Catholic League basketball.
Even now the phrase evokes a dewy-eyed smile, though that Philadelphia institution’s import and distinctiveness have dimmed, much like the role of the Catholic church itself in our aging Boomer lives.
It was a small and short-lived universe, a world of Converse and center jumps that survived perhaps 40 post-war years before the black hole formed by a variety of cosmic forces – from the AAU to ESPN – swallowed it up. But for a few wonderful decades, at some quirky gyms and tradition-rich schools, many of which no longer exist, it was a sacred ritual.
You can’t easily describe its appeal, certainly not to a non-Philadelphian. What made Catholic League basketball special was its incestuousness. Everyone knew everyone else. And not just their names, but their parents, their neighborhoods, their parishes, the playgrounds they frequented, their hoop creds. Heady coaches bred heady players who became heady coaches themselves. Those who didn’t became referees, or devoted fans, or fathered sons who played.
The best Catholic League teams were undersized, dedicated defensively and extremely well-coached. Because the players experienced it every day from the nuns and priests who taught them, adherence to discipline came easily. Inventiveness did not, though occasionally guards like Neumann’s Frankie Gillen or St. James’ Eddie Dodds would unleash a behind-the-back pass, a move as likely to earn them a bench seat as an ovation. All, it seemed, could trace their basketball lineage back to fathers, uncles, older brothers who’d been schooled in the weave and the 2-1-2 at the league’s ancient places -- North, West or South Catholic, Roman, LaSalle, St. Joe’s Prep, St. James. The traditions at those schools imbued programs at newer ones, places closer to the city’s edges or in the growing suburbs – Father Judge, Cardinal Dougherty, Cardinal O’Hara, Monsignor Bonner, Archbishop Wood, Archbishop Ryan, Bishop Egan, Bishop Kenrick.
It wasn’t only the players who were close. From the ticket-takers at the doors, to the moms selling once-soft pretzels and orangeade at the snack bars, to the fans in high-top Chucks, worker khakis and school jackets, to players and coaches themselves, everyone had a knowable past. They’d encountered each other at playgrounds, been in parish or CYO leagues together, attended the same Catholic-school classes that in those Baby Boom years often were packed with 90 or 100 kids. Even the sportswriters were connected. The cadre of mostly Catholic scribes drank with coaches at neighborhood saloons, attended Mass with them, vacationed at the same Jersey shore towns.
There was a shared history, a shared vocabulary, shared memories. Everybody knew the stories about St. Tommy More’s low-ceilinged gym, about the tough Bishop Neumann teams of the mid-‘60s, about Obie O’Brien, Speedy Morris and Jim Purcell, about Tom Gola, Hank Siemientowski, Billy Hoy, Larry Foust, Carlton Brooks and Matt Guokas, about Our Lady of Angels, Incarnation, St. Dennis, and Most Blessed Sacrament parishes.
Your parish was particularly significant. For anyone associated with Catholic League basketball, it was your ID. The question, “Where you from?” was not intended to elicit the name of a city neighborhood, suburban town or subdivision. The inquisitors wanted to know your parish. And hearing it, they immediately knew the priests, nuns, families, players and coaches who shaped you. They knew you. I, for example, was Incarnation and, after my parents moved to Broomall, St. Pius X. That pedigree always evoked a litany of names that included Tom Gola, Lefty Huber, Monsignor Benjamin, Jack McCloskey, Paul Sunderman, Father Dowd and others.
My first exposure to Catholic League basketball came as a young boy when I pored through my father’s LaSalle High yearbooks from the early 1940s, studying them endlessly as if they were sacred scrolls. I was mesmerized by the images of satin-short players with unruly pompadours performing in small, dark gymnasiums. These places seemed otherworldy, threatening dungeons that held unknowable secrets. My father took me to a few games at LaSalle where the combination of fervor and solemnity I witnessed convinced me that surely this was the pinnacle of American athletics. “Saw Gola play right here,” my dad liked to tell me, invoking the name of the fellow Incarnation product who was revered as a saint -- a god, really -- in our household.
My own passion for my own team was born on a dreary, end-of-Christmas-break Sunday in January 1965. Too young to drive and stymied in any attempt at fun by (A) a lack of finances and (B) Pennsylvania’s Blue Laws, I was desperate for something to do. I was a sophomore at year-old Cardinal O’Hara, a Delaware County school populated by only freshmen and sophomores at its inception. A year later, it still was without any seniors, making athletics a challenge.
