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Curt Fromal was an integral part of Big 5 basketball history, even if he didn’t brag about it | Mike Jensen

This idea of Philly hoops savviness often isn’t a myth. This is exactly where it comes from, from guys like Curt Fromal. He died this week from COVID-19 at 79.

Curt Fromal and his wife, Sue.
Curt Fromal and his wife, Sue.Read moreCourtesy of Fromal family

If you didn’t know, he wouldn’t tell you. Sitting there in the bleachers at Ridley High or some other gym watching his kids or other kids he knew play basketball … Curt Fromal sure seemed to know a lot about the sport, how it really worked.

He wasn’t obnoxious about that knowledge. There were no demands attached. Just available for the taking if you seemed interested. Same approach to working with youngsters.

“As long as a player was willing to put the work in, he’d meet you in the gym,” said his son, Steve.

Curt Fromal, of Folsom, Delaware County, who died this week, age 79, was a part of Philadelphia’s basketball history in interesting ways.

Sitting in the bleachers, someone else had to tell you … Hey, you know Curt played for La Salle. You might have thought, 5-foot-9, good for him, nice they saved a roster spot. Unless you looked him up. Wait, Fromal scored 19.2 points a game as a senior, league MVP, long before the three-point line?

Maybe someone else would tell you … Hey, you know Curt was an assistant coach at La Salle. You’d eventually look it up. Wait, he was an assistant to Tom Gola in 1968-69? Wasn’t that the Explorers team so many old-timers always called the greatest Big 5 team of all-time? Wasn’t that the team Gola coached to a one-loss season while also working as Philadelphia city controller? Ken Durrett, Larry Cannon, Fatty Taylor? That team?

“He meant a lot to our teams,” explained Fran Dunphy, now Temple’s athletic director, seventh man on the fabled 1968-69 Explorers, the second-leading scorer the next season. “He wasn’t much older than us. Gola gave him much responsibility.”

What kinds of responsibility?

“Many days Gola had city business, and Curt ran practice often,” Dunphy said.

A different time.

“Sure was,” Dunphy said.

The legendary Gola, who couldn’t keep doing two jobs, stopped coaching and actually recommended that Fromal, soon to turn 30, succeed him. Except the school went for a St. Joseph’s assistant, Paul Westhead. Fromal moved on, into the working world. He never formally coached a team again.

Except he never stopped coaching. Philadelphia has this thing woven into its hoops fabric, where the old guys who learned from the legends and did their thing at Palestra doubleheaders passed it on in little gyms all over the region. This idea of Philly hoops savviness often isn’t a myth. This is exactly where it comes from, from guys such as Curt Fromal.

“He really enjoyed teaching how to shoot,” said Steve Fromal, who starred at Ridley himself, and went on to be a walk-on at La Salle, eventually starting a few games as a junior. “The basics of shooting. Amy and I would be in there catching balls.”

At a young age, Steve Fromal meant. Amy Fromal, now Amy Fromal Austin, went on to an all-American lacrosse career at Virginia, but she also grew up playing hoops. Her dad wouldn’t take a formal coaching role, she said, but he’d show up in a gym, install a defense. And he never missed a game, including all her college games.

Maybe it was the other kids around the Ridley area who benefited the most.

“One of the kids needed a bike,” Amy said, on the phone this week to her brother on the line. “He took your bike and gave it to them.”

“He never pushed me to play basketball,” Steve said, remembering one time when he was in sixth grade and in his memory he wasn’t good enough to be on a particular team.

“I was getting the stuffing kicked out of me,” Steve Fromal said. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m not that good. I would like to be good.’ He said, ‘You want to be good, I’ll teach you. But you need to have the want.’ He never pushed me in a direction. He let you make those decisions.”

They’d head to the Palestra, people would keep stopping their dad, telling their own memories of games of another era. The kids still run into people who tell them, “I remember your dad. He was as fast as lightning.”

Fromal had suffered in his life, had lost his own father, who suffered a stroke fighting the fire that took down their house, which caused him to leave college for a year to make money for the family.

“It didn’t burn to the ground, but we lost everything,” Fromal told Terry Toohey when Toohey wrote in the Delaware County Times about Fromal’s going into the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 2009. “I was in an English class when I found out about it. My sister [Emma] called and I jumped into the old Chevy I had at the time and raced home.”

The college coaching life, his children said, wasn’t perfect for family life, so he never returned to it.

He’d take his son to a Penn game or practice at the Palestra when Dunphy was coaching the Quakers. Steve remembers his father telling him they had to pay attention, because Dunphy would be picking his brain afterward.

Curt had his own favorites, with Durrett, from that great La Salle team, forever topping the list.

“Better than Jordan, in his mind, before Durrett had injuries,” Steve Fromal said.

Curt Fromal went into the hospital because of congestive heart failure complications, his son said, but passed away from COVID-19. In addition to his wife, Sue, and son and daughter and their spouses, he is survived by six grandchildren. Services are still in flux because of the pandemic.

“It’s too bad. It would be packed, from all the people he touched,” said former longtime University of Sciences coach Dave Pauley, who considered Fromal a mentor.

There are scrapbooks still around, kept by Curt’s mom, detailing old exploits.

“You scored 55 points against Chester?” his daughter remembered saying, flipping through a scrapbook.

“You got a sense of how good he was,” his son said of those books.

More than he’d ever tell you in the bleachers.