Pittsburgh State of Mind

by March 27, 2014


by Leigh Klein

Pittsburgh is ready for a unique dance this March in the NCAA Tournament, and it has nothing to do with one of the many colleges in the area making a run on the court.

Once a vibrant basketball epicenter, the basketball legacy of Pittsburgh includes the likes of Maurice Stokes, Pete Maravich, Maurice Lucas, George Karl, Tim Grgurich, C. Vivian Stringer and Dick Bennett—all of whom came from the ‘Burgh. Pittsburgh was home to Sonny Vaccaro’s Dapper Dan Roundball Classic , the predecessor to the McDonald’s All American Game and later the Five-Star Basketball Camp.

Legends were being developed at the Ozanam Cultural Center summer league run by the legendary Carl Kohlman, a time he remembers as a “place for all teams in Western Pennsylvania to compete in the best summer league. Great players such as Maurice Lucas (Marquette), Jeep Kelly (UNLV), Sam Clancy (Pitt) and Larry Anderson (UNLV) made their mark there.”

Great basketball was happening in Pittsburgh.

But as manufacturing jobs were eliminated and the economy went south, so did basketball in the ‘Burgh.

“Football always reigned supreme, but all the sudden, there were no resources allotted for basketball and the basketball opportunities dried up,” said Matt Driscoll, the Pittsburgh born and bred head coach of North Florida University. “The blue-collar contingent woke up and all those jobs disappeared. Next thing you knew, Pittsburgh stopped producing basketball talent.”

There was a passionate core of hoop heads still pushing the leather up and down the Allegheny. One of whom was Bill Sacco, athletic director of Cornell High School in Coraopolis, a Pittsburgh suburb; not known by many outsiders but those in the ‘Burgh know his contributions to the game of basketball. The former Moon Township High School coach laid the basketball foundation for John Calipari, his former player, now one of the three Pittsburgh-area coaches who have piloted teams into the Sweet 16.

“I’m not sure how many people here realize [the Pittsburgh connection] it,” Sacco told SLAM. “For those who do, they all talk about it and it inspires them to keep at it (coaching).”

Certainly a legend, Calipari has led four teams to the Final Four and won the 2012 National Championship. Sacco looks proudly on this legacy.

On the Kentucky bench is North Hills High School star, John Robic, who grew up in a suburb outside the city. Associate head coach of the Wildcats and a former Panther, Orlando Antigua, is one of the game’s rising coaching stars. There is a connection to this part of the country, a part not known for basketball, in this year’s Tournament.

Look no further than John Miller, Sacco’s former Moon Township assistant coach who piloted Beaver Falls Blackhawk High School for nearly 40 years where he won four state championships. He’s not as well known as his sons—names who have risen to prominence this year: Sean Miller, head coach of Arizona and Archie Miller, head coach of Dayton. They are two of the Division I basketball players that John has produced.

Their father put every minute and everything he had into their basketball development as there were no vacations in the Miller household. Summers were completely devoted to the skill development of Sean and later Archie.

“I was running John’s drill for the skill camp at LaRoche College and John turns to me and says, ‘Archie is late, go get him.’ I head back to the dorms and there is Archie and Archie asks me, if there is anyway you can tell my dad, that you didn’t find me,” Driscoll remembers. “John Miller believed every day was important and every day they worked with purpose.”

At 7 years old, Sean was traveling locally, doing half-time show ball handling exhibitions. At 11 years old, his ballhandling wizardry was featured in the movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh with Julius Erving; he was so good that he performed on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at 14 years old in front of a national audience. Sean had a stellar college career at Pittsburgh and Archie ended up playing at NC State. Both boys caught the coaching bug and moved up the ladder to their current posts.

They are the first brothers to coach in the same Sweet 16.

Another coach with ties to Pittsburgh who went to the tournament this year was former Carnegie Mellon player, Herb Sendek, the head coach at Arizona State. Not too bad for a sport cast in the shadows of football, baseball and hockey in a town that has not had a professional basketball team since the Condors left in 1972.

But it goes from the sideline to the hardcourt as well, with