That Sunday O’Hara’s basketball team was facing West Catholic at home in our 3,200-seat gym, a well-waxed wonder of a changing Catholic League world. “Why don’t you go?” my father asked. “I never missed one of my high school’s games.” Even for an avid sports fan like me, the suggestion was remarkably unappealing. Without juniors and seniors, our football and basketball teams had been spanked hard and often by league opponents in the school’s early days. Why would this be any different? Besides I had issues with Coach Purcell. The neat, quiet man, also my Spanish teacher, had cut me after the first day of basketball tryouts a year earlier. Cut ME! The kid who had once been St. Pius’ high-scorer against mighty St. Andrew’s (I had 3 points in a 62-5 loss.), the kid who had endured a fall’s worth of cross-country practices because Purcell, in a effort to cull the number of hopefuls for his brand-new team, made them a pre-requisite. (Actually, I typically hid in the woods, rejoining the breathless pack in the homestretch, but that’s a blog post for another day.) Yet for some reason, perhaps because my father offered me a ride and the price of admission, I went.
Sitting high up in the south stands, mingling with classmates who, in my self-conscious mind at least, occupied a far higher social strata during the school day, I was immediately captivated by the enthusiasm, the excitement, the familiarity, the spectacle. Best of all, O’Hara, sparked by fellow sophomore point guard John McFadden’s 19 points, upset the fearsome Burrs. And when the next day’s Evening Bulletin contained a bylined story on the game beneath an inside-page banner headline – which I later learned was written by Herm Rogul and which I still recall, “5-9 towhead Soph Leads Lions to Upset of West” - I was captured, hook-shot, line and sinker.
I didn’t miss more than three O’Hara basketball games the remainder of my detention-riddled time there. They were played on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. So if I had anything else to do on the weekends – and I rarely did – it had to happen either late Friday or Saturday. Since most of my Broomall friends were “publics”, those ignorant of not only the one true faith but the one true game, I usually went alone. I didn’t get a driver’s license until I was 22, so that wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
For O’Hara’s home games, I’d walk the couple of miles. I could hitchhike to St. James or Bonner – where, one of the vocal O’Hara crowd that delighted in chanting, “We smell BO—N-N-E-R!”, I was finally a part of something. To get to West Catholic, I could take a Red Arrow bus and the Market Street El, exiting at 46th Street. For all the other games at Roman, Neumann, St. Joe’s Prep, STM, Kenrick, Judge, Dougherty, North or any of the Christmas tournaments, I finagled a ride, usually with either the Oristaglios or Raisls, families from my parish who always attended because their sons played JV and varsity.
The best means of transportation, though, was to bum a ride with Jim Diehl in the Diehl-mobile, a ’54 Ford. (Until Jim died last September, he never failed to correct me when I called it a ’53; as I write this, I can sense him peering over my shoulder, ready to pounce on any factual misstep.) The car’s best feature was its wolf whistle which we used with impunity until vary police forces ordered Diehl to remove it. Unfortunately, in those days, Jim’s allegiance was split between O’Hara and BO-N-N-E-R. Though he was an O’Hara student and had an uncle, Charlie McMahon, who coached O’Hara’s freshman basketball team, his Brookline buddies played at or attended BO-N-N-E-R. The Diehl-mobile wasn’t always available.
Once inside the gyms, I liked to position myself as high as possible on the O’Hara side, or as high as one could get I the tiny facilities at Roman, STM or West. JV games were played first, often contested before a crowd that consisted of the players’ parents and me. As the varsity contest neared, I carefully eyed the incoming fans, hoping to spot a few of my spirited colleagues who could join with me in the chants we enjoyed. For teenaged boys, there is a cruel strength in numbers. Some of what we chanted was funny, the hot-dog comments with which we mocked Neumann’s Frankie Gillen, for example. Some were nasty, insults directed at the size of an opponent’s nose or ears, or even ethnic background. And sometimes they were outright racist, yelling, “Hey, LeRoy!” and worse at talented African-American players like STM’s Brooks or West’s Ron Billingslea. We excoriated the referees, opposing fans, anyone we suspected was not part the little O’Hara club that was increasingly becoming part of the larger Catholic League club. But we had to be careful because most of these people knew us.
