WHITE: It's time to reflect on century of highlights from PIAA boys' basketball playoffs

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
  • The PIAA boys' basketball championships would've turned 100 last week.
  • The state championships have been put on hold by the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The boys' basketball championships are the oldest events sponsored by the PIAA.
Kobe Bryant, seen here during high school days at Lower Merion, is just one of a number of standout players who have won PIAA boys' basketball titles.

Imagine teams gaining entry into the PIAA boys' basketball playoffs by invite only, and the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League champion not receiving an invitation because the PIAA didn’t know the WPIAL even existed.

The WPIAL champ then gets an invite, but only after the coach “wires” the PIAA and asks to be included in the tournament.

Don’t laugh.

As incredulous as that story might sound, it was how the very first PIAA boys' basketball tournament went down.

My, how things have changed in 100 years.

Last week in Hershey, the PIAA basketball championships were scheduled to turn 100. As everyone knows by now, the coronavirus outbreak has put those plans on hold for at least a couple of weeks, most likely for good.

The PIAA had a few special things planned, like having some former standout players from previous title games serve as honorary captains for this year’s games.

Now, those plans are obviously on hold.

Although football has a great history in Pennsylvania, there is a certain nostalgia that surrounds high school basketball in the state.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi.

“I think basketball and track kind of carries the day as far as nostalgia because of their long tenure,” PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. “You’ve got 100 years of [boys'] basketball and a similar thing with track.”

The title games may not have been played last week, but it's still an appropriate time to look back at century of Pennsylvania boys' basketball history.

Basketball was first PIAA-sponsored sport: Basketball was the first sport that the PIAA sponsored a championship in 1920, and the PIAA started track and field championships in 1925.

For comparisons sake, the PIAA didn’t start football championships until 1988, baseball until 1977 and girls' basketball until 1973.

But it’s more than longevity that has made the boys' basketball championships special. It’s the great teams, players and individual performances that have made great memories for high school fans across the state.

Attendance at the title games has gone down considerably in recent years and some of Pennsylvania’s greatest high school players from Philadelphia never competed in the PIAA playoffs because Philadelphia Public and Catholic League schools didn’t join the PIAA until the early 2000s. So Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia Overbrook) never played in a state playoff game.

Some great names have competed in playoffs: Still, fans have watched many of Pennsylvania’s all-time greats from both sides of the state make it to championship games, including Kobe Bryant (Lower Merion), Billy Owens (Carlisle), Tom McMillen (Mansfield), Don Hennon (Wampum), Maurice Lucas and Kenny Durrett (Schenley), Norm Van Lier and Simmie Hill (Midland).

“I will say the great player still has that star effect of attracting people,” Lombardi said. “Kobe was one. In the olden days, it was people like Norm Van Lier and Billy Owens. People came out to see Billy Owens and Carlisle (in the late 1980s) because they were an anomaly.”

Formats and sites: Today, the PIAA basketball playoffs consist of 128 boys' teams and 128 girls' teams spread out over six classifications for each gender.

That first PIAA tournament in 1920 consisted of only 14 boys' teams and squads were invited to the tournament. Bellevue High won the WPIAL with a 35-25 victory against McKeesport, but wasn’t an original invite to the tournament.

A story in the April 4 Pittsburgh Press said, “Coach Springer thought his boys deserved the right to compete and wired the tourney authorities. The managers of the affair said they had never heard of the WPIAL and for that reason had never heard of Bellevue. Arrangements were finally made, however, whereby Coach Springer will take his team and pay half their expenses.”

That 1920 tournament was played over two days at the Penn State Armory. Bellevue ended up making it to the title game where it lost to Harrisburg Tech, 38-34, despite 20 points by Bellevue’s Harry Eaton. A headline in the Pittsburgh Press read, “Technical Passers Win State Championship by Defeating Bellevue.”

York-Adams finalists: Over the years, a number of teams that are currently in the York-Adams League have made PIAA boys' basketball finals, including five championship teams.

Four of the titles belong to York Catholic in 1978 and 1979 in Class 2-A and in 1987 and 1990 in Class 3-A. 

Delone Catholic won a 2-A boys' crown in 1989.

Six more teams currently in the York-Adams League fell in boys' title games: York High in 1949 (3-A) and 2009 (4-A), York Catholic in 2005 (2-A), Eastern York in 1988 (2-A), Fairfield in 2001 (1-A) and Delone Catholic in 1984 (2-A).

Growth of classifications: By 1924, the PIAA basketball tournament was made up of only eight district winners around the state.

