Thursday, April 17, 2014
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WILT'S 75th II

In recognition of the 75th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's birth on Aug. 21, here's a look at what was perhaps the Dipper's most memorable high school game.

WILT'S 75th II

Basketball player Wilt Chamberlain is seen as an Overbrook High School student in Philadelphia, Pa., 1955.  (AP Photo)
Basketball player Wilt Chamberlain is seen as an Overbrook High School student in Philadelphia, Pa., 1955. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

In recognition of the 75th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain's birth on Aug. 21, here's a look at what was perhaps the Dipper's most memorable high school game:

By Frank Fitzpatrick INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Jimmy Usilton Jr. recognized talent when he saw it. And West Catholic High School's 37-year-old basketball coach had never seen anything like Wilt Chamberlain.

Graceful, quick and strong, the Overbrook High sophomore was, at just 16, already a national phenomenon. He would have been a handful at any size. At 6-foot-11, Chamberlain was a nearly impossible hurdle.

Usilton's tallest player, Joe Gardler, was a mere 6-2. The second-year Burrs coach knew there was no way West Catholic was going to beat Overbrook in the 1953 city title game by being conventional.

And that's where a cafeteria table, a window pole, a junior-varsity player, and an enthusiastic Christian brother named Edwin Anthony entered the picture.

Exactly 50 years ago today, on March 6, 1953, after a week's worth of bizarre practices in which Usilton employed all those elements, West Catholic won that city championship, 54-42, still the most stunning upset in Philadelphia's rich scholastic basketball history.

"When it was over," Gardler said, "it took us a while to realize what we had done. I mean, Wilt was just awesome. "

Later this month, the surviving participants will gather at a West Catholic -sponsored banquet to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that stunning night at a sold-out Palestra.

And while West's players will happily relive their historic upset, those from Overbrook will again be confronted by the incongruity of it all.

"West had a very, very good team," said Stan Guralnick, an Overbrook starter. "But if we played them 100 times, we'd probably have won 98 or 99. "

In Chamberlain's three varsity seasons, Overbrook was 59-3. Two of the losses were flukes, one brought about by his refusal to shoot, the other by horrible officiating in Western Pennsylvania.

Only West Catholic beat Overbrook decidedly.

"I guess people are never, ever going to let us live that game down," said Guralnick, who lives in Broomall. "About 15 years later, I was in a doctor's office and I saw someone I hadn't seen since high school. All he said was, 'I have two words for you: West Catholic .' "

*

 West Catholic was the defending city champion. But the Burrs had lost five starters and nine players from the 1952 team.

"Still, there were 2,500 boys at West and 400 showed up for basketball tryouts," recalled starter Bob Devine, now the school's director of development.

The '53 Burrs won the Catholic League title with a 13-1 record, finishing 24-2 overall. That had been their goal. Usilton had promised that if they were league champions, they would play in the postseason Eastern States Catholic Tournament in Newport, R.I., an exotic trip for a 1950s high school team.

"Once we knew that no matter what we did in the city title game, we'd be going there, nothing bothered us," Gardler said.

But Usilton wanted to win, and planned a rigorous week of preparations.

The plans were hampered by West Catholic 's cozy facilities. The cramped basement gymnasium at 48th and Chestnut Streets was hardly the best place to prepare for a meeting with Chamberlain.

To get a shot over the outstretched arms of a leaping 6-11 opponent, the Burrs would have to arch their attempts. And that was impossible in a gym in which the tops of the backboards practically scraped the ceiling.

"We were accustomed to shooting liners from almost everywhere," Usilton, now deceased, said in 1979. "I knew we had to do something. "

Fortunately, the Arena, where the Basketball Association of America's Philadelphia Warriors would begin play later that year, was just a few blocks away. Usilton arranged to have his team practice there.

But that alone wasn't going to prepare the Burrs for the intimidating presence of an opponent as tall and gifted as Chamberlain. Besides Gardler, West's other starters were all between 5-10 and 6 feet.

So Usilton enlisted a basketball-loving West teacher, Brother Anthony, to help. He handed the 6-3, 290-pound biology teacher a window pole and positioned him in the lane with orders to swat at everything.

