Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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From Philly to the world: 30 local products who gained national sports fame

Philadelphia has a rich history of producing sports figures who go on to fame beyond the region's borders. From city neighborhoods to suburban fields and our many colleges and universities, a wide range of talents have called this region home.

From Philly to the world: 30 local products who gained national sports fame

Philadelphia has a rich history of producing sports figures who go on to fame beyond the region's borders. From city neighborhoods to suburban fields and our many colleges and universities, a wide range of talents have called this region home.

We picked 30 people who the Philadelphia region can fairly claim to have produced in some form or another. They didn't all play professionally here, and we're sure that has annoyed plenty of you who've watched them become stars. But it's still pretty cool to think about how wide a range of talent has come from this area.

A disclaimer: This list isn't ranked in any particular order, because it's really hard to rank athletes across sports. It's hard enough to rank athletes within the same sport, especially since most of them never played against each other.


Baseball

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Mike Piazza: We might as well get the hard part done with first. How many times did you sit at home and watch the Norristown native do something spectacular against the Phillies?

Carlos Ruiz's role in anchoring the Phillies' recent years of success helped some of those bad memories fade away. But Piazza's numbers will live on for a long time: a career .308 batting average, over 2,000 hits and 427 home runs.

Reggie Jackson: Born in Cheltenham, Pa., the Yankees' "Mr. October" was the very definition of clutch. He recorded 78 hits, including 18 home runs, in 17 postseason series over a 21-year career.

And above all, there was that magic night in 1977. As the Bronx literally burned, Jackson electrified a cold October night at Yankee Stadium with three home runs in Game 6 of the World Series against the Dodgers. Those heroics delivered the Yankees' first title in 15 years.

Roy Campanella: We often think of Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School for its basketball history, but in the first half of the century it produced a baseball legend. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969, Campanella was a three-time MVP, and played a big role in the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1955 World Series triumph.

Orel Hershiser: Though he was born in Buffalo, Hershiser attended Cherry Hill East High School. That qualifies the 1988 National League Cy Young Award winner for this list.

Hershiser won 204 games in his 18-year career, and pitched over 3,000 innings. Among his eight postseason victories were Games 2 and 5 of the 1988 World Series, in which the Dodgers beat the Oakland Athletics in five games.

Mike Scioscia: You might know him better as a manager, but the Upper Darby native and Penn State alum achieved a lot as a player too. In 12 years as the Dodgers' starting catcher, Scioscia won two World Series and backstopped Fernando Valenzuela at the height of his stardom.

Scioscia then crossed town to the Angels, where he has been the manager since 2000. He has twice won the American League's Manager of the Year award, and led the Angels to their only World Series title in 2002.


Basketball

Wilt Chamberlain: A lot of people will argue that Chamberlain is the greatest basketball player Philadelphia has produced. They have a point – or perhaps 100 of them.

Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to score 100 points a game, but his legend didn't start there. It started at Overbrook High, where he averaged 31 points a game. After playing college basketball at Kansas, he returned to Philadelphia to play for the Warriors and then the 76ers.

His pro career produced 13 NBA All-Star Game appearances, seven scoring titles, four MVP awards and two championships.

Kobe Bryant: Yes, he quite famously dissed Philadelphia. And yes, one of his five NBA titles came at the 76ers' expense. But even the most ardent Kobe-hater has to admit that the Lower Merion High product reigned supreme as the NBA's best player for many years.

Though his dazzling career may be slowly coming to an end, Bryant can still step up and shine in big moments. His back-to-back gold medals with the U.S. Olympic basketball team are just part of the proof.

Jameer Nelson: If you saw him play at Chester High, you knew he was special. If you saw him lead St. Joe's to an undefeated season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the 2003-04 campaign, you knew he was special. And if you only ever saw him when his name was called at the NBA Draft, that's your fault.

But the Orlando Magic knew what they were getting: a gifted point guard who could also fill up a box score with points. Nelson's eight-year pro career so far has done more than enough to quiet those draft night skeptics: an average of 12 points and five assists in nearly 600 games played.

Earl Monroe: We return to the history books for a Philadelphia native and Bartram High product whose name still resonates with plenty of older NBA fans. "The Pearl" played 15 years in the pros, six with the then-Baltimore Bullets and nine with the New York Knicks.

He was the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1968 and a four-time All-Star. His flashy style and ability to score in bunches made him the perfect backcourt partner for Walt Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Together, they helped the Knicks win the 1973 NBA title.

