Phila. basketball great Ernie Beck joining local Hall

Philadelphia story: Ernie Beck with the Warriors in 1956. His memorable career took him from West Catholic to Penn to the Warriors.
Philadelphia story: Ernie Beck with the Warriors in 1956. His memorable career took him from West Catholic to Penn to the Warriors. (AP)
Posted: November 08, 2013

Most of the landmarks in Ernie Beck's claustrophobic basketball biography could have been visited on a $10 cab ride.

The Mitchell School playground in his old Southwest Philly neighborhood. The nearby gym at Most Blessed Sacrament, 55th and Chester. The Arena. And Convention Hall, which stood on the 34th Street site where Beck now takes his wife for cancer treatments.

That peculiar Philadelphia hoops geography, where many in the generation that gave this city its basketball reputation were nurtured and showcased, has, like a lot of the men themselves, disappeared.

Beck, the West Catholic, Penn, and Philadelphia Warriors star, is, at 81, one of the last stars standing from an era that produced Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Guy Rodgers, and many others.

And Thursday night at the Sheraton Society Hill, Beck will join those local hoops legends as he and 16 others are inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

"I'm so glad for Ernie," said Tom DeFelice, who coached and taught with Beck at Bok Vocational High School for nearly three decades. "Yeah, he was a great basketball player, but he's also a gentleman, a man of character."

The award is a fitting tribute for someone who climbed basketball's heights without ever leaving his hometown. He went from prodigy to pro on the Market Street El.

When Beck played, there was an accepted map for the city's best. If you starred in the Public or Catholic League, you went to a local college. Then, if you were NBA-caliber, it was on to the Philadelphia Warriors.

"When [the Warriors] won the NBA championship, we had seven or eight guys from Philadelphia," said Beck, who now lives in Havertown.

According to a roster on Basketball-Reference.Com, an astounding eight of the 11 Warriors on that 1955-56 team played at Philadelphia high schools and/or colleges: Beck, Gola, Arizin, Jack George, Larry Hennesey, Jackie Moore, Bob Schafer, and George Dempsey.

Their coach, George Senesky, was, of course, a Philadelphian, too.

"We always thought Philadelphia was the center of basketball," Beck said. "The Public and Catholic Leagues, Penn, Villanova, St. Joe's, La Salle, and Temple, they were all pretty good."

So was Beck.

Exposed to basketball by a steamfitter father who had played the sport in cages, the lanky boy became an after-school fixture at Mitchell's playground, close to his Upland Street rowhome.

At MBS, the overpopulated parish school where in the 1940s the pastor converted the cafeteria to a gym, Beck led his team to two straight national CYO titles.

He went on to West Catholic, where as a senior in 1949 he won a city title and was Philadelphia's leading scorer. Beck was honored as Catholic League player of the decade for the 1940s.

Young Philadelphians like Gola, Hal Lear, Herb Magee, and Jimmy Lynam grew up idolizing the West Catholic star whose face and exploits were fodder for the city's sports pages.

"You watched guys like Ernie and it made you better," Lear recalled. "The bar was set really high for Philadelphia basketball back then."

Beck and his pals haunted Warriors games at the Arena, 46th and Market. He was particularly impressed by that team's star, jump-shooting pioneer Joe Fulks.

"I was 6-31/2 to 6-4, so back then I used to play primarily with my back to the basket," he said. "But after watching Fulks, I developed a pretty good jump shot from the corner, which you didn't see often in those days."

La Salle, Villanova, St. Joe's, and Notre Dame, among others, offered scholarships, but Beck stayed within a trolley ride of home, opting to play for Howie Dallmar at Penn.

He paced the Quakers to their first NCAA appearance (1953) and set school records that a half-century later still stand for points in a season (673) and career (1,827) and rebounds in a season (556) and a career (1,557).

"All those points in just three seasons with no three-point line," said Magee, the Philadelphia University coach and fellow West Philadelphia native. "And when you think that in all this time no one has broken those records, it's really remarkable."

Beck majored in insurance at the Wharton School but soon discovered he wasn't cut out for that buttoned-down business.

"I tried it for a few summers while I was playing ball," he said. "It's just not for me. So I got my master's degree from St. Joseph's and got into teaching."

In 1953, the Warriors used a territorial pick to take him No. 1. Before his rookie season, though, Beck was drafted into the Navy, not returning until 1955-56.

That year, he was a valuable sixth-man as Senesky's Warriors won the NBA title.

Beck spent two summers traveling the world as a foil on the teams the Goose Tatum-led Harlem Globetrotters beat up night after night. Other offseasons, he'd stay home and hone his game.

"I'd see him playing in this really strong semipro league in Philly," Magee said. "He was on an MBS team that also had Jim Lynam and [Warriors teammate] Joe Graboski. Great basketball."

Beck's Warriors career ended in 1960. He played briefly with the St. Louis Hawks and Syracuse Nats before winding down with Lancaster and Sunbury in the old Eastern League.

About that time, he began a 28-year career as a history teacher and basketball coach at Bok.

"He had a real presence," recalled DeFelice, then Bok's football coach. "He walked in a room and you knew it. When he taught a class, you could hear a pin drop."

"We'd play basketball once in a while and I never saw anybody shoot like him," DeFelice added. "You'd never see or hear it hit the net. Just whoosh!"

Long retired, Beck attends Mass daily at Sacred Heart. He's got his teacher's pension and a modest one from the NBA.

"I signed for $9,500," he recalled. "When I got back from the Navy, [owner Eddie] Gottlieb told me he'd signed a lot of players since I left so he could only pay me $8,500."

Meal money, he said, was $5 a day when he started, $7.50 by the time he retired.

But he's got enough to buy a round or two at Tip O'Leary's in Upper Darby, where on Friday nights he and many other ex-West and Southwest Philadelphians gather for beer and memories.

"It's amazing how many people from West or St. Tommy More still get together," Beck said. "They love to talk about those days."

"I was at [Penn's] Perelman Center, where my wife gets treatment for skin cancer," Beck said. "Walking down the hall, I saw a picture of Convention Hall on the wall. Whoever I was with said, 'That used to be located right where we're now standing.' And I said, 'I know. I used to play there.' "


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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