New Castle News

March 7, 2013

Larry Kelly: ’Canes close to joining the immortals

Larry Kelly
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Midland 1965. Ambridge 1967. Schenley 1971.

These were legendary western Pennsylvania high school basketball teams. 1965 was 48 years ago!  But I can still remember. That’s how great they were.

I was 10 years old when I first saw Midland play. It was 1964 and my uncle Ed “Muffa” Hassan took my cousin Wynn Hassan and me to the Civic Arena to watch the 1964 WPIAL quarterfinal game against New Castle.

The Hurricane lost that night despite a great effort from Mike Drespling, Bobby “Billbo” Doster and the late George Threats, who lost his life as a solider in Vietnam. They lost because Midland had two players on the court who later played in the NBA. Simmie Hill and Norm Van Lier were two of the best basketball players to ever lace up a pair of Chuck Taylors in the WPIAL.

Van Lier played 11 years in the NBA, where he was an All-Star.

But even the great Midland team of 1964 was still a year away from legendary status as Uniontown beat them in the WPIAL final.  But Midland ran the table the next season going undefeated on its way to winning the WPIAL and PIAA title. In a word — the Leopards were legendary.

But they weren’t the best team that I ever saw. No, that honor belongs to the Ambridge team of 1967. Dennis Wuycik, Dick DeVenzio and Frank Kaufman led the Bridgers to their undefeated season. They beat every team they played by an average of 25 points on their way to the WPIAL and PIAA title.

Wuycik went to North Carolina and was the MVP of the 1972 NCAA East Regional. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the 14th pick of the 1972 draft and played four years of professional basketball.

Kaufman continued his career in college at Purdue University, where he teamed with Rick Mount. The Boilermakers lost in 1969 in the NCAA finals, where Kaufman was matched up against UCLA. The center at UCLA that year was Lew Alcindor, who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

 DeVenzio was the best high school basketball player that I ever saw — ever. DeVenzio, who played at Duke University after graduation, came to the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House and scored 32 points against New Castle great Lenny Payne. Nobody scored 32 on Lenny. But DeVenzio did it without the assistance of a 3-point line.

 Maurice Lucas led the great Schenley team of 1971. You might of heard of Lucas; he played collegiately at Marquette and later in the NBA. He was a five-time NBA All-star and won the NBA title with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977. He scored more than 14,000 points in his career as a professional.

 His team included Ricky Coleman and Robert “Jeep” Kelley. Coleman went on to play at Jacksonville University, an NCAA power in the ’70s, while Kelley played at UNLV. A fourth member of that team, Tom Thornton, played at Detroit University, where Dick Vitale was the coach.

  Schenley won the 1971 City League and PIAA state championship. The team did lose two games that year. It lost at Farrell early in the season, only to avenge that defeat in the PIAA western final. But it also lost in the final of the Hurricane Classic. That was the inaugural Christmas Tournament at New Castle. Lucas, Coleman and Kelley were great, but they got outplayed that night by the ’Canes’ Jesse Moss, Steve Sherbak and Bill “Pud” Stevenson.    

Some insist that the ’71 Schenley team was the greatest in western Pennsylvania history.

So why the history lesson? Well, the current version of the Red Hurricane basketball team has just put together the greatest two-year run in the history of the WPIAL. 53-0. No team in WPIAL history ever has completed two undefeated seasons in WPIAL play. No team ever has won back-to-back WPIAL titles in different classifications.

 So does this version of the Hurricane deserve legendary status?  Are they to be mentioned in the same sentence as the greatest teams in western Pennsylvania history?

 Yes. But only if the team runs the table. To be mentioned with the greatest in western Pennsylvania history the ’Canes must win five more games. They must win the PIAA title to earn that distinction.

 If they do, they may be remembered as truly the greatest “team” in western Pennsylvania history. Why? There are no NBA players on this team. As it stands now, only one player will likely play Division I basketball — Shawn Anderson. Junior Malik Hooker likely will go on to play football at the collegiate level.

 The other starters, Brandon Dominick, Antonio Rudolph and Anthony Richards, will be great collegiate players, but at the Division II level.

 If the ’Canes run the table and are considered one of the best of all time, it will be because they did it together. The sum of its parts is collectively greater than its individual parts. This is the true essence of team.

 If they obtain legendary status, it not only will be because of their talent, but also because of their intangibles. This team not only has great players, it also has great people.

 The ’Canes are as smart as they are tough. They are as unselfish as they are relentless. They are as composed as they are daring. They are a team of great leaders whose greatest leader, Anderson, a U.S. Naval Academy recruit, may be President of the United States one of these days.

 These are a special group of student athletes. If they run the table and win five more games, they will be state champions. Forty years from now, someone may be writing a newspaper column about the 2013 Red Hurricane. And when they write that column they will use the word “legendary.”

That description will be well-deserved.

(Larry Kelly is a partner in the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is a former sportswriter at The News and an occasional contributor to The News sports pages).