Once again, on Thursday night, Bill Melchionni will heed the advice then-Villanova teammate Wali Jones gave him 55 years ago, and he’ll head for Philadelphia.
A three-time ABA All-Star whose number (25) has been retired by both the Brooklyn Nets and Villanova, Melchionni will be one of 15 individuals inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame during that organization’s annual banquet at the Event Center at Rivers Casino Philadelphia (formerly SugarHouse).
It’s an honor Melchionni might never have achieved if not for Jones, the colorful guard who went from Overbrook High to Villanova to a starting spot with the NBA champion 76ers of 1966-67.
“That was some of the best advice I ever got,” Melchionni, 75, said in a recent interview from his home in Naples, Fla.
It was 1964, and Melchionni was a freckle-faced sophomore who had averaged 10 points a game for a 24-4 Villanova Wildcats team. Though just the fourth-leading scorer, his shooting eye was so noteworthy that Jones, a senior, nicknamed him “Cyclops.”
Jones recognized his skinny teammate’s potential. But he also knew the frail Pennsauken native who had honed his game on the backyard court his father installed might never fulfill it unless he toughened up.
“Cy,” Jones told him. “You need to come across the river to Philly.”
A 5-foot-2, 95-pound freshman when he arrived at Bishop Eustace Prep, Melchionni eventually won a pair of state titles there. He would be one of the first prominent Big 5 players from across the Delaware River.
“I think me and Stan Pawlak were the first,” Melchionni recalled. “Back then, except for Camden and Moorestown High, basketball wasn’t a big deal in South Jersey.”
Knowing he needed to get stronger and more physical, especially if he hoped to play professionally, Melchionni listened.
“I took Wali’s advice,” he said, “and I started coming over to Philly to play at the playgrounds and the rec centers.”
He faced guys with NBA experience such as Ray “Chink” Scott and Guy Rodgers. He played against John Chaney, Sonny Hill, Earl Monroe, Walt Hazzard, even Johnny Sample, who a few years later would be a hard-hitting cornerback on the New York Jets team that won Super Bowl III.
“You talk about physical,” Melchionni said. “Johnny Sample played basketball the same way he did football.”
The Villanova star also took part in the Baker League, the legendary North Philadelphia summer league that Hill founded in 1960.
“We played at Bright Hope Baptist Church, which had no air conditioning,” Melchionni said. “Earl Monroe, who they used to call `Black Jesus,’ would wait outside in his air-conditioned car. With a couple minutes left in the game, the crowd would start chanting, `Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!’ Earl would get out of the car in his uniform and come inside and the crowd would go wild.”
Talk about Philadelphia’s basketball after 1960, and it’s hard to avoid mention of Melchionni. For all his individual accomplishments, though, his most enduring legacy might be that, like Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” he turned up wherever local hoops history happened.
He was there when Palestra doubleheaders became the city’s most compelling sports attractions, when the Baker League began to draw national attention. He was a teammate of Wilt Chamberlain on the greatest 76ers team ever and of Julius Erving on the ABA-champion New York Nets. And it was Melchionni who, as Nets general manager, sold Erving to Philadelphia.
“How many guys can say they were teammates of Wilt and Dr. J, two of the best to ever play the game, and won championships with both?” Melchionni said. “I was really fortunate.”
The son of an RCA engineer, Melchionni dived into basketball when his father constructed a flood-lit basketball court in the backyard of their Grove Street home. It was a wise investment. All four Melchionni boys earned basketball scholarships to Division I colleges – Bill, Bobby, and Tommy to Villanova, and Gary to Duke.
“I’m sure the neighbors weren’t crazy about the lights or all those games we played at night,” he said. “But we loved it.”
In Melchionni’s three varsity seasons, Jack Kraft’s Villanova teams went 65-20. As a senior, he averaged nearly 28 points a game. The 76ers made him their No. 2 pick in the 1966 NBA draft. (St. Joseph’s Matt Guokas was their No. 1 selection.)
The Sixers rookie averaged 9.5 minutes in 73 games as the Chamberlain-led team went 68-13 and captured an NBA title.
“Here I am, this little kid from Pennsauken on the NBA team I’d grown up rooting for, playing with Wilt and three other guys who’d make the Hall of Fame,” he said. “And the coach, Alex Hannum, is also in the Hall. It was all pretty amazing.”
Melchionni’s first pro roommate was Larry Costello, a veteran guard who expected the rookie to rise at 6 a.m. on the road and run with him.
“I’m thinking, `If I’m going to spend the night on the bench, why would I want to run myself ragged at 6 in the morning?’ ” Melchionni said. “We switched roommates, and I got Billy Cunningham, whose interest in running at 6 in the morning was about the same as mine.”
In 1970, after two Sixers seasons and a year in the Eastern League, Melchionni joined the ABA Nets, on which one of his teammates was Rick Barry. Then, on an off-night in 1971, he returned to the Palestra to watch Penn play Massachusetts. He got his first glimpse of Erving.
“I said, 'Who the heck is this guy? He’s unbelievable.’ He was doing things I’d never seen anyone else do, soaring above the rim, gliding," Melchionni said. "It was all so effortless. And he was being guarded by Corky Calhoun, the best defender in the Big 5.”
Erving eventually landed with the Nets, and Melchionni’s job became getting him the ball. He twice led the ABA in assists.
Melchionni retired in 1976 and immediately became the Nets general manager. That year the team joined the NBA and, for financial reasons, its owner needed to unload Erving.
Earlier, when 76ers GM Pat Williams had inquired about the superstar’s availability, Melchionni had scoffed.
“I told Pat that if that happened, I’d be known forever as the guy who traded Julius Erving,” Melchionni said. “I’d be like the Red Sox guy who sold Babe Ruth.”
But eventually, it happened.
When he got the news of his Philly Sports Hall selection, Melchionni said, he went to the organization’s website.
“When you look at some of the people who are already there, it’s pretty humbling,” he said.
If nothing else, this return to Philadelphia will allow him one more opportunity to remember the Palestra and Big 5 doubleheaders and all the memories that time is erasing.
“You couldn’t ask for a better college experience than playing Big 5 games at the Palestra,” Melchionni said. “You had 9,200 people in there. They were all right on top of you and the noise, it was something else. I played in a lot of arenas around the country, but there wasn’t a better experience.”