Basketball / Sports

Lots of Philly pride at Basketball Hall inductions

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Throughout the day Guy Rodgers finally entered the Basketball Hall of Fame, his son proudly carried with him a book whose musty contents proved the late Philadelphia legend belonged.

"My mother kept this. It's got all my father's clippings. You want to see it?" Tony Rodgers asked a reporter not long before the Friday night induction ceremony at Symphony Hall. "You won't believe the things he did and the numbers he put up."

Earlier on what was also a night of ultimate recognition for the Mighty Macs team that four decades ago put her tiny school on the map, an elderly Immaculata University nun in a Carolina blue habit slowly climbed the downtown building's steps.

"Wouldn't miss it," a breathless Sister Patricia Fadden puffed before posing for a photo with Billy Cunningham, the ex-76ers star and coach who was there to present another Philadelphia-area honoree in the Class of 2014, Gary Williams.

Rodgers, Immaculata, Williams, and seven others were honored in a televised ceremony that, for one night anyway, brought together basketball immortals -- the living and the dead, the famous and the forgotten, the fit and the feeble.

"Just look around," said Williams, the Collingswood native who coached Maryland to the 2002 NCAA title. "There's Bill Russell. And Earl Monroe. Bob Lanier. I'm like a kid in a candy store."

Some of those aging hoops greats, men who once glided through the air, had as much trouble as Sister Patricia, Immaculata's president, in ascending the venue's steep stairway. Monroe used a cane. Russell ambled up slowly and cautiously. Lanier relied on the arm of a friend.

Their presence helped lend a sentimental touch to what, for the Philadelphia contingent at least, was a night filled with nostalgia as well as pride in the hoops-mad hometown that fostered their common dream.

In a videotaped speech that followed the introduction of Rodgers, a prototypical point guard for Temple and the Philadelphia Warriors who died in 2001, the player's son thanked the Hall for the honor, no matter how belated he felt it was.

Rodgers, who trailed only Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy in NBA assists when he retired in 1970, was a Veterans Committee selection.

"I thought that door had closed," Tony Rodgers said. "We hadn't heard a word from the Hall since probably the mid-'90s."

For his son, a 54-year-old Philadelphian, Rodgers' selection -- and his mother's scrapbook -- helped illuminate the talent of a divorced father he never really knew until he was 19.

"He was very quiet, very respectful, very passionate," Rodgers said. "He wasn't a perfect man, but he was a good man. And he was a great basketball player."

Williams, 69, noted that when he was a standout point guard at Collingswood High, he had two idols -- Rodgers and Cousy.

"That was kind of odd back then because one was a star with the Warriors and the other was with the Boston Celtics, who everyone in Philadelphia, including me, hated. But both of those guys could do things with the ball that I'd never seen before."

Williams credited his high school coach, John Smith, with "keeping me out of trouble" and making sure he had an adequate academic record to qualify for the basketball scholarship Maryland eventually awarded him.

When Cunningham, then a North Carolina senior, dunked over him in an Atlantic Coast Conference game his sophomore season, Williams decided his future lay in coaching. In his first year on the bench, he led Camden's Woodrow Wilson to a state title and an undefeated season.

"I never had another undefeated team," he said.

His first college job, as a Lafayette assistant to Tom Davis, soon followed.

"What Lafayette didn't tell me until afterward was that I also had to coach the men's soccer team," he said. "I did that for about six years. ... And if you're curious about what kind of success I had, let's just say that the Soccer Hall of Fame hasn't called yet."

When Williams noted that he grew up "just outside Philadelphia," a loud cheer erupted. That happened again when Theresa Grentz, representing her teammates on what she termed this "magical step into basketball history," thanked the city for continuing to remember the Mighty Macs.

"It's the greatest city in the world," Grentz told the audience. "And when you win, they never forget you."

Perhaps because Philadelphia's basketball traditions run so deep, the local contingent's acceptance speeches seemed especially heartfelt. They were funny and moving, if occasionally rambling.

Grentz, a three-time all-American who went on to coach at Illinois among other schools, charmed the star-studded crowd with stories of the hardships those pioneering -- and penniless -- Mighty Macs endured.

"People say we had one basketball. We actually had more than one, but they weren't very good," said Grentz, 62, a Cardinal O'Hara graduate from Briarcliffe.

"We didn't have a gym, so we played on the road a lot, and although the other teams didn't know it, we'd always trade one of our balls for one of theirs. It wasn't really stealing because we'd replace the balls," she said. "But we made sure that whoever did the replacing always went to confession that Saturday."

In one way, Friday's induction marked the official close to the most memorable era in Philadelphia basketball history, one dominated by Rodgers, Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola, and Paul Arizin.

All four grew up in rowhouses. All played together with the Warriors. With Gola's death in January, all are deceased. And, now, all are in the Hall of Fame.

"That's where they belong," Tony Rodgers said. "Now they're a team forever."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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