Basketball brigadoon: Recalling Audubon’s magical courts of the 1960s
Legendary figures such as Billy Melchionni, Gary Williams, Stan Pawlak, Joe Cromer and others look back at the special time and place marked by pick-up competition on long-demolished outdoor courts.
Joe Cromer played a lot of basketball in his day.
He made a lot of shots.
But one of them — a layup in a pickup game one soft summer evening in 1963 — stirs such sentiment that the former Sterling High School star and Temple University Hall of Fame player still thrills at the memory of the moment.
“I still remember thinking, ‘I just made a layup off a bounce pass from Billy Melchionni,’ ” Cromer said of the Bishop Eustace and Villanova star who would play for championship teams in the NBA and ABA.
Cromer’s unremarkable but unforgettable bucket came on a typical night at “The Courts” in Audubon, perhaps the most magical place for pickup basketball in South Jersey history.
It was a basketball Brigadoon, here and gone inside a historic decade. Its glory days lasted from 1961 to 1969, when the courts were razed to make way for the addition to the “C Building” at Audubon High School.
There have been lots of hot spots for outdoor versions of the sport — two locations in Collingswood, the iconic Centreville courts in Camden, and several wind-whipped playgrounds at the Jersey Shore among them — but there probably never was a time and place quite like Audubon in the 1960s.
The courts were so special that Carmine Calzonetti, who played on Gloucester Catholic’s 1964 state-championship team and continued his career at St. John’s, has organized a reunion of guys who used to gather on those summer nights at the corner of Edgewood and Pine in his leafy little hometown.
“It was a golden era for South Jersey basketball,” Calzonetti said.
Gary Williams, a Collingswood star who played at Maryland and later coached the Terrapins to the 2002 national title, fondly recalled the courts in Audubon.
“It’s probably the most fun I ever had in basketball,” Williams said.
Lots of guys share Williams’ sentiment. It was a different time, an era before AAU and highly organized summer leagues, when pickup basketball was the bedrock of the sport.
Audubon’s courts drew players from all over South Jersey. The big games were on the "A" court, where college guys came back to the area and played from 6 o’clock until dark.
“No lights,” said Stan Pawlak, a Collingswood star who became a Big 5 Hall of Fame player at Penn in the mid-1960s. “You started at 6, and you had to get there early to get in a game or you could be waiting.”
This was big-time basketball. Those games in the mid-1960s featured Big 5 stars such as Pawlak and Melchionni, along with Williams and countless others.
South Jersey guys sometimes brought their college teammates who were looking for good games, since there was an NCAA ban in those days on summer-league play for college athletes.
Audubon graduate Bill Ulrich, who played at Duke, brought Blue Devils teammate and future NBA star Geoff Mullins to the courts. Melchionni’s teammate at Villanova, Wali Jones, sometimes would be there, along with other Philadelphia guys. Cromer’s Temple teammate Eddie Mast was a late-1960s regular.
“Some nights, there would be 10-15 Division I college players either playing or waiting,” Calzonetti said.
Melchionni won an NBA title with the 76ers and an ABA title with the New York Nets. His Nets jersey hangs high in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
"It was the place to go,” Melchionni said of the Audubon courts. “You had to get there early and you had to win — or you might not get on the court again.”
There were four courts at the playground, so in the early 1960s there would be ample action for high school guys such as Cromer and Calzonetti and contemporaries such as Bob Greacen, Paul Dobleman, Ricky Owens, Bill Somerset, Drew Nolan, and Jim Oxley, among many others — all of whom would wait for the chance to get into a game on the "A" court.
Those guys became "A" court regulars when they went away to college, returning in the summer to play against old rivals, while the next generation of high school stars -- such as Bishop Eustace’s Gary Melchionni, Pete Furey and Jim Crawford, St. Joseph’s Charlie Blank and Gloucester Catholic’s Dom Carrera -- filled in behind them.
Collingswood native and Camden Catholic graduate Don Casey, who would coach at Temple as well as with two NBA teams, was the coach at Bishop Eustace in the 1960s. He used to insist that his high school players make games at the Audubon courts.
“We felt the team was enhanced by the asphalt,” Casey said.
Pickup basketball like the kind played in those days in Audubon has become a thing of the past, with so many organized leagues, with the explosion of AAU competition, with so much focus on individual workouts.
Calzonetti and others say something special has been lost in the disappearance of informal, player-regulated games. There were no set teams. There were no referees. Players called their own fouls.
The sport had its own playground rules. Winning teams stayed on the court. Guys on the side formed teams and claimed “next,” taking the court to challenge the winners in the ensuing game.
Pickup games forced athletes to develop a feel for the sport in terms of spacing, moving without the ball, and working together on a team formed moments before on the sidelines. There were no coaches designing or calling out plays.
It was street ball, in the best sense, from the playing surface to the backboards to the atmosphere -- fiercely competitive, but with a social aspect as well, an off-season, summer-time vibe.
“Five-on-five pickup is a dinosaur,” Calzonetti said. “It forces you to learn how to play instinctive basketball.”
Oxley said there was a mystique to the Audubon courts.
“I don’t remember anticipating anything as much as I anticipated getting to those courts,” said Oxley, a Bishop Eustace graduate who became a Hall of Famer at Army, where he played for Bob Knight and shared the backcourt with current Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Oxley lived in the Fairview section of Camden. He would hitchhike or run the four miles from his house to the courts.
Oxley recalled looking up to slightly older athletes such as Pawlak, Williams, and Melchionni. He recalled sitting on the sideline, hoping to get into a college-level game as a high school athlete.
He even recalled the thrill of getting a ride home.
“I didn’t have any money, but sometimes after the games, these guys would give me a ride home and we would stop at Weber’s for root beer,” Oxley said of the famous drive-in. “I still think that was the best root beer I ever tasted in my life.”
Cromer used to ride a public-service bus from his home in Somerdale down the White Horse Pike, get off in Audubon, and walk several blocks to the courts.
Cromer, who helped Temple to the NIT title in 1969 and played professionally in the Eastern League, recalled sitting by the side of the "A" court and watching a game featuring top college players. He had just finished his sophomore year at Sterling.
“Jack Collins had to leave,” Cromer said of the former Gloucester Catholic star and Glassboro State coach. “He told those guys, ‘Hey, let this kid take my place.’
“I was so nervous. Those guys were like gods to us.
“I get a bounce pass from Billy Melchionni, and I make a layup. I couldn’t believe it.
“The whole ride home on the bus, that’s all I could think about. I still think about it.”
Audubon Basketball Courts Reunion
What: Reunion to reminisce about Audubon’s outdoor courts, the top gathering spot for South Jersey basketball players during the 1960s.
Who: Open to former players on the courts and anyone else who wants to talk old-time, pickup basketball.
When/where: April 13 at 5-9 p.m. at The Kove restaurant, 20 W. Atlantic Ave., Audubon.
For more information: Contact Carmine Calzonetti at email@example.com