Rick Brown and Mike Racobaldo, together again, enter Woodrow Wilson Hall of Fame
The old friends and stars of Woodrow Wilson's undefeated state championship basketball team from 1970 are part of the school's inaugural class to the Athletic Hall of Fame.
When they were in high school, they played countless games on the courts at 28th and Mitchell Streets in East Camden, and at the popular gathering spot for South Jersey athletes across from the high school in Audubon as well.
But the connection between Mike Racobaldo and Rick Brown reaches back much further than their unforgettable teenage years at Woodrow Wilson.
"Me and Rick were together since we were 10 years old if not younger," Racobaldo said. "We played on so many teams together. I would always be telling my parents, 'I'm going over Ricky's house.' "
Racobaldo and Brown were star players for the most famous basketball team in Woodrow Wilson history, the undefeated 1970 squad that won the Group 4 state championship with a remarkable tournament run that included a rally from a 17-point, second-half deficit in the state semifinals against a team led by a future NBA standout.
The old friends from East Camden will be together again Thursday night, as they will be honored as members of the inaugural class of the Woodrow Wilson Athletic Hall of Fame.
Other inductees include former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL standout Mike Rozier; basketball star and commander of a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine Larry Wigley, who will be honored posthumously; football and track star Stacy Johnson, who played in two Rose Bowls for Michigan; and basketball and track star Walt Young.
The event in the media center of the school on Federal Street also will celebrate the memory of the late Oliver Truitt, perhaps the school's most supportive sports fan.
"It's just so special," Racobaldo said. "To go in with Ricky, it's just so special."
Brown said the two were teammates as far back as Little League baseball.
"He pitched and I caught," Brown said.
Their most famous collaboration came during the 1969-1970 basketball season, when they joined forces with teammates Tyrone Medley — now a judge in Utah — Barry Smith and the late-arriving Harold Sullinger to form one of the most memorable teams in South Jersey history.
The 6-foot-8 Sullinger — known as "Briefy," short for "Briefcase," as his dad was known as "Suitcase" — moved from Ohio to Camden just before the start of that school year.
"That was like a fairy tale," Brown said of Sullinger's arrival. "We all knew him. He used to spent time in the summers in Camden with relatives and he would play with us all the time.
"But then he moves to Camden and comes right out and says it, 'We're winning a state title.'"
The Tigers were going to be good anyway. They returned four starters from a team that lost by a point in the South Jersey semifinals in 1969 to Millville, which was led by 6-foot-10 Alan Shaw, who became a team captain at Duke University.
For their first two varsity seasons, Brown and Racobaldo were coached by the late Art DiPatri.
"Best basketball coach in South Jersey history," Racobaldo said of DiPatri. "I never worked so hard."
Said Brown: "I remember practicing for hours, wearing a sand vest. He would have us playing defense for hours wearing a sand vest."
DiPatri left before the 1969-70 school year for Gloucester, and his young assistant, Gary Williams, took over.
"Gary Williams kind of took the reins off," Racobaldo said of Williams, who won a national title as a coach at Maryland and is a Naismith Hall of Famer. "He told us to go, and we went."
That was a magical time in South Jersey basketball. The Tigers played a loaded schedule and joined with 15 teams in the March of Dimes round-robin showcase at old Convention Hall in downtown Camden, when all "games" were 16 minutes.
"You'd play a half against every other team," Brown said. "That was a great event."
Racobaldo, who played basketball at the University of Houston, scored 27 and 31 points in Woodrow Wilson's first two games of the season, then hurt his back and missed about a month. The team rolled on, with Sullinger dominating the paint, Smith excelling at both ends and Brown and Medley forming one of the top backcourts in the state.
"Nobody could beat a press like Ricky," Racobaldo said. "He was the best."
Racobaldo was back and in fine form for the state tournament, when the Tigers beat Trenton and then Ewing — "They went 6-9, 6-9, 6-7 across the front," Racobaldo said — before facing Thomas Jefferson of Elizabeth in the state semifinals.
That team was led by 6-foot-9 John Shumate, who would star at Notre Dame — he was the starting center when the Irish snapped UCLA's legendary 88-game winning streak — and play five years in the NBA.
"We're behind 15 at half, and they come out and score the first basket and so we're behind 17," Brown said. "Gary Williams puts us in a press, all over the court, and by the end of the third quarter we were up five."
Said Racobaldo: "I'll never forget that. That game, maybe my best memory of what we did in high school."
Racobaldo said the victory over East Orange in the Group 4 state final in Convention Hall in Atlantic City was almost anticlimactic. The Tigers were never threatened on the scoreboard, although that was an infamous Friday night of multiple state championship games with fan violence in the building that spilled out on the boardwalk.
Brown went on to play at Montclair and embarked on a long coaching career that included lengthy stints as Ron "Fang" Mitchell's assistant at Gloucester County College and Coppin State. Brown retired two years ago after 17 seasons as the head coach of the Coppin State women's program, where he won 269 games and made three NCAA tournament appearances.
Racobaldo, regarded as one of the best two-sport athletes in South Jersey history, played basketball at the University of Houston after turning down a baseball offer from the Cincinnati Reds. He played independent baseball in South Jersey for years and was a member of the Phillies' Over 40 "Dream Team" that played in Arizona against similar squads from around the country.
On Thursday night, the old teammates from the old neighborhood and old classmates from Davis Middle School will be together again at their old high school.
"We had such a connection," Racobaldo said. "I always knew what Ricky was going to do, and he always knew what I was going to do."
If You Go
Oliver Truitt Holiday Dinner and Hall of Fame Induction
Thursday, Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m., Woodrow Wilson High School Media Center
The inaugural Hall of Fame class: Larry Wigley (Class of 1950, basketball); Rick Brown (Class of 1970, basketball); Mike Racobaldo (Class of 1970, basketball, baseball); Stacy Johnson (Class of 1975, football, track); Walt Young (Class of 1976, basketball, track); Mike Rozier (Class of 1980, football)
More information: Contact Carmen Rodriguez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856)-966-2000, ext. 65547