"All these years later, I still have to laugh when I think of Brother Anthony," said Gardler, who is retired and living in Havertown. "It started out to be a joke. But I guess it really helped. "

When Brother Anthony wasn't available, Usilton had the team manager set up a table in the lane. Then a junior-varsity player, Joe McGinn, climbed atop it, simulating Chamberlain as West's offense ran drills around him.

"At first, it was really strange," said Drew Denmead, a West starter who sells real estate in Arizona. "But after a while we got used to it, and it began to make sense. "

On the defensive side, Usilton, the son of former Temple coach Jimmy Usilton Sr. and a member of that school's 1938 NIT champions, decided to take another gamble in the city title game.

A year earlier, in West's victory over Ben Franklin, he had used two five-man platoons. Now he decided he would surround Chamberlain with four players.

One would drop off when the ball moved out beyond their corner of the box. But when Chamberlain had the ball, the four other Overbrook players would be the responsibility of West's quickest starter, Bill Lindsay.

The 18-1 Hilltoppers had lost only to Ben Franklin when Chamberlain, piqued at coach Sam Cozen, refused to shoot.

"But in most of our games, we were just destroying people," said Jim Sadler, an Overbrook reserve and the brother of starter Lou Sadler.

*

On Friday night, March 6, players from the two teams - almost all of whom lived in West Philadelphia - found their way to the Palestra, on 34th Street.

Gardler, who lived on 36th Street, walked.

"I got there real early," he said. "There were people lined up waiting to get in. "

By now, everyone wanted to see Chamberlain. Even the West players were eager for a close look.

As the crowd swelled, the city's fire marshal was summoned to ensure that the old building's limit of 8,451 was not exceeded. Tickets went in an instant, creating a brisk business for the scalpers among the 4,000 or so disappointed fans outside.

Just after 7:30, West, wearing blue uniforms, and Overbrook, in white, took the floor in this 15th meeting of the city's Public and Catholic League champions.

Two of Usilton's usual starters, Denmead and Joe McNicholas, remained in their woolen blue warm-ups. They were replaced by the slightly taller Charlie Eltringham and Jack Rowan.

Surrounded by Rowan, Eltringham, Devine and Gardler, Chamberlain was at first tentative. So were his teammates. And knowing that with their star in shackles, the burden would fall on them, they were visibly nervous, too.

"We had never practiced against a defense like that," and "had never seen one before," Jim Sadler said.

They kept trying to force the ball through the thicket of hands surrounding their center. And, for some reason, Cozen, then in his final season as the school's coach, never altered their approach.

"I tell people that Wilt got the opening tap to me and I had a five-foot shot that I missed by 20 feet," Guralnick said. "Seemed like everyone had a bad night. "

West led, 10-9, after the first quarter, as Lindsay hit three straight jumpers and Chamberlain was limited to three free throws.

But after scoring his first basket on a dunk two minutes into the second quarter, Chamberlain came to life. He scored 11 points in the period, and Overbrook led at halftime, 24-20.

West stayed close, and when Lindsay and Gardler combined for six quick points early in the third period, the Burrs took the lead.

"And that's when we went into our weave," Devine said.

The stalling, motion-filled offense drew Overbrook out of its 2-3 zone. Easy baskets followed, and West's lead grew so comfortable so quickly that with three minutes left, Usilton emptied his bench.

Chamberlain managed a hard-earned 29 points in the game.

Lindsay scored 12 fourth-quarter points in the game of his life. Despite chasing Overbrook's four other starters, the game's MVP finished with 32 points, then a record for the title game, on 11-for-12 shooting.

A senior, he went to La Salle briefly. But a knee injury ended his college career after one season. He died in 1997 at 61, never understanding why the Hilltoppers weren't more patient on offense.

"All they had to do was pass the ball around the court for two minutes and my tongue would have been hanging out," he said in 1979. "But they kept trying to get the ball to Wilt , and we kept stealing it. "

As Chamberlain's legend grew - he would win the next two city titles before moving on to Kansas, the Harlem Globetrotters, the NBA and immortality - the game became a familiar reference point for city basketball players, coaches and fans.

"I moved to West Chester not long ago and I went to a new barber," Devine recalled. "When I told him my name, he said, 'Oh, yeah, you played against Wilt Chamberlain. '

"That was the thing," Devine said. "The more famous Wilt became, the bigger and bigger that little game has become. "

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter at @philafitz.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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