Former hoops heroes still sharing their wisdom

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ollie Johnson works with youth on their basketball skills as part of a daylong clinic.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ollie Johnson works with youth on their basketball skills as part of a daylong clinic.
Posted: July 21, 2013

WITH THE HEAT index shooting over 100 degrees yesterday, Ollie Johnson was dripping in sweat inside, at the Police Athletic League Recreation Center on Tioga Street in North Philadelphia.

The Temple alum (1969-72) was working hard teaching kids from around the area how to pass, dribble and shoot at the "Full Court: Prep for Success" camp. He even took to the floor to put up some shots. The sweltering heat did not make Johnson, 64, think twice about helping out the kids that attended the camp.

"I'm out here because I've always been out here," Johnson said. "I've always done it. It has been ingrained in me to do it. It's about doing your part. Doing what is right for the kids, and the next generation. I needed it. I was a good kid, and I needed it."

Johnson, along with fellow Philadelphia basketball figures Pat McFarland and Paul Graham, instructed the kids about basketball fundamentals, but also taught them life skills they can use every day.

"That's really all that is important," McFarland said. "When we teach how to shoot, we are teaching them how to learn. That's what these camps are all about. To come to just a basketball camp is not going to be worth anything."

McFarland, 61, who played at Saint Joseph's from 1970-73, thinks camps such as this one go well beyond just putting the ball in the hoop and learning proper defensive position. He was inducted to the Hawks Hall of Fame in 2005, but still continues to help kids learn and grow.

"A majority of the kids will never get to the next levels," McFarland added. "But if they can learn how to shoot, and learn how to dribble, and learn how to pass, then they can learn how to do a lot of things. Learning how to learn is the most important thing we do here."

Johnson, on the other hand, thinks it is the experiences he can share with the kids is what will help them. He played in the NBA for 10 years for six teams, including the hometown Sixers.

"I think what is important is that we show up," Johnson said. "That they have an opportunity to talk to us and understand that we were once PAL kids or YMCA kids just like them, from the same environment, and what we did is possible for them."

Johnson and McFarland, both Big 5 Hall of Famers, have seen a lot of changes in the Big 5 since they played in it.

"It changed a lot," McFarland said. "I went through the Big 5. I had a chance to play in the heyday of the Big 5. There was nothing like it. I think when the Big 5 broke up, the conferences started getting so big. It was money. They wanted to play more games at their own arenas, which made sense. It changed things. I think it impacted Philadelphia basketball, because it was the Public League, Catholic League, Inter-Ac league that all fed the Big 5. As the business of basketball itself got bigger, you saw a lot of colleges coming in and recruiting, and taking kids out of the city. There's nothing wrong with that, but it just changed the whole basketball world."

Added Johnson: "It's different. Everything has changed. AAU basketball has changed basketball. I think that charter schools have changed the spirit of it. I think it was more fun when I played in the Big 5. A lot of guys have been talking about it."

Whether the Big 5 has changed for the better or worse, both Johnson and McFarland pushed through the oppressive heat to help ensure that the kids who showed up to the camp had the same opportunity to succeed as they did.

On Twitter: @AndrewJAlbert01

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