WHERE’S THE CENTAUR? (part 1): Finding Little Allentown College in the Big Basketball Picture

Posted on Sep 28, 2012

When I graduated from Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales I was in the school’s sixth graduating class.  But in Centaur years that was basketball season No. 7 – 1967-68 to 1973-74.

In the universe that was college basketball, these years were dominated by four letters: U-C-L-A, and one coach: John Wooden. By the time Allentown opened on September 22, 1965, the Bruins had already won two national championships, was about to win another eight, with seven  in a row, and ten total in a dozen seasons. All this a mere 56 years after UCLA itself opened, just 55 years after the school sported a first basketball team and only 17 years after Mr. Wooden became coach.

 Coach Wooden famously believed that basketball taught lessons of life, for life. My hope is CENTAUR SEASONS demonstrates that. It matters not the classroom size. We Centaurs weren’t big time. Heck, we were barely even small time. But basketball was our teacher, and we were its pupils.

So before we run CENTAUR SEASONS any farther down the court, a fast break through those first seven Centaur seasons (and UCLA’s 45th through 51st !) seems in order. To look at the big picture and then ask, “Where’s the Centaur?”

Today, we look at seasons Nos. 1, 2 & 3 — 1967-68, 1968-69 & 1969-70

WHO WAS GREAT in ’68?  

Allentown College fields a first team. One intercollegiate tilt plus a run in the Allentown City League. With the campus gym under construction, they often practiced on a tiled-floor gym at a nearby orphanage – the waifish symbolism obvious and humbling. And yet: “It wasn’t an intramural team,” declares Don Wright, a Centaur so original that while a senior at Allentown Central Catholic High School , in 1964, he attended the college groundbreaking. “We played those games to win. We weren’t tall. We had to try to play smart.”

Among the college teams that did have their own gyms, Elvin Hayes of Houston beats a cornea-scratched Lew Alcindor in “The Game of the Century” at the Astrodome, but Alcindor and UCLA got revenge in the national semifinal, 101-69, on their way to a fourth title in five years. In other hoop news, “Pistol” Pete Maravich at LSU and Calvin Murphy at Niagara together average 82 points a game.

This initial Centaur season lacks for documentation, at least that I could find. The intercollegiate game was versus King’s College up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Freshman or varsity? The Minstrel, the student newspaper, doesn’t say. For the record, the Centaur starting five was Don Wright, Jack Sabota, George Kelly, Tim “Duck” McKee (no relation) and Tom Junod. Duck leads the team with 16 points. At the half the Centaurs are down only four, 31-27. That was the “strong debut.”  Foul trouble dooms the Centaurs in the second half. Final score? The student newspaper doesn’t say. Maybe just as well. “Kings opened up a big lead,” the paper does report, “and went ahead to stay.”

As for the city league, it’s an 18-game campaign. “We were just a bunch of guys who liked to play basketball,” Don says. As good a place as any to start a program.

The school provided brand-new uniforms, the players their own sneakers and socks (plus towels, tape, warm-ups, pregame meal, transportation, beer money and postgame meal). The Centaurs were called the “Allentown Collegians,” underscoring their wet-behind-the-ears status. “You get into a city league,” Don says, “and you’re going against guys who have played organized ball for a long time.”

The basketball itself, Don remembers, “had its own brand of physicality.” Young legs got them only so far. In the first nine games played after the Christmas break they were 5-4, the Minstrel says. And in early February the paper reports that with four games left the team “ranked fourth and still have a fighting chance for a playoff berth.” The rest is left to recollection.

Did the Centaur-Collegians make the postseason? Don works the memory. It’s been a long time. “I don’t think so,” he says.

WHO WAS FINE IN ’69?

First evers: Allentown College has four years of students and graduates a first-ever class.

The Centaurs play a first-ever collegiate schedule of 17 games and collect their first-ever collegiate win, beating Northampton Area C.C., 68-47, in the first-ever game at Joseph J. Billera Hall. “It was a big-time thing,” says Bob Koch, of that first-ever Billera game. The once-orphaned team plays to an SRO crowd. The first-ever senior co-captain, Bob gave the dedication speech. “I was very optimistic for the future,” he says.

And why not? In their opener the Centaurs never trail. Tom Paolini banks Billeras first-ever bucket, according to the Minstrel.  Four players — Jack Sabota, Paolini, Tom Junod and Koch — are all in double figures, with Paolini and Junod recording double-doubles. Koch scores 10 or 11, depending on the account and (again, depending on the account) it was Bob who scored the first-ever Billera basket. What appears indisputable is that he did take the first-ever shot:  “An air ball,” Bob says, owning up. “Left elbow. Nothin’ but air.” The way he says it, it sounds optimistic.

Meanwhile, across the country John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and UCLA go 29-1 and win a third-straight NCAA title in the Alcindor era. And a 19-year-old Spencer Haywood averages 32.1 points a game for Detroit after tipping off his basketball season that October by leading Team USA to gold at the Mexico City Olympics.

The Centaurs beat Northampton Area C.C. two more times that first collegiate season — scheduling! — and lose the other 14.  “The record really doesn’t matter to me,” says Bob Koch, optimism still intact.. “It’s being part of that first process that’s important to me. We were the pioneers of the program. I look back on it all and say, ‘I’ve been lucky.’ ”

WHO WAS THE HERO IN SEVEN-ZERO?

The Centaurs notch their first Ws against four-year schools, including a don’t-come-easy, double-overtime road thriller against Wilmington.  Heroes aplenty. Sophomore Jim Naccarato, an Oblate seminarian, goes off for 24 and gets the game to the first OT on a jumper with seven ticks left in regulation. Freshman Chris Cashman hits two fouls with eight seconds left in overtime No. 1 to send it to the second.  And senior Tom Junod hits a jumper with a) nine seconds left (the school newspaper), or, b) 29 seconds left (the local paper) to secure the win.  Either way, HUGE.

“I do remember the urge and the need to start competing against the four-years schools,” says Tom, who averaged nearly a dozen per that season. “Prior to that if we played a four-year school we played the freshman. It was a good feeling to be playing against a four-year school – playing the varsity!”

Another hero in Seven-Zero? Depends. A floppy-socked Pete Maravich leads the nation with 44.5 points a game and turns the season into his very own Magical Mystery Tour. Conversely, John Wooden, minus Kareem Abdul Jabbar, demonstrates the values of team, team, team, team, team and produces another (and surprising) NCAA title, this time with five guys named Sidney, Curtis, Henry, John and Steve.

Meanwhile, back in Center Valley, the Centaurs finish with five victories – two more than the year before – and again lose 14.  “Our wins were few and far between,” Tom Junod says, speaking for all Centaurs.

“Nobody was doing anything but trying to win, play the best we could. We were happy to win any of them and we wanted to win all of them.”

Come back next week for WHERE’S THE CENTAUR? (part 2) and a look at the UCLA Bruins and the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales Centaurs of  1970-71, 1971-72, 1972-73 & 1973-74. 

VIDEO SUGGESTIONS: Lew Alcindor at UCLA …….. Pete Maravich at LSU  …….. Calvin Murphy

BOOK SUGGESTION: “Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich.” … by Mark Kriegel. … Great book. … I read it last summer. … You can’t undertand the Pistol unless you try to understand his Pop, Press Maravich. …  Scary good.

 

 

 

 

On October 1st, 2012 at 5:37 pm, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] WHERE’S THE CENTAUR? (part 1): Finding Little Allentown College in the Big Basketball Picture […]



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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