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Tim Donaghy and Drexel Hill's hoops glory

There's no place Tim Donaghy's troubles are felt more intensely than Drexel Hill, the Delaware County community whose basketball heritage is as thick as the walls of the sturdy Tudors and stone Colonials lining its shady streets.

Jack McKinney, playing for St. Joseph's in 1957. At one point, the future NBA coach served as a manager at Aronimink Swim Club.
Jack McKinney, playing for St. Joseph's in 1957. At one point, the future NBA coach served as a manager at Aronimink Swim Club.Read more

There's no place Tim Donaghy's troubles are felt more intensely than Drexel Hill, the Delaware County community whose basketball heritage is as thick as the walls of the sturdy Tudors and stone Colonials lining its shady streets.

Donaghy, the disgraced referee who is scheduled to be sentenced in New York on July 14, almost a year after admitting he bet on NBA games he officiated, grew up there. And it was Drexel Hill's peculiarly powerful devotion to the game in the 1960s and early 1970s that drew him to basketball.

"Drexel Hill wasn't like 25th and Diamond, where you had Earl Monroe and all those great players," said John Nash, a native who became an NBA executive and analyst. "The talent wasn't the same, but the passion might have been."

Donaghy was an eager and up-close observer of that passion. For him and countless others, particularly the children of the Irish Catholics who moved there from West and Southwest Philadelphia after World War II, Drexel Hill was a hoops heaven, a suburban adjunct of the Big Five, then in its Palestra-doubleheader heyday.

"It was like the perfect storm in a positive context," recalled Mike Daly, a native who went on to play for the 1971 Villanova team that lost the NCAA tournament final to UCLA. "You had this convergence of pride and talent and devotion all coming together at just the right time and place."

That time and place produced, nurtured and showcased generations of basketball talent, from Bobby Lloyd to Fran Dunphy to Jack Concannon, whose name surfaced this week in the Donaghy court case. Concannon was a player at St. Lawrence, Monsignor Bonner, and then St. Joseph's before going back to coach at Monsignor Bonner. According to a filing by Donaghy's attorney, John Lauro, Donaghy and Concannon bet on sporting events, including NBA games, for several years. Concannon could not be reached for comment.

Not surprisingly, many of those nurtured in Drexel Hill feel pity for Donaghy and particularly for his father, Gerry, a respected college referee and himself a figure in the community's rich tradition.

"It's a real shame," Daly said. "My father always told me that you're never too old to screw up your life. It looks like that's what happened" to Donaghy.

Yet on another level, they are not unhappy that the unsavory incident has rekindled memories of an era when Drexel Hill was a basketball town in the same way that Coatesville was a steel town.

"It was a remarkable period," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who grew up there. "Basketball was everything."

Donaghy attended St. Bernadette's grade school, where he learned about graduates such as Nash and Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski, and where he walked among a half-dozen trophy cases overflowing with basketball awards, many won before the school even had a gym.

He watched the star-studded Sunday night matchups at Aronimink Swim Club, where pool employees Jack McKinney, Jimmy Lynam and Herb Magee, aided by a host of local talent, took on entire Big Five teams - games often refereed by Donaghy's father. Magee said thousands of fans came to watch.

He saw pickup battles at Aronimink Elementary School and what locals call Drexel Hill Elementary School, though the Upper Darby School District now refers to it as the Kindergarten Center. The teams were regularly populated with Big Five stars - past, present and future - and where the visitors occasionally included college all-Americans such as West Virginia's Jerry West, Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore, and Villanova's Howard Porter.

At Mass on Sunday mornings, Donaghy and his father might run into coaches such as McKinney, Magee, Jim Boyle and, later, Phil Martelli, who moved his family into St. Bernadette's when he was hired by St. Joseph's.

He heard about - and eventually drank at - Shields Tavern, the legendary Township Line watering hole where Runyonesque bartender Bob "Dude" O'Dowd attracted a generation of players, coaches and referees for on-the-house beer, all-night card games, and, most important, basketball bull sessions.

"Get any of us talking about basketball and Shields," said Nash, "and the stories could go on all night."

In their blood

The roots of Drexel Hill's passion trace back to its three Catholic parishes - St. Bernadette's, St. Andrew's and St. Dorothy's - whose outstanding grade school teams, high school CYO leagues, tiny gyms, and outdoor courts made basketball an overwhelming presence in their parishioners' lives.

"It got in our blood somehow," said Eddie Hastings, another 1971 Villanova player who also was a star at St. Andrew's and Monsignor Bonner High. "The schools were definitely a factor. The people who coached us were truly dedicated, and they tended to stay on forever."

Those coaches, such as Mickey McLaughlin, who's been guiding St. Bernadette's boys' teams for more than three decades, stressed fundamentals and competitiveness. Their lessons never wavered.

"I also think we benefited from being part of a larger, extended-neighborhood environment that allowed us the benefit of playing against the kids from St Andrew's, St. Dot's and the public schools," said Jim McLaughlin, who played on St. Bernadette's championship teams in the 1960s and still lives in the parish.

The best players moved up to the schoolyard courts at the Aronimink and Drexel Hill schools, which quickly became destinations for the best suburban players and, occasionally, those from the city.