Lionel Simmons: His signature accomplishment is as straightforward as it gets: the all-time leading scorer in Big 5 history. Twenty years after "The L-Train" departed La Salle for the final time, his total of 3,217 points has never been equaled – or even approached - in the City Series. He's nearly 600 points ahead of everyone else.

Ken Durrett: Though La Salle hasn't won even a share of the Big 5 title since 1998 – and hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1992 – the Explorers can still lay claim to having two of the Big 5's true legends.

In addition to Lionel Simmons, there's Durrett, who's considered by many to be the best player in City Series history. A three-time winner of the Geasey Trophy as the Big 5's Player of the Year, his place in local hoops lore was further enhanced by his famous duels with Villanova star Howard Porter.

Jack Ramsay: In addition to its history of great players, Philadelphia has also produced many great coaches. Dr. Ramsay (yes, really, he holds a doctorate in education) was in charge on Hawk Hill from 1955 through 1966, and led Saint Joseph's to seven Big 5 titles in that span.

Ramsay moved on from St. Joe's to the NBA in 1968, beginning a 20-year head coaching career that began with a five-season stint in Philadelphia. He has since become a renowned basketball color analyst with ESPN.

John Chaney: Although he was born in Jacksonville, Fla., there's no question that he is a product of Philadelphia. He turned Temple into a powerhouse in his 24 years on North Broad Street, and produced as many quality young men as he did quality basketball players.

Yes, his legacy is far from perfect, as John Calipari and Phil Martelli can attest to. But there's no question that he put the Owls on the national college basketball map, and his five Elite Eight teams produced some of the best hoops the Big 5 has ever seen.

Cathy Rush: Philadelphia may not have a WNBA team, but it has made huge contributions to women's basketball. Cathy Rush was one of the sport's pioneers, turning tiny Immaculata University into a national powerhouse in the 1970's.

The native of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., won 149 of the 164 games she coached at Immaculata, including three AIAW national championships. Her accomplishments were immortalized in movie form last year with the film Mighty Macs.

Dawn Staley: The Philadelphia native and eight-year WNBA stalwart could have almost made this list just on the basis of her years coaching Temple's women's team. Her résumé on North Broad Street includes six NCAA Tournament berths in eight seasons. That success brought them genuine popularity in the city.

Staley's signature accomplishment, though, came on the international stage. She helped the U.S. women's Olympic team win three straight gold medals, and carried the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies in 2004.


Football

Brian Westbrook: He was perhaps the ultimate Eagle when it came to defying expectations. Westbrook enjoyed a wildly successful career after turning pro out of Villanova. If he hadn't gone to college in the region, Andy Reid and company might never have found him.

It's a good thing they did, though. Westbrook totaled 5,995 rushing yards and 3,790 receiving yards in nine seasons in Philadelphia, and still stands as one of the team's most popular players of recent seasons. The Eagles retired his jersey last season.

Eddie George: It takes a lot to be considered one of the best players in Ohio State history, but the Philadelphia native definitely fits the bill.

George won almost every award possible in his senior year, when he rushed for a school-record 1,927 yards – including the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award and the Walter Camp Award.

He enjoyed a successful NFL career as well, rushing for over 10,000 yards and 78 touchdowns in eight seasons with the Oilers, Titans and Cowboys.

Franco Harris: He may be mostly associated with the Steelers and Penn State, but Harris is a native of Fort Dix, N.J. So he counts, even if his success with the Steelers is the sort of thing Eagles fans have never been able to experience.

Harris played on four Super-Bowl winning squads, and made the Pro Bowl every year from 1972 through 1980. But he is best remembered for a single play: the "Immaculate Reception" that propelled the Steelers past the Raiders in a 1972 AFC divisional playoff game.

John Heisman: The man for whom college football's most famous trophy is named made his name at Franklin Field. He played for Penn from 1890 to 1891, primarily as an offensive lineman. He later coached the Quakers from 1920 to 1922.

Heisman was a pioneer of football tactics. He invented the snap from center and is widely credited with establishing the concept of the forward pass. Later in life, he helped create a trophy to honor the nation's best college football player. It was named in his honor in 1936, soon after he passed away.

Chuck Bednarik: Sixty years after his playing career with the Eagles ended, "Concrete Charlie" remains one of the most popular players in team history. That's in part a reward for leading the Eagles to one of their only NFL titles, and in part recognition for the all-out ruthlessness with which he played.

The photo of Bednarik standing over Giants quarterback Frank Gifford after knocking him to the ground is one of the most famous images in early NFL history.