The PIAA had only one classification for basketball through 1944. A second classification was added for the 1944-45 season, a third in the 1950-51 season and a fourth in the 1983-84 campaign. The PIAA changed to six classifications in the 2016-17 season.

Growth of entries: For decades, the tournament was small, with only district champions qualifying.

In 1972, the PIAA started taking more than one team from a district to the state playoffs. To give you an idea how things have changed, 10 teams from District 1 (near Philadelphia) qualified for this year’s Class 6-A boys' tournament.

Also, in the early 1970s, Catholic schools were allowed in the PIAA playoffs, which greatly changed the landscape of the boys' basketball playoffs. Soon, the Catholic schools came to dominate the lower classifications, which led to charges of recruiting — a controversy that lasts until today.

That controversy was exacerbated when the Philly schools were included in the PIAA playoffs in the early 2000s. The charter schools from Philly also became a major force in the lower classifications.

The venues: While the format of the PIAA tournament changed greatly over the first few decades, the championship games were played in many places.

From 1920-28, the championship game was played at the Penn State Armory. When the PIAA changed to two classifications in 1945, the title games were played at two different sites. Over the years, championships were played everywhere from the fabled Palestra in Philadelphia, to high school and college gyms.

The PIAA title games were played for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s at the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg, where legend has it that the smell of animals used to sometimes make its way into the basketball facility.

The Civic Arena in Pittsburgh played host to the championship games three times — 1966, 1971 and 1979.

Hershey gets its shot at hosting games: From 1976 through 2002 (with the exception of 1979), the games were played in Hershey at the Hersheypark Arena, where Wilt Chamberlain once scored 100 points in an NBA game.

The games were moved to the nearby Giant Center in Hershey in 2003, but then to the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State in 2007. The games returned to Giant Center in 2013.

Reading High's Lonnie Walker, right, is seen here guarding York High's Clovis Gallon Jr. in a 2016 file photo. Walker is now a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He won a PIAA Class 6-A state title with Reading in 2016.

Great players, performances: Some players currently in the NBA played in the PIAA championships, including Prep Charter’s twin brothers Markieff (Los Angeles Lakers) and Marcus Morris (Los Angeles Clippers), Chartiers Valley’s T.J. McConnell (Indiana Pacers), Reading’s Lonnie Walker (San Antonio Spurs) and Archbishop Carroll’s Derrick Jones (Miami Heat). Walker won a PIAA Class 6-A state title in 2017.

Seven of the top-10 leading scorers in Pennsylvania history played in a championship game: Mansfield’s Tom McMillen (1969), Carlisle’s Billy Owens (1985, ’86, ’87, ’88), West Reading’s Ron Krick (1959, ’60, ’61), Elk Lake’s Bob Stevenson (1977), Bishop Hannan’s Gerry McNamara (1999, 2000, 2002), Lower Merion’s Bryant (1996) and Valley’s Tom Pipkins (1993).

The legendary Bryant helped Lower Merion win the Class 4-A title against Erie Cathedral Prep, 48-43. Bryant came into the game averaging 32 points, but Cathedral Prep played a zone and double-teamed Bryant when he got the ball and sometimes triple-teamed him. He took only 13 shots and scored 17 points, but he had eight rebounds and made some big shots late in the game.

McMillen, meanwhile, was maybe the most ballyhooed high school player to ever play in a PIAA championship. A 6-foot-11 forward, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970 when he was in high school at Mansfield. He averaged an astounding 47.7 points as a senior and scored 3,608 points for his career.

In the 1969 PIAA title game against Frazier of the WPIAL, McMillen, a junior, scored 32 points, grabbed 24 rebounds and blocked 14 shots as Mansfield won, 62-43.

The Billy Owens era: Nineteen years later, Carlisle’s Owens had one of the most memorable performances ever in a championship game and it came against WPIAL member Central Catholic.

Owens, a gifted 6-9 senior who would play at Syracuse and in the NBA, scored 53 points in an 80-54 win against coach Chuck Crummie’s Central team. He made 19 of 22 shots from the field and 14 of 16 from the free-throw line. The headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette two days later read, “Un-Billy-vable.”

“When Billy Owens is in the NBA someday, I can say I played against him,” Central Catholic’s Billy O’Brien said after the game.

But Owens’ 53 points is only second in PIAA championship history. In 1977, Elk Lake’s Bob Stevenson scored 55 points in a 94-60 victory against Shanksville. Stevenson, who averaged 37 points, made 24 of 34 shots, had 18 rebounds and 10 assists.

Considering all the teams, the great players and the unforgettable performances and it has been a wonderful 100 years of PIAA basketball championships.

Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mwhiteburgh