Since the New Jersey high school basketball championships are being contested Sunday, there is no better time to write about who I consider is the First Family of South Jersey boys’ basketball.
With Shawnee playing, I certainly considered the Earls – Denny and his Renegades sons Danny and Brian.
And with Camden playing, I also considered Milt Wagner and son Dajuan.
But I’m going with four brothers from Bishop Eustace Prep: The Melchionni Brothers, who grew up in Pennsauken.
All four – Billy, Bob, Gary and Tom – played major Division I basketball at perennial power colleges. Three played at Villanova University while Gary starred at Duke.
And Billy and Gary both played in the NBA.
Also, after an All-American career at Villanova where his No. 25 was retired, Billy was a member of the 1966-67 NBA Champion 76ers, which is considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history. He also was an all-star in the old ABA with the Nets where his No. 25 is also retired.
So, in my mind, of all the great basketball families in South Jersey history, the Melchionni’s are the greatest.
On the girls’ side, my pick is the McGlade sisters - Bernie, Mickey, Theresa and Agnus – of Gloucester Catholic. They are all members of the Al Carino Basketball Club of South Jersey Hall of Fame, but that’s a column for another Sunday amid March Madness.
“Between the four of us, we had some competitive games in the backyard,” Billy said recently from his home in Florida. “It was something special and the big thing was all four of us went to college on basketball scholarships.”
Billy, 72, graduated from Bishop Eustace in 1962 and played at Villanova from 1963 to 1966 before freshman were eligible to play on the varsity.
Bob, 70, graduated from Eustace in 1964 and was a sophomore when Billy was senior. He played at Villanova from 1967 to 1969.
Gary, 65, a 1969 Eustace grad, was a two-time captain of the Blue Devils and was named all-Atlantic Coast Conference. He played with the Phoenix Suns in NBA.
Tom, 63, graduated Bishop Eustace in 1971. He originally went to William & Mary before transferring to Villanova where he played from 1973 to 1976 with former Eustace star John Olive.
However, even before playing in the backyard where they drank from the hose and not from bottles of Gatorade, the Melchionni Boys first tasted the love of basketball in pickup games on the outdoor courts at old Pennsauken Junior High School located at Route 130 and Merchantville Avenue.
“There was a crappy, macadam court right at the end of the street and that’s my first memories of going down there to watch my brothers play,” said Tom. “I was probably only five or six years old and they would put a mark on the pole and if I could get the ball to hit up to that height of the pole that counted as a basket for me because I couldn’t reach the basket.”
From playing outside without sunblock and on soft, broken asphalt, the Melchionni Boys then went big time and played inside the brown-stone junior high building, which later became Central School and was closed in 2007 before being recently demolished.
“We used to sneak in the gym as much as we could, especially in the winter time so we could play in there,” Billy said. “They used to have a little bandbox gym.
“And then my dad started renting Longfellow School and he started a little league when I was in seventh grade,” Billy said about the elementary school not far from their home. “He used to charge kids ten cents to come and he put teams together and we used to play one night a week. And that money he used to give to the janitor. And the janitor used to let us in to play when he was cleaning up the school.”
Longfellow wasn’t long like in its name. And the roof rafters were closer than the spectators.
“It didn’t bother me because it had a very low ceiling, we were all small and didn’t have much of an arc on our shots,” Billy said laughing. “I remember going down there one time, when I guess I was later in high school, and I’m thinking how did we shoot in here.”
Soon Mr. Melchionni packed up Billy and The Boys in the family car.
“My dad found out there was a CYO League and he formed a team from St. Cecilia’s and we were like an all-star team from the five or six teams,” Billy said, referring to the Longfellow league. “We used to play against the local catholic schools.”
The Melchionni’s also found another place to play.
“My father finally concreted the backyard, I think he did it so he didn’t have to mow the lawn, but it turned out to be a pretty good investment,” said Tom. “And then he put spotlights up, which didn’t make our neighbors very happy. We’d be out there shooting around in the middle of the night and people would come out and complain.”
There was no 3-point shot back in the 1950’s, which was good since the Melchionni court didn’t have the space for the arc.
“Our court was probably 15x15,” Tom said. “There was a walkway that ran next to the court and we eventually made it a rule that you could go out to that sidewalk to extend the court because as we got older it was just too small.
“That’s why we were good shooters from 15-16 feet and in. “
Billy was only about 5-foot-2 when he went to Eustace. He grew to over six foot and soon so did the Crusaders’ program under coach Don Casey.
“We stunk my freshman and sophomore years, but we ended up winning state championships my junior and senior years,” he said.
The Crusaders won their first of seven state titles in 1961 and then again 1962.
