I suppose my fascination with basketball, or roundball as it is called in many sports enclaves, began when I saw my first basketball and backboard in a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) gymnasium. As an undersized grade schooler, it took me several weeks to be able to score a basket.
Basketball games were few and far between until I enrolled in high school at St. Anthony’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Although our house was closer to the public high school, my parents opted to send me to tiny St. Anthony’s, which had a student body of 60. When I first arrived there, the only basketball facility was an outdoor half-court, but a new gymnasium was scheduled to open my sophomore year. For the first two years of HS play, we won very few games, and I remember that our initial contest, which featured a jump ball after every basket scored, the final tally was 8 to 4.
After those two lackluster years, we were fortunate enough to obtain the services of a basketball whiz of a coach. His name was Joe Gusweiler, and he had been an All-American at the University of Kentucky under famed coach Adolph Rupp. Following his college career, he had played many seasons for a travelling pro team (a la Globetrotters) called The House of David. Since it was by nomenclature related to the Bible, all of the members had to sport bushy beards.
Gusweiler had very stringent work-out routines. To get you to jump as high as possible when scoring a lay-up, he would place a folding chair in front of the basket and you would have to clear the chair before making a shot. For a dribbling drill, he utilized a yardstick in each hand as he tracked you down the court. If your head happened to touch one yardstick, you were given a sharp swat on the rear with the other. Since those were WWII-era years, there were many military-base operations in Southern Florida. Several of those sported basketball teams comprised of outstanding college basketball players. It was Gusweiler’s idea to have us scrimmage those teams at least a couple times per week. We usually received a good drubbing but learned to play at an extremely fast pace. Then when we played other high schools on Friday and Saturday, we tended to easily overpower them.
Although we were successful in my junior year, one team we could never beat was Gesu, a large school located in Miami Beach. Fortunately, when the senior season rolled around, we welcomed an individual of questionable years to our school. He was the brother-in-law of Coach Joe and he may have been a veteran of some time in the service. At any rate, he was the missing link to our starting five, which included of a 6-4, 230-poundcenter and a 6-5 forward. Because of his maturity and outstanding defensive skills, he was able to shut down Gesu’s star player, Gene Grappo.
We had an undefeated Catholic League season that year and won the championship trophy for Southeast Florida.
Anyone who has seen the movie Hoosiers could draw a similarity to the St. Anthony’s squad. My good friend Gene Hackman’s portrayal of a hard-nosed coach in the movie reminded me a great deal of Coach Gusweiler. Against all odds, Hackman’s tiny squad prevailed in the basketball hot-spot of Indiana. (Continued next week)