & Lamenting the Boilermaker Injury Curse
From A.J. Hammons to Wednesday’s signing of 7-2 William Berg of Stockholm, Sweden, it seems that 7-footers are growing on trees for Purdue coach Matt Painter.
But during my lifetime, it wasn’t always that way for the Boilermakers.
Purdue did not have a 7-foot player until 1962, when George Grams of Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first 7-footer in Big Ten history.
Recruited by assistant coach Bob King over Michigan and Michigan State, Grams was 6-foot by fifth grade and his father and uncles all stood at least 6-7.
Grams, who died in 2019 at 74, averaged 5.4 points and 5.7 rebounds a game as a senior on a Purdue team that featured All-American forward Dave Schellhase and had Indiana Mr. Basketball Denny Brady in the backcourt. Grams was taken in the 11th round of the 1966 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.
The second 7-footer in Purdue history had a much bigger, pardon the pun, impact for the Boilermakers.
Part of the recruiting class headed by Indiana Mr. Basketball Rick Mount, Chuck Bavis was an Indiana All-Star after averaging 33 points a game as a senior at Garrett High School.
Bavis was one of the few men playing college basketball in the late 1960s who made the game difficult for the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor at UCLA. In the 1967 dedication game of Mackey Arena, Bavis held Alcindor to 17 points but the Bruins pulled out a 73-71 victory.
Typical of Purdue’s luck, Bavis injured his shoulder during the 1969 NCAA tournament and had to watch Alcindor dominate the Boilermakers in the national championship game.
Bavis never played again after a one-car auto accident the fall of his senior year led to the amputation of a foot.
He was elected to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010. Bavis also died in 2019 at age 71.
Dan McDermott had bad timing when he signed with Purdue in 1973 out of Riverview Gardens High School in St. Louis. The 7-footer was in the same class as 6-11 Tom Scheffler, a two-year starter at center. Plus, 6-11 four-year starter John Garrett had two years of eligibility remaining.
Then when McDermott was a senior, future All-American Joe Barry Carroll came into the program from Denver. McDermott graduated having scored 31 points in 31 games.
Carroll remains the most talented of the 7-footers to play at Purdue. He earned All-America honors in 1980 and led the Boilermakers to their most recent Final Four. Carroll also was the first overall No. 1 NBA Draft pick in school history.
Gene Keady inherited 7-foot freshman center Joe Gampfer from the 1980 recruiting class put together by Lee Rose before his departure to South Florida. A major left knee injury prevented the Cincinnati native from ever having a chance to see major playing time.
A future first-round NBA Draft pick, McDonald’s All-American Russell Cross, also limited Gampfer’s opportunities for playing time.
I’ll always remember Gampfer for a conversation we had during the 1983 NCAA Tournament in Tampa, Fla. Keady had gotten a major center prospect to make the two-hour drive from Merritt Island to watch Purdue hold off Robert Morris in the first round.
Keady introduced the skinny young man to myself and a couple of other media members afterward (Recruiting rules were far different in those days). That night at the hotel bar, Gampfer wondered aloud why Purdue was even recruiting this kid.
The kid’s name was Will Perdue, who would become the SEC Player of the Year at Vanderbilt before earning four NBA championship rings with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio.
The next 7-footer to don gold and black was also a free spirit.
At 7-2, 286 pounds, Holland native Matt TenDam looked the part of a Big Ten center. As it turned out, he was far better with a paint brush than a basketball in his hands. Ten Dam, a fine arts major, was such a talented artist that a West Lafayette pizza parlor asked him to paint a mural on one of its walls.
On the court, Ten Dam saw little time, scoring 17 points in 62 minutes over his three-year stay.
Whether it was coincidence or a decision not to take any more recruiting risks, Keady never signed another 7-footer before retiring in 2005. His successor, Matt Painter, rode 6-9 Carl Landry and 6-10 JaJuan Johnson in the middle until a former Carmel resident began a run of 7-footers at Purdue.
A.J. Hammons oozed NBA potential while helping Oak Hill Academy compile a 44- 0 record in 2011-12. A No. 77 national ranking by Rivals.com excited Purdue fans.
Hammons helped reverse the course of a Boilermaker program that hit rock bottom in 2014 with a last-place Big Ten finish.
As a senior, Hammons averaged 15 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors as well as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Fittingly, Hammons and Joe Barry Carroll are the only players in Big Ten history with 1,500 career points, 900 career rebounds and 340 career blocked shots.
Isaac Haas was even more highly regarded out of high school than Hammons. The No. 71 overall four-star prospect from Piedmont, Ala., didn’t mind spending two years behind Hammons. When Haas became a full-time starter in 2016-17, he teamed up with All-American Caleb Swanigan and Vincent Edwards to form one of the nation’s best front lines.
Haas averaged 12.6 points and 5.7 rebounds as a junior. Another victim of Purdue’s injury curse, Haas’ college career ended with a broken elbow suffered against Cal State Fullerton in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. Painter’s reputation for developing big men was international by 2016, resulting in 7-3 Matt Haarms coming over from Stockholm, Sweden via Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.
Haarms stepped in as a redshirt freshman after Haas’ elbow injury, contributing 11 points and nine rebounds in an NCAA tournament victory over Butler and a loss to Texas Tech.
He shared time at center with Trevion Williams over the next two seasons and may be best remembered for the last-second game-winning shot at Indiana in 2019. Haarms used his graduate transfer option to play his final season at BYU. Haarms’ status as the tallest player in Purdue history ended with his replacement, 7-4 Canadian Zach Edey.
Edey is Exhibit A for those skeptical of recruiting rankings. From his first game as a Boilermaker, 19 points and five rebounds in a victory over Liberty, Edey looked anything but the No. 440 prospect in the Class of 2020.
Edey was so talented that he ended up starting as a sophomore in 2021-22 over Trevion Williams, who merely earned some All-American honors the year previous. He averaged 14.4 points, second to All-American Jaden Ivey, and a team-high 7.7 rebounds a game.
His backup next season could be Berg, a 260-pound native of Stockholm.
“Will has really developed the last couple years and can play facing the basket and with his back to the basket,” Painter said in a statement.
Assuming Berg completes his eligibility at Purdue, the Boilermakers could have a 7-footer on the roster for 14 consecutive years and a streak of 12 straight years with a player at least 7-2.
That streak could be extended if Painter lands one of his Class of 2024 targets, 7- foot center J.T. Rock of South Dakota. Brian Neubert of goldandblack.com reports that Rock visited Purdue this past weekend along with Kansas State transfer point guard target Nijel Pack.
– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.