'Nova great Hank Siemiontkowski due back for North Catholic fete

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Hank Siemiontkowski and daughter Mia.

YET ANOTHER snowstorm was beginning in Sweden last week and Hank Siemiontkowski wasn't happy. Though he's been living there for the better part of four decades, give him an overcast afternoon in Port Richmond any day. At his age, shoveling is tiresome.

But brighter days - and a trip home - also were on his horizon.

The 50th anniversary of North Catholic's heart-stopping Catholic League basketball championship is being honored by the Markward Club on Sunday at Cannstatter's catering hall off Academy Road in Northeast Philly. Siemiontkowski, a star of that team, will be among the attendees. He arrives at PHL on Friday.

"It'll be great to see those guys, though it might take me a while to recognize some I haven't seen in 30-something years," said Siemiontkowski, 66, who grew up at Cambria and Aramingo.

For generations of kids at North, once the largest boys Catholic school in the world, there were essentially five evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - and Hank. A 6-7 forward, Siemiontkowski led the Falcons to the 1967 title and was the Catholic League North Division MVP in '67 and '68.

"Everybody who played at North Catholic knows his name," said Jim Giedemann, the 1986 North Division MVP.

Siemiontkowski went on to play at Villanova and was a junior in 1971 when the Wildcats made it to the Final Four. His legend grew when he put up 31 points and 15 rebounds in the national-semifinal overtime win against Western Kentucky and 19 points in the six-point loss to mighty UCLA in the title game.

(Villanova's season was subsequently vacated from the record books when it was discovered star Howard Porter had signed with an agent during the season.)

Siemiontkowski, inducted into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1988, was a fourth-round pick of the Cavaliers in 1972. He subsequently had several NBA tryouts during the 1970s before eventually playing in Europe. He settled in Sweden, where he lives in the tiny town of Fritsla with his wife, Anu, and Max, their 11-year-old black lab. Daughter Mia lives six hours away in Stockholm.

"I used to come back every year, just to get some sun, but now not so much anymore," Siemiontkowski said. "If I stayed (in Philadelphia) and worked at a regular job, you never know how things would have turned out."

But he didn't. He played professionally until he was 46 in places like Belgium, Finland, New Zealand and, of course, Sweden. Siemiontkowski talked of one of the earliest leagues he was in that featured former NBA draft picks who were hanging on, as well as aspiring prospects who were trying to get there. M.L. Carr, a key reserve for two Boston Celtics championship teams in the early '80s, was one of the prospects.

"It was good to get around, see different countries, meet interesting people," Siemiontkowski said. "I was playing on one leg mostly (after a knee injury). I was making enough money to keep food on the table and live OK."

He coached youth basketball and held a series of jobs mostly to just pass the time. Siemiontkowski developed a thyroid problem in 2001 that caused dramatic weight loss and low blood pressure. Treatment has been trial-and-error medication, but the last two months have allowed for some optimism. His weight is up from a low of 200 to 220 pounds.

Siemiontkowski will be staying with former Villanova teammate Tom Ingelsby and had some logistics to tighten up for his trip back to Philadelphia. If Villanova beats Mount St. Mary's in its first-round game, the Wildcats would play on Saturday and won't interfere with Sunday's celebration.

"Yeah, that's good," Siemiontkowski said. "Maybe some of us will get together and have some beers and watch Villanova."

And undoubtedly talk about North's 1967 title run, which was epic.

The Falcons edged Neumann in double overtime in the first round and squeaked by rival Father Judge in the semifinals. North then beat Bonner - in another double-OT game - on Dennis Bohn's buzzer-beater in one of the greatest Catholic League championship games ever. The Falcons won the city title over Overbrook.

It was the last city title for North, which closed in 2010.

The 1968 postseason also was memorable, but for the wrong reasons.

Siemiontkowski was a senior in '68 when coach Jack Friel suspended the entire varsity squad for the quarterfinal playoff game against McDevitt. The coach that morning allowed his players to walk back to the school after Mass and a breakfast, but they didn't arrive until third period.

It was a story that made national headlines, especially when North's JV team stunned McDevitt's varsity, 77-60.

"If I remember right, we came out of the Northeast Diner and one of the guys said, 'Let's get a paper,' " North starter Steve Pascavitch told the Daily News in 1978. "What the heck? It was a big moment in our lives, we wanted to see what the papers had to say about the game that night. We went to a newsstand under the El stop, but they didn't have any yet. We then thought about a store behind the school. We did take the long way around - which couldn't have made that much difference - and when we got back near the school, Jack was outside waiting for us."

The punishment "was a little drastic, I think," said Siemiontkowski, explaining that he did not miss any classes and might not have been punished had he spoken up about that. "But I don't think anybody ever got hurt by it. I would get asked about it (at Villanova), but that was it."

The Falcons lost to O'Hara in the semifinals on a tip-in by Lou Ferro at the buzzer. TedSilary.com reports that the ball tantalizingly rolled around the rim twice before falling in.

Ah, the Palestra. What an amazing time.

The Swedish skies got darker and the snow was starting to come down pretty good. Hank needed to get dinner started for Anu, who would be coming home soon from her job in special education.

Though the ground will be covered, like the memories from 50 years ago, the snow eventually will melt and the memories will come flooding back.

More than a hundred players from many of the Catholic League schools are going to be at Canstatter's and a film of the 1967 championship game will be shown. It's quintessential Philadelphia basketball.

"I heard (former Bonner star) Eddie Hastings will be there," Siemiontkowski said of his former Villanova teammate. "It's going to be a nice crowd. It'll be good to see everybody."

barkowe@phillynews.com

@EdBarkowitz