Hall of Fame inductees treasure Phila. roots

Gary Williams
Gary Williams
Posted: August 09, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - Philadelphia's representatives in the Basketball Hall of Fame's Class of 2014 sat on stage Thursday and occasionally glanced up at the second-floor gallery where, glowing like familiar stars in an alien sky, the illuminated faces of earlier Philly basketball legends looked back.

Those Hall of Fame predecessors and the city's rich and welcoming basketball culture, these inductees insisted, set them on a path to Springfield.

"Growing up outside Philly in the late 1950s, early 1960s, there was nothing bigger than basketball," said Gary Williams, the South Jersey-born coach whose long and successful coaching career included an NCAA title in 2002 at Maryland. "You couldn't help but get involved."

On Friday night, Collingswood's Williams, the mid-1970s Immaculata Mighty Macs, and Guy Rodgers, the late Temple and Warriors star, will be among those formally inducted in a ceremony that figures to be redolent with Philadelphia references.

"Back then, there were legends everywhere you looked," Williams said. "The Big Five. Jack Ramsay. Harry Litwack. Jack McCloskey. The Philadelphia Warriors. Wilt Chamberlain. Guy Rodgers."

As if to confirm Williams' point, 15 feet away, Rodgers' son, Tony, who will be accepting the honor for his father, who died in 2001, was talking about the same thing.

"Sometimes in our house in Mount Airy, my dad's Warriors teammates would come over and play pinochle and eat my mother's cooking," Rodgers, 54, recalled. "Wilt would be there. My mother would make him his own pie. . . . Tom Gola . . . [Paul] Arizin. They were all so Philly that they talked about practicing on their own at Haddington playground in Southwest Philly."

At an adjacent table sat successful women's coach Theresa Grentz, the Delaware County native who represented her Immaculata teammates at the ceremony. She, too, was talking Philly hoops traditions.

"There's something about the fraternity of coaches from Philadelphia," she said. "There's a closeness. The men don't exclude the women. It's one big family. I was at a Nike camp with Jay Wright, and he said, 'Come over any time you want, T.' Fran Dunphy tells me that, too.

"Philly coaches learned how to make adjustments because the 2-3 zone they just used to beat one Big Five team might not work the next night against another," Grentz said. "Those are the things we learned growing up in Philadelphia. I loved it. I'm so proud to say I'm from the City of Brotherly Love."

The more they talked, the more the local inductees betrayed the incestuous nature of Philadelphia's basketball community. Take Temple's Dunphy and his connections to the city's three 2014 inductees.

Dunphy is a confidant of Grentz's who grew up idolizing Rodgers (and eventually became the coach at Temple, Rodgers' alma mater). His friend and colleague, St. Joseph's Phil Martelli, married one of Grentz's Immaculata teammates. And Dunphy was one of Williams' two assistants when the future Maryland coach got his first head-coaching job at American.

While Williams credited his interest in coaching to those he watched as a young Big Five fan, the intensity that led him to 668 victories at American, Boston College, Ohio State, and Maryland came, he said, from a Collingswood High teammate.

"Stan Pawlak [who later starred for Penn] was a year ahead of me," Williams recalled. "I liked to play and all that, but he taught me to really work hard if I wanted to succeed. That's the type of player he was and the type of player you had to be to succeed in Philly."

Tony Rodgers, whose parents divorced, said he really didn't appreciate his father's talent until a pickup game in L.A. in the early 1970s.

"I'd come to live with my dad," he recalled. "He was in his 40s by then, but one day he took me to play with some guys who were then playing for USC and UCLA, really good players. My dad takes me as his last pick.

"He got on the court, and he was dealing. He was clearly the best guy on the floor. And after a while, he gives me a nod. I come off a pick, and the ball is there. I mean right there. No one has ever thrown a pass to me that hard and that fast in my entire life."

The younger players were impressed with his father and told Tony Rodgers so.

"I said, 'No big deal. He grew up in Philly.' "


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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