Our team was whooping and hollering as our voices echoed from the tiled walls in the locker room at old Navy Park Field House in Cleveland, Ohio. The source of the noise came from the joy of winning a city championship with a bunch of close, high school buddies. It came as a surprise, it was unexpected, and its affect would be everlasting. It all began in homeroom at Collinwood High School with Eddie Moses, a good friend. We were recollecting the many Saturday mornings, and early mornings before school that our intramural basketball teams had won game after game without missing a beat. Now, as high school juniors we were looking for a challenge outside of our school and neighborhood. Every summer, we played pickup games, we played as a neighborhood team against the other surrounding neighborhoods, winning time and time again. Eddie mentioned an adult friend who would be the catalyst to help finance and to help transport our newly formed team. He was a man named Marik. He was always known by his last name. He drove a Chevy II, convertible in 1963. He had coached baseball in the area and was interested in helping to organize our efforts. At the time, I lived in a small two bedroom apartment with my grandmother, father, brother, and sister. My source of income came from earnings as a newspaper boy with the Cleveland Press. We couldn’t afford basketball uniforms, let alone new Converse, Chuck Taylor style, basketball shoes. Marik found a solution, he found uniforms at a sporting goods store, that were ordered but never used. When he brought the uniforms for Gary and I to our apartment to model, they were too large for us. My dear grandmother stepped up and volunteered to alter them to fit us. Wow! I had given Marik $7 to buy a new pair of sneakers, I took one look at them and was dazzled by the Converse Star on the side. The plan to play was in motion. We had recruited our friends and were ready, willing, and able to play ball.
Practicing and playing basketball to prepare for our season commenced. Personally, I would shoot around just about anywhere, from the neighborhood playgroud to the Y.M.C.A. We traveled from the east to the west side of Cleveland playing at the various high school gyms. It was a very competitive league, we played above average most nights, losing occasionally to larger, more physical teams. I recall playing against one, Emanuel Leaks at 6’8″, who eventually played in the N.B.A. Finally, the weekend of the tournament had arrived. Our team was seeded #1, we were surprised at the seeding but paid little attention to it. On Friday night, we played a very talented team of African-Americans, they could run and fastbreak. Our strategy was to play a slower, more deliberate game, taking unconstested shots at the basket. The game went down to the last seconds, we won it at the foul line, as we went perfect there. On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of playing against a team called the Knights of Columbus, they were from my old neightborhood. I knew and respected their abilities for I had played with them on Saturday mornings as a younger kid. Once again, the game was nip and tuck, we hung with them, and slowly took the lead into the last few minutes. With a small lead, we decided to stall the ball, hold it by passing and dribbling, thus forcing them to foul us. Good fortune was with me, as I was fouled at least three times in the last minute, I proceeded to make all of my free throw attempts to cinch the win.
On Sunday, we played at Navy Park Fieldhouse for the championship, against Quad Realty of Parma. This team had defeated Manny Leaks and his mates to get to the finals. They were very tall and athletic, we knew our best game had to be played. The first half was a disaster, they blitzed us, scoring and rebounding against us with a flair. The had doubled our score in the first half, it was a game in which we had to play our game and hope for the best in the second half. I had just one basket in that first half. In a deliberate, calm state of mind, our team began its climb out of oblivion into the light of a contender. Our team made each possesion important, painstakingly passing the ball and making them play defense until one of us had a clear look at the basket. Then the improbable happened, the crowd jumped to its feet with a roar, as I sank a 15 foot jumper to put us ahead by one point with less than a minute to play. In the second half, I was perfect from the field, scoring on each shot attempt. Quad Realty on its next possession made two foul shots to go ahead with less than 30 seconds on the clock. As Eddie dribbled down the court, I was ready for the last shot, I sensed their defense was over playing , so I returned Eddie’s pass quickly, as the ball was passed around the floor to Billy Russell to George Chimielewski in the opposite corner. George put a move on his defender, then dribbled around him while driving to the hoop and sinking his shot. He was fouled with one shot coming. We were up by one, George missed his one shot, but time expired and the city championship was ours Our starting five; Eddie Moses, Billy Russell, Al Cernigoj, George Chimeilewski, and myself had created a dream and made it come true. We could not have made it without our bench; Gary Moore, Eddie Miklavcic, Tommy Kramer, Tony Rutti, & John Lewis.
A banquet was held in our honor at a downtown hotel, The Pick Carter, at the end of the season when trophies were awarded. To my surprise, I was named the most valuable player in the tournament. I accepted the award with a quiet resign, knowing it was a team effort, and my buddies would always be remembered for their individual contributions. This success helped to motivate and stimulate my life going forward by attending college and finding success in life.
In closing, learning the value of a team effort was and will forever be imprinted on my heart and mind, as I recall that memorable moment in my life.