In the downtimes, we’d casually, without even thinking, dissect everyone’s Catholic League tree: “See that guy over there in the Nova jacket? He played on MBS’s seventh-grade team when they lost to St. Martin’s in the city title game at the Palestra. His uncle played at the Prep with Guokas. I played against him down the shore last summer. He was on the same team with O’Hanlan. I think Bob Palestini coached him there.”
In those interminable stretches between weekends, I’d voraciously consume the Bulletin, Inquirer, Daily News, Delco Times (then the Chester Times, I believe) for news about the league. Every week the Markward Club named a Catholic League player of the week, an award I believed must surely be the equal of a Nobel or a Pulitzer. I composed my own Catholic League all-star teams during classes and passed them to my fellow students. As I recall, my senior-year All-Southern Conference squad was comprised of McFadden and Joe Hazinksy from O’Hara, Brooks from STM, Dodds from St. James and Nick Atene from Neumann.
By my senior year, Purcell’s O’Hara team was a league power. I was so proud that I begged my public-school buddies to attend games with me, to witness the crowd noise and the basketball style that I was certain was what Naismith intended. Sure they were outsiders, but who knew? Didn’t Father Damien minister to the lepers? Perhaps they could be converted. (Whether through my efforts or not, two of them did end up attending Villanova and becoming Big 5 fanatics, the next step up from Catholic League worship.)
One of the great heartaches of my life occurred in March of ’67 when, in a conference-title playoff game at Villanova Fieldhouse, O’Hara was thrashed by archrival BO-N-N-E-R. The only consolation was that my public-school buddies had finally come with me and departed astounded by the large crowd, its enthusiasm and the level of play. Disheartened like me, the Lions were thumped by Dougherty at the Palestra in the playoff game I’d dreamed about all those nights.
As luck would have it, I missed the all-time highlight of O’Hara basketball. In 1968, I was a freshman in college at Wisconsin. My roomie, fellow O’Hara grad Gene Downs, and I followed O’Hara’s progress that season in the Bulletins my mother mailed. The Catholic League was still big news and we eagerly read about the Lions as Hazinsky, Tom Inglesby and Lou Ferro led O’Hara to the Catholic League title game. That night, Gene and I, illegally – or at least unethically -- commandeering a dormitory phone, made frequent calls to a friend in Philly who was listening on radio. O’Hara, which had beaten Roman in 3 OTs in the quarterfinals and North on a buzzer tip-in in the semis, rallied from 13 down with 2:18 to play to capture its one and only league title. Here’s how the Daily News’ great Ted Silary describes the 53-52 overtime win on his remarkable website:
“O'Hara authored one of the more legendary chapters in CL history by scoring the final 13 points of regulation in 2:18. Mike Daly hit a 25-footer to complete the comeback, during which Judge missed four one-and-ones, grabbed no rebounds and committed four turnovers. Joe Hazinsky (15), Tom Ingelsby (13) and Daly (12) scored in double figures. Ingelsby dribbled away most of the extra session and swished a clinching free throw with 0:16 left. The Lions' playoff run featured four OTs and three wins by five points total. Judge suffered a blow when floor leader Tim Fehrle (17) fouled out with 1:44 left in regulation. “
By the time I transferred back to Temple, the Big 5 was besting the Catholic League for my affection and attention, not that there was much difference. The Big 5 back then was packed with Catholic Leaguers. Daly and Inglesby, for example, would go on to play at Villanova. Soon, though, local colleges would turn their recruiting eyes nationally. As pro sports and college events like March Madness continued to grow in popularity, the focus on high schools got fuzzy and eventually diminished. If people paid attention at all to the Catholic League, it was only in the larger context of recruiting. The dominant question changed from “Where you from?” to “Where you going?”
Now North Catholic is gone. So is Dougherty. And St. Tommy “Forever” More. West and Neumann barely survive, merged now with nearby girls schools, their boys populations a fraction of what they were. The annual city title game matchup with the Public League champion has been abolished. The Catholic League abandoned its geographical restrictions. A top-flight basketballer from Roxborough or West Philly can go to Archbishop Ryan if he wants and doesn’t mind the commute. But he’s more likely to play in the Public or InterAc Leagues, both of which have surpassed the Catholic in basketball.
The only high school games I attend now are my niece’s. She plays at Upper Darby. Occasionally, I’ll see an old Catholic League face there and we’ll reminisce. We can’t stay away from gyms entirely.
Things change. Look at me. I still sit high in the stands. But now I drive to the games.