Casey, who later was the head coach at Temple, was a cutting edge strategist and generally ahead of his time in basketball, just like Mr. Melchionni was in starting a league and a CYO team and then building a court in the backyard.
“He used to go over and watch the practices of (Jack) McCloskey and (Jack) Ramsay and Harry Litwack and then comeback and we used to do a lot of the drills they did and we used a lot of the offenses they did,” Billy said about the legendary Big Five coaches.
Tom remembers the buzz around basketball at Eustace, but not about his family’s name. The Melchionni name wasn’t legendary quite yet.
“As a kid, the legend hadn’t been established at Eustace,” said Tom, who was a sophomore on the 1969 Eustace state championship team with older brother, Gary. “So as a kid I was watching, but wasn’t realizing what I was seeing because I was about 10 years old when most of that was going on.
“Certainly I remember going to the Eustace games and seeing them win and seeing how excited how everyone was. I remember celebrations back at the school after they won the state championships, but I was just a kid running around the gym.
“It didn’t dawn on me what I was witnessing. But I certainly had a front row seat to the whole history of Eustace and a lot of South Jersey basketball, that’s for sure.”
Tom was a freshman when the Sixers made history and won the NBA title in 1966-67.
“I remember not being able to go to some games because we had practice or games,” said Tom. “I remember my freshman class and people talking about the Sixers and all that was going on.”
That season, Billy, a 6-1 guard, played in 71 regular season games and averaged 10.7 minutes a game, chipping in with 4.6 points for the Sixers, who posted the NBA’s best record in history at the time at 68-13.
Wilt Chamberlain started at center, averaging 24.1 points a game while shooting a staggering 68.2 percent from the field. Wilt also averaged and amazing 24.2 rebounds and an unheralded 7.8 assists.
Luke Jackson and Chet Walker started at forward while Wali Jones and Hal Greer were the guards. Billy Cunningham came off the bench as the sixth man for the 76ers, who averaged 125.2 points a game.
Like Tom did at Eustace, Billy Melchionni had a front seat to NBA history. Chamberlain, Walker, Greer and Cunningham are all in the Hall of Fame. So is Alex Hannum as a coach.
“Fifty years later you cant remember half the stuff,” said Billy, a second-round draft pick by the 76ers and the 19th overall selection. “I was such a small part of it, I don’t think I played in one game that I made the difference between winning and losing.”
The Vietnam War was escalating and Melchionni was called to serve in the Army Reserve, so he wasn’t in a basketball uniform when the Sixers dethroned the eight-time champion Celtics and then beat the Warriors in six games in the finals for the championship.
“The only game I played was the first one against Cincinnati that we lost and then the next morning I flew to North Carolina and Fort Bragg. They used to let me watch, but not all the games were on TV.
“They kept postponing it, but three weeks left in the season they told me I had to go,” added Billy, who is a member of the Big 5 Hall of Fame.
Another sign of the different times was NBA travel back in those days.
“We weren’t flying private planes, we were on commercial planes,” Billy said. “We weren’t even flying first class. I remember Wilt always used to get the first seat behind first class so he would be on the aisle and he could put his feet out into first class.”
Although he lives in Florida, Billy returns often to the area. In December, he attended the 76ers 50th anniversary celebration at halftime of a game against the Celtics.
“I come back to Conshohocken in the summer and in the Christmas holidays so I’m over Villanova a lot.
“I walk the track every other day for three or four miles and then I go into their basketball facility and I shoot for about 15 or 20 minutes,” he said.
Shooting indoors at Villanova isn’t quite the same as firing up line-drive jumpers at Longfellow.
But the low ceilings and the stony outdoor court up the street and the tight quarters of their backyard court is where the First Family of South Jersey boys’ basketball was born.
“Times were different then, it just seem normal, everything you did you did in your neighborhood,” said Tom “You could leave the house in the morning and nobody had to worry about where you were going and what you were doing.
“You kind of remember that fondly, but in this day and age the game of basketball has changed and the way you live your life has changed, so I’m happy we had the times we had. I can’t imagine a better childhood than the one we had and the fact that things just fell into place.”
Bob still lives in Philadelphia area and works at Villanova.
Gary, whose son, Lee, played for Duke from 2002–2006, lives in Lancaster, Pa., where he is an attorney.
Tom lives outside of Ocean City where he is a realtor.
“Our family just seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” Tom continued. “Eustace came into being when my brother was ready to go to high school.
“I jokingly say my father sent us to Eustace because it was an all boys school and he wanted to keep us away from girls.
“And at Eustace, there was Don Casey who revolutionized South Jersey basketball and we happen to be at the right place again. And my brother Billy’s success opened the door for us to follow his lead and it all worked out at the end.”