"Bobby Lloyd, who became Rutgers' all-time leading scorer and played professionally, really got things started at Aronimink school," said Dunphy, who went to St. Dorothy's. "After he made a big splash, guys like Geoff Petrie [a Princeton all-American and now Portland Trail Blazers executive], who was from Springfield, started playing there, too. Soon, guys from Philly and elsewhere were coming out."

Some recall the weekend when Jerry West's West Virginia roommate, a Drexel Hiller, brought the superstar guard home with him.

"He came and played on the Aronimink courts," said Gerry "Bird" Collins, who played at St. Dorothy's in the 1960s. "Wali Jones came one night in the back of a pickup truck with some other guys from Overbrook."

Meanwhile, not far away, on the Drexel Hill school's lopsided court at State Road and Harper Avenue, younger locals such as Hastings, Stefanski, Daly and Mike Stack; imports such as Springfield's Tom Inglesby; and other future Big Five stars were playing endless rounds of pickup games.

"The court was really bad, but everyone went there," said Hastings, who teaches a sports and spirituality course at Neumann College. "There was so much talent that if you lost a game, you never got back on the court."

Those two spots eventually became highlights on a Philly playground circuit that also included Rose in Overbrook and Bailey Park in Havertown.

The area's best female basketball talent soon flocked to Drexel Hill, too, for a summer league at Dermond Playground, just behind Shields.

"The basketball atmosphere was so great there. I told myself when I grew up and got married, Drexel Hill was where I wanted to live," said Renie Dunne Shields, a St. Joseph's Hall of Famer and the Hawks' all-time assists leader.

A Southwest Philadelphia native, Shields did move there. Now she and her husband coach St. Bernadette's girls, whose 2006-07 Philadelphia Archdiocesan championship trophy couldn't find a home in the school's crowded display cases and rests nearly hidden on an out-of-the-way cafeteria shelf.

Draw for coaches

But the highlight of Drexel Hill's basketball world came on Sunday nights in the summer at Aronimink Swim Club.

McKinney, the future St. Joe's and Los Angeles Lakers coach, was the pool's manager. He, in turn, hired Lynam, the ex-St. Joe's star and future NBA coach, and Magee, the local shooting guru and longtime Philadelphia University coach.

The latter two were fixtures in the 6 p.m. Sunday games, supplemented often by Big Five stars such as Dunphy, St. Joe's Danny Kelly, and Mike Hauer, a 6-foot-4 lifeguard who "was maybe, inch for inch, the best player this area ever produced," Dunphy said. Their challengers were equally noteworthy.

"Franny O'Hanlon would bring the Villanova guys to those games," Collins said. "The next Sunday, Lefty Ervin and Larry Cannon would bring the La Salle guys, and then Dave Tordone and Tony Brocchi would bring the Temple guys, and on and on. . . . One Sunday, [Hall of Famer] Paul Arizin brought a team of older guys to play."

Afterward, everyone would retire to Shields, the Drexel Hill hoops hangout that closed several years ago.

"It was just a great spot to go and talk basketball," Dunphy said. "There was a hoagie shop next door, so you could get something to eat and then go have a beer."

Collins said O'Dowd would keep the bar open until past 4 a.m.

"His famous line was, 'We never close. We only open,' " Collins recalled. "You could put a dollar on the bar and drink all night."

Soon, the tiny bar became a hangout for local coaches such as Lynam, Magee, McKinney, Boyle and Paul Westhead, and for referees like Gerry Donaghy and Danny Smetty. Tim Donaghy started going there in the late 1970s.

Another future NBA official, Joey Crawford, from bordering Havertown, was a fixture at Shields and the Drexel Hill courts. Opponents said he was never good enough to play with the best, but his devotion to the game grew so intense that he, too, turned to refereeing.

No one is certain why or when Drexel Hill's basketball fervor faded.

Some say it was built on reverence for the Big Five and, especially, the Palestra. When, in the 1980s, the Big Five nearly disintegrated and the Palestra stopped being the home court for all five schools, the passion in Drexel Hill diminished and dispersed.

"The Palestra was the connector," Daly said. "It was a place we all aspired to be one day. We'd leave the Drexel Hill court and go to the Palestra as a group. We were in awe of the place."

Technological advances and a host of new sports have diffused the interests of young Drexel Hillers. You're just as likely now to see a skateboarder on its playgrounds as a kid with a basketball.

Shields closed years ago. The Aronimink pool remains open without the Sunday night games. The schoolyard courts typically are empty. The Catholic school teams aren't nearly as formidable - except for Shields' St. Bernadette girls.

The baby boomers who were part of that wrinkle in time are wrinkled themselves now. But 40 years later, they still get together, usually to watch Dunphy's teams - first Penn, now Temple.

"It's great," Collins said. "Dunph has provided us all an outlet to meet."

Some alums, such as Lynam and Stefanski, work in the NBA. Others, such as Magee and Westhead, still coach. Boyle and O'Dowd are dead. And the area's basketball nexus long ago shifted elsewhere.

"But it was quite a time," Dunphy said. "It was unique. And it was unexplainable."

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