[In February 1974, the Rochester Chronicle-Democrat’s fantastic sportswriter Bob Matthews took a trip to Scranton, PA. His assignment: attend the Eastern League’s first-place showdown between the visiting Allentown Jets and the Scranton Apollos. What follows is a wonderful account of semipro basketball at its Sunday evening finest. I’ve added a few additional details and quotes, which are pulled from other newspaper accounts of the game, to round out Matthews’ excellent story. Playing center for the Apollos is none other than Cyril Baptiste, trying to get his pro career back on track. And if you haven’t purchased a copy of Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein’s Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League, this article should serve as a friendly reminder to do so.]
SCRANTON—Art Pachter and his family are in a frenzy, selling tickets and programs at an unexpected pace. It’s the best crowd of the season, nearly 1,600, and people are backed into the street on this Sunday evening waiting to buy tickets to the Eastern Basketball Association game. The temperature outside: a brisk 20 degrees—and falling fast.
The gymnasium is on the second floor of the Catholic Youth Center, above the bowling alleys, and the stairways are narrow and winding. The place wasn’t built to accommodate late-arriving, large crowds. Owner-president Pachter delays the game’s 7:30 starting time five minutes to permit everyone to reach their seats.
The opponent is Allentown, tied with Scranton for the Western Division lead with an 11-6 record. The Jets’ roster includes ex-New York Knick Eddie Mast, former New York Net Frank Card, Marquette’s Allie McGuire, and Dennis Bell, a super outside shooter out of Drake.
The heart of Allentown’s team is forward Ken Wilburn, who has been in the Eastern Basketball Association for as long as anyone can remember. He’s the EBA’s Satchel Paige, and he still averages over 20 points a game by being in the right place at the proper time against less experienced players, which includes everyone else in the league. The Scranton fans call him “Garbage Man” for his ability to score easy baskets.
“But I sure wish [Wilburn] was on our side,” says an Apollo fan.
The referees are John Thompson and Rick McCartney. Thompson officiated the EBA Cherry Hill’s game the previous night. He held an informal pregame press conference to let anyone who would listen know that John Brisker “is it very mean basketball player.” He stared and glared and scored 58 points.
The Jets take an early 14-6 lead and maintain a 30-24 advantage into the second quarter. Card, bumped off the Nets’ roster by Julius Erving, is throwing his own Dr. J. moves at the Apollos and scoring at will underneath. Teammate Dennis Bell is hitting his soft fallaway jumpers from both sides.
Cyril Baptiste keeps the Apollos alive with 17 points in the first half. It’s his first starting assignment of the season, and it looks as though he belongs in a higher league.
But Ken Mayfield is missing his usually reliable jump shots, and Scrantonians are screaming for his underperforming teammate Willie Davis to just go ahead and miss his flight from Texas for next weekend’s games. Then there’s Johnny Jones, in his first EBA action since returning from a brief stint in Europe. He can’t remember the Apollo plays just yet. Jones, the team’s leading rebounder to start the season, was added for tonight’s tussle to replace reliable Glenn Sommers, who is on a two-week job-training program in Georgia.
Davis misses the rim on several jump shots, but he makes solid connection with Allie McGuire in the second quarter. McGuire, son of Marquette coach Al McGuire, enters the lineup as an Allentown substitute and slams into Davis his first trip downcourt. He bruises a thigh and is through for the night. Five seconds for $100 isn’t a bad night’s work.
The first half ends in controversy as Davis hauls in a rebound with two seconds left and heaves a long pass to Mayfield. The buzzer blows softly as Mayfield leaves his feet for a layup, while screaming fans drown out the sound. The scoreboard clock reads 0:00 as Mayfield drops in the field goal, and the buzzer blows again, this time loudly.
The referees allow the basket, trimming Scranton’s deficit to 58-55, and Allentown coach Howie Landa is irate. He rushes up to the officials, yelling his protest and wondering why the half wasn’t over when the buzzer first sounded and the clock read 0:00.
“The buzzer only sounded once,” says Thompson, who obviously didn’t hear the first horn, “and the ball had left the shooter’s hand before the clock read 0:00.”
Landa doesn’t agree, and a lot of Scranton fans seated behind the scorer’s table know he’s right.
The third quarter is a scoring duel between Scranton’s young gunner, Mayfield, and Allentown’s Wilburn. Mayfield scores 17 points, including a streak of six straight jump shots from all over the court, and Wilburn scores 16. But Mayfield has more help, as a suddenly awesome Willie Davis scores 10 points. The Apollos win the third quarter, 42-32, and lead the game, 97-90, entering the final period.
Landa explodes again at the end of the third quarter. Scranton’s Hank Siemientkowski, who ordinarily find layups challenging, makes a three-point desperation heave at the buzzer. Landa jumps off his bench once more.
“What the hell’s going on here,” he screams at Thompson. “When the buzzer blows, my team stops playing. You’re giving them (the Apollos) an extra shot every quarter.”
Thompson walks away with Landa in pursuit. The Allentown coach challenges the referee to fight. Thompson accepts. Fast action by Apollo coach Stan Novak averts a riot. He steps between Landa and Thompson and pleads that the game continue. With 1,600 paying fans in the stands and a seven-point lead on the scoreboard, Novak wants to finish the game. He hasn’t been named EBA Coach of the Year three times in the last five years for nothing.
Landa and the referees spend much of the fourth quarter dodging crunched up orange drink cartons, while the players continue their impressive offensive display.
The exception is Baptiste. The giant is huffing and puffing, his uniform top pulled out and his stomach bulging. He’s run out of gas and hurts the Apollos in the second half. After scoring 17 points in the first half, he is held to two points in the second half before fouling out. His final fouls are football tackles, futile gestures by a weary man. It becomes apparent that the former drug addict Cyril Baptiste is striving mightily to regain his form, but that he has a very long road to travel to the NBA.
But the other Apollos are flying. Johnny Jones isn’t worrying about the forgotten patterns and driving toward the basket for acrobatic layups. Davis is overpowering Mast inside, and the 5-foot-10 Rich Cornwall, by day a high school basketball coach in a township outside of Philadelphia, sinks a crucial three-point field goal to give Scranton a 121-119 lead.
Wilburn scores again for Allentown, his 34th and 35th points of the game, but Mayfield swishes in a jumper to give the Apollos a 123-121 lead with 17 seconds remaining. Mayfield’s shot wrapped the net around the iron, and the referee attempts to stop play to unwind it. But Allentown guard George Bruns scoops up the dead ball, steps behind the end line, and pegs a long pass to Wilburn for a layup to apparently tie the score at 121 all. Referee Rick McCartney disallows the basket, Wilburn and Landa explode, and the court is bombarded with more orange drink cartons.
“You shoulda had the ball in your hand before you called time,” screams Wilburn, in his first show of emotion all night. “Man, you really messed up.”
An orange carton conks Wilburn on the top of his bald head, and the veteran glares into the crowd and motions for whoever threw it to step down and fight. Wilburn is a cross between Richard Roundtree and Joe Caldwell, and there are no takers.
Landa, his face beet-red and his voice nearly gone, heaves his arms over his head and retreats to his bench. The scoreboard clicks back to Scranton 123, Allentown 121, and the Jets have the ball at midcourt with 17 seconds left.
Wilburn, master of the game for 47 minutes and 43 seconds, is obviously shaken by the developments. He fumbles the inbounds pass over the midcourt line and loses the ball on an over-and-back violation.
Mayfield sinks two free throws in the waning seconds, and Scranton is a 125-121 winner. The Scranton players file into the dressing room for quick showers and prepare to go their separate ways until next Saturday night’s game. “The players see each other only on weekends,” Cornwall later explained the Apollos’ rise in the EBA. “But we are very closely related, and there are no personality clashes on the team. Harmony and a great bench are the two main reasons we are playing so well.”
Pachter, puffing on his ever-present cigar, hands each player his pay on the way out of the arena. There is an extra $20 bill for each man.
Postscript: To start the next season, the Apollos dropped Willie Davis in an economy move. Pachter could no longer afford to fly in his hired hand from Texas.