Bednarik played college football at Penn, and the University honored him in 2011 by placing a large statue of him on the stadium's north concourse.


Other Sports

Bernard Hopkins: While the city's pro teams failed to win championships, Hopkins delivered many titles in the ring. The last of his titles, most of which were won in the middleweight category, came in 2011 – when he was 46 years old. That made him the oldest fighter to ever win a major world championship.

Hopkins remains a popular figure, and rarely fails to show love for the city which made him one of the great boxers of modern times.

Joe Frazier: He spent a lot of time playing second fiddle to Muhammad Ali, and their rivalry extended well beyond the boxing ring. But Frazier had plenty of accomplishments in his own right, including holding the world heavyweight championship in the early 1970's.

After retiring, Frazier operated a famous boxing gym in North Philadelphia. Its façade remains visible today, even though the gym is no longer in operation.

When Frazier passed away in 2011, he finally got his due from the public – including Ali. That the praise came after his death seemed somehow appropriate, even if it wasn't fair.

Anita DeFrantz: Her fame came off the field, not on it, though she did win a bronze medal in rowing at the 1976 Olympics. A Penn grad, DeFrantz's signature accomplishment was becoming the first ever female vice president of the International Olympic Committee in 1997.

Throughout her career in the Olympic movement, DeFrantz has championed women's rights and gender equality in opportunities to compete. She helped organize the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and remains active in sports-related philanthropic efforts in southern California.

Jon Drummond: One of the great showmen in track and field history, the Overbrook High product began his career as a runner at the Penn Relays.

He ran at Franklin Field in elementary school, junior high, high school and college, where he helped Texas Christian win back-to-back 4x100-meter relay Championships of America in the early 1990s.

Later, as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, he won silver in the 4x100 in 1996 and gold in 2000. He was a coach for the U.S. squad this summer in London, and the women's team shattered a world record that had stood for 27 years.

Carl Lewis: No Olympian ever has achieved the feat that the longtime South Jersey resident has: on four consecutive gold medals in the long jump, from 1984 to 1996.

On top of that, Lewis won gold in the 100-meter sprint in 1984 and 1988, gold in the 200-meter sprint in 1984 (and silver in 1988), and gold in the 4x100-meter relay in 1984 and 1992.

Mike Richter: Rather like Mike Piazza's accomplishments with the Mets, Richter's feats with the Rangers were particularly annoying to Philadelphia fans - especially given the Flyers' long history of controversy in net.

Richter backstopped eight playoff trips in nine years at Madison Square Garden, and won the Stanley Cup in 1994. He still holds the Rangers' records for most games played (666), most career wins (301) and most wins in a single season (42).

Michael Andretti: You have to stretch the Philadelphia region a little bit to get to Nazareth and Bethlehem, where the Andretti family has been based for decades. But we'll do it to include one of the open-wheel auto racers in American history. He spent nearly 20 years racing IndyCars, and made a brief jump to Formula 1 in 1993.

Although Andretti never won the Indianapolis 500, he did win what was then known as the CART IndyCar World Series championship in 1991. And most importantly, he continued the legacy of a family name that has few equals in American auto racing.

Walter Bahr: Many American soccer fans have only come to the sport in recent years. Most of them know that the U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. But the sport has a history in this country that dates back decades earlier, and Bahr is a big part of that.

In 1950, the Philadelphia native assisted on the game-winning goal in a 1-0 upset of England at the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Bahr later went on to coach at Temple and Penn State, and he now resides in Boalsburg, Pa., near State College.

John Facenda: You know him as the voice of NFL Films. You know him as the former voice of the holiday light show at Wanamaker's/Lord & Taylor/Macy's. You know him as the "Voice of God."

Here's what you might not know. Facenda went to high school at Roman Catholic and college at Villanova, then worked in radio at WHAT and WIP. He later became a news anchor for WCAU.

Only in 1965 did he join NFL Films, and give his voice to what became an iconic piece of football culture.

Harry Kalas: He was born in a Chicago suburb, but no one associates Kalas with any city other than Philadelphia now. From 1971 until the day he died in 2008 – in the broadcast booth at Nationals Park – Kalas was the signature voice of summer nights in our region.

From city rowhouses to Jersey shore condos, Kalas' voice rang out as he called Phillies games on the radio. He later moved to television. Whether with By Saam, Andy Musser, Richie Ashburn, Chris Wheeler or Larry Andersen, his understated but heartfelt commentary made him a true legend of the booth. 

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