CLIFTON HEIGHTS, PA (CBS) — They referred to it as “The High” and it was a patch of imperfect cement with a pothole here and there and a bent rim on one end of the court where you had to make sure you shot the ball just right.
But to a bunch of kids and young men in the 1960s and ’70s, this flawed little slice of basketball heaven outside of what used to be Lansdowne Aldan High School, now Penn Wood High School, produced some of the greatest games and greatest memories, along with some of the greatest basketball minds in the area.
What it did through time was forge a kinship, a basketball band of brothers.
On Thursday, a group of around 50 gathered at a place that seemed so fitting, at a corner bar called the Broadway Bar and Grille in Clifton Heights, Delaware County, to reminisce about the times they had playing there at “The High,” and how it served as a foundation for people like St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, 21-year NBA official Mark Wunderlich, where basketball Hall of Famer Paul Arizin and Paul Westhead once played—and where a young Pat Croce would sit courtside and watch his buddies run back and forth.
The informal event was put together by Steve Stefano, an author of two books and major exec for Glaxo who now lives in North Carolina, though his heart and his memories remain firmly entrenched with the lifelong pals he saw Thursday and the many stories they swapped with each other.
This group of friends picked up conversations right where they left off 20 years ago—without missing a beat. All bonded by an imperfect piece of concrete.
“That’s all I wanted to do,” said Stefano, author of the book “Almost Perfect: The 1964 Rise And Fall Of The Philadelphia Phillies.”
“It cropped up about five months ago, when I was up in the area for a book signing. I got a little nostalgic being around the area again and I thought it would be a great idea to get all of the guys together. I called Mickey Vetter, I called Phil, we got in touch with [former Upper Darby basketball coach and local official] Paul Tallant, and Mark [Wunderlich]. And the response was great.
“Think about those times, you were a kid and you’d go out spring, summer and in the fall and play all day.”
Martelli relayed a great story about playing for St. Joe’s Prep in the 1971 City Championship against Andre McCarter and Overbrook. The game was played at the Palestra in the morning—by the afternoon Martelli was at “The High” playing outdoors when someone said they just saw him on TV in the city title game.
“It was a simpler time then,” Martelli said. “You lived to play, and the biggest thing was playing at night. You had to be good enough to make it. I used to show up every night around 6:25, 6:30 hoping there would be nine guys there—and I’d be the 10th. I was kid then, and there were times we’d travel. The older guys would throw me in a car and we’d take off for games.
“You gained confidence playing against the older guys. And they never let up on you. It wasn’t easy to get into a game. But it helped me develop a great sense of the game—and look around here at what that little court produced.”
The beauty of it is that to this day, no one is any bigger than the others. Martelli, easily the most recognizable of the group, was just like the rest, feet on the ground, razzing and reminiscing with the others.
Wunderlich had it the roughest of them all. He was by far the youngest of the lot and his initiations sometimes included being thrown into the nearby pool and one time being taped to the goal post at the local football field, where his father found him well after dinner.
“I think the experience with these guys molded me, and it’s a shame because you don’t often see the local courts today like we had it then,” Wunderlich said. “I wouldn’t have missed seeing these guys again for the world. When Steve called me about it we were on the phone for an hour joking about the all-overrated team from the guys we played with.”
Conversations picked again where they left off 20 years ago, the beer flowed, the laughs grew louder until the crowd began to thin.
“You appreciate things when you get older,” Wunderlich said. “I learned about basketball from these guys. There was no one more impactful in my life, besides my father, than my grade school coach Tommy Gallagher. I look around at these guys and I feel like 14, 15 years old again.”
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