Once a point guard, always a point guard.
Maybe that explains John Wilson’s success as a businessman.
It certainly explains his success on the basketball court.
“John was always distributing,” former Sterling coach Bill Hiltner said. “The game would be over and he’d have 25 points and you’d be like, ‘How did he score 25 points? All I saw him do was pass.’ ”
Wilson was front and center in one of the best eras in Sterling basketball history. He partnered with one-year-older teammate Mark Settles to form an Ivy League-bound backcourt that propelled the Silver Knights to South Jersey prominence in the early 1980s.
Wilson, a four-year starter at Sterling and four-year player at the University of Pennsylvania, will be inducted into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame on Feb. 11 in well-deserved recognition of a superb playing career that set the stage for real-life success.
A graduate of Penn’s prestigious Wharton School, Wilson is the owner of Penn Services, a steel fabrication and installation business with around 120 employees and offices in Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.
Ever the unselfish floor general, Wilson is more delegator and direction-setter than hands-on, micro-managing boss.
“You can ask anybody, including my wife,” said Wilson, who lives outside Chicago with his wife, Julia, and four daughters, Kayla, Ava, Jalisa, and Aliyah. “Outside of maybe changing a light bulb, I’ve never had much expertise in the construction side of things.
“I like to get everyone involved.”
That was Wilson’s specialty at Sterling. Although he averaged 24.9 points as a senior in 1983, Wilson was the consummate pass-first point guard, always looking to get his teammates the basketball in position to score.
“He never took a bad shot, never forced anything, never was out of position,” Hiltner said. “The biggest thing with John was his leadership. He could call a huddle at half-court or at the foul line and accomplish more than I ever could in a timeout.”
Wilson grew up in Somerdale and began to develop his game at Saturday morning clinics that Hiltner used to run for fifth to eighth graders in the Sterling district in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Settles, a 1982 Sterling graduate who would play four years at Columbia, was part of that group, along with another Somerdale kid who never enrolled at Sterling: future collegiate national champion and NBA champion Billy Thompson.
Thompson moved to Camden and starred for the Panthers in the early 1980s, winning a state title in 1982 while earning acclaim as perhaps the country’s No. 1 player. He won a national title at Louisville and an NBA title with the Lakers.
“[I] think about that all the time — [we would have been] state champs,” Wilson said about Sterling’s likely success with Thompson on the court.
Sterling thrived without Thompson, thanks in large part to Settles, football star Curtis Stephens, and Wilson. The Colonial Conference title the Silver Knights won in 1982 kicked off a run of eight conference crowns in the next 20 seasons.
That 1982 team will be honored at a ceremony at halftime of Sterling’s game vs. Pemberton at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 10. That event and the Hall of Fame dinner the next night will be part of a reunion weekend for Wilson.
“When I think back to those days, I think about the camaraderie we had,” Wilson said. “I had a bond with those guys that I never had in my college life, never had in my work life. It was just something special.”
Wilson said he nearly followed the silky-smooth Settles — whom he called the “best shooter I ever played with or against” — to Columbia but decided to enroll at Penn to be closer to home. He played for two Ivy League-championship teams, earning the Quakers’ Most Inspirational Player award in 1985.
After college, Wilson worked in the corporate world for a while. About 10 years ago, he started his own construction company on the advice of another Penn player from the Colonial Conference, former Overbrook star Tyrone Pitts.
Thanks to Wilson’s vision, energy and leadership, Penn Steel has developed into a multimillion-dollar operation. The company recently was named “Business of the Year” by the city of St. Louis.
Wilson, 52, said success on the court, in business and in life springs from the same source. He said he strives every day to impart the simple but best lesson to his four daughters.
“It sounds like a cliché, but it’s hard work,” Wilson said. “When I got a call from Coach Hiltner that I was going in the Hall of Fame, it didn’t really sink in. I’m not a person who lives in the past.
“But to me, it makes me remember all the hard work that I put in. It reminds me that hard work pays off.”
If You Go
South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame induction dinner
When and where: Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill.
Who: This year’s class includes Bruce Campbell (Pleasantville, distinguished service), Chris Carideo (St. Augustine), Terry Cole (Pembeton), Jessica Copskey DePrince (Sterling), Tony Davenport (Pleasantville), Brian Turner (Moorestown Friends), Paul Wiedeman (Haddonfield) and John Wilson (Sterling).
Tickets: $35. Contact Jack Mongulla at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856-461-8800 for more information.
Championship team reunion
Sterling will honor its 1982 Colonial Conference boys’ basketball championship team at halftime of the Silver Knights’ home game vs. Pemberton at 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 10.
The 1982 team was led by guards Mark Settles, who played at Columbia, and John Wilson, who played at Penn, along with forward Curtis Stephens, who played football at Rutgers.