When I was a Reading Times police reporter in the early 1970s, my short daily walk from that newspaper’s offices to city hall took me past the childhood home of Wallace Stevens.
That proximity sparked an interest in the famed poet’s work, a curiosity quickly extinguished by the incompatible combination of its complexity and my obtuseness.
There was, however, one Stevens line that, much like the wincingly sweet aroma that wafted from the nearby Luden’s cough-drop factory, has never left me – “The summer night is like the perfection of things.”
“Summer night” is among the language’s most evocative phrases. It conjures images of pink sunsets fading into a star-lit sky, of chattering crickets and carefree spirits, honeysuckle and home. And, for an aging group of basketball players and the fans they captivated, it means Sunday night games at Aronimink Swim Club.
“They were great fun. Real simple stuff,” said Fran Dunphy, Temple’s coach and a participant in those long-ago games. “And the weather, as I recall, was always beautiful.”
For two or three summers, beginning in the late 1960s, Sunday nights at the club in the Pilgrim Gardens section of Drexel Hill became Philadelphia basketball’s focal point.
It began with Jack McKinney, the St. Joseph’s head coach who later moved on to the NBA. The head of Aronimink’s recreation program, he hired Herb Magee as an aide. When McKinney took his Hawks to Europe one summer, Magee assumed the job and hired the ultimate Philly gym rat, Jimmy Lynam, to help.
“It was one of the great jobs of all time,” recalled Magee. “We didn’t do anything. We played a lot of basketball and the members liked to watch. One day we got the idea to play these games on Sunday nights. It took off. All week people would ask, `Who you playing Sunday?’ ”
Aronimink’s in-house team was formidable. Magee and Lynam had been West Catholic stars, the latter a Big 5 MVP at St. Joe’s. Dunphy, a longtime pool member, was a better-than-average La Salle guard. Mike Hauer, a lifeguard, was a bruising, undersize St. Joe’s center. Head lifeguard Tommy Stewart had played at Bonner and Steubenville.
Later, younger club members like Penn’s Ed Stefanski and Mike Stack supplemented the roster.
“We weren’t real deep,” said Dunphy. “We only had six, seven guys. I was just a role player and defensive specialist. I tried not to turn it over and make sure Herb got the requisite number of shots. If I tried to shoot too much, Herb would say, `Yo, my man, lighten that up.’ ”
Their challengers were the best of local talent. McKinney’s St. Joe’s team visited. Magee brought his Philadelphia Textile players. In that era before the NCAA banned teams from playing together during the off-season, Villanova and Temple came, too.
Soon, makeshift squads of young and old Philadelphia talent were challenging Aronimink. They included such future NBA players as Wali Jones, Mike Bantom, Walt Hazzard, Larry Cannon, Geoff Petrie and Tom Ingelsby. Home-grown college stars like Franny O’Hanlon, Danny Kelly, Jim O’Brien, Bobby Lloyd, Mike Moody, Carlton Poole and Hank Siemientowski regularly participated.
The style was pure playground, circa 1970. Behind-the-back passes. Long jumpers. An up-and-down pace.
“We got after it a little bit. Then the opponents started getting serious and the crowds began to come,” said Dunphy.
Sometimes participants played to the spectators. When, for instance, Aronimink hosted La Salle, the Explorers’ Lefty Ervin pulled a muscle. Referee Gerry “Birdman” Collins was called on to put down his whistle and take Ervin’s spot.
“I sensed an opportunity and decided to take a couple of long-range jumpers, maybe a step across half-court,” he said. “None of the shots came close to going in but the crowd got a big kick out of it.”
The games began at 6 p.m. on a court just down the hill from Aronimink’s pool. As word spread in the tight-knit basketball community, gatherings of a few dozen curious members quickly grew to 700 or 800.
“Most were pool members, but we began to allow others to come in,” said Stewart. “Their lawn chairs surrounded the court. They’d bring drinks and food. Some people came early, put their chairs down close to the court, then barbecued their dinners on grills.”
As the ritual picked up steam, the formality increased. Gerry Donaghy and Joe Crawford were among the volunteer referees. There was a hand-held clock, a scorekeeper, even preliminary games involving local high-schoolers.
“One thing we didn’t have was a shot clock,” said Magee. “But then again we didn’t need one.”
Then Textile’s young head coach, Magee lived on Pontiac Road, virtually across the street from the club. He claimed that as good as the competition was, Aronimink “only lost one or two games.”
“We were good,” said Magee, a legendary jump shooter who, according to Stewart, was regularly Aronimink’s high-scorer. “Hauer was a killer. Tough as nails. Dunph could really play. Jimmy and I had played together so long that he could just look at me and I knew whether he wanted me to go back door or come around for a handoff. He was a very underrated player.”
The tradition flowered at a time when the local pro teams were dreadful. Big 5 basketball, whose talent stocked the Sunday night games, might have been the city’s most popular sport.
Eventually, life intruded on the idyll. Players began lives and careers. The Big 5 faded.
And, as all summers must, the games came to an end.
“I still think about those days,” said Magee. “Every time I hear anything about Aronimink, I still get a big smile on my face. They were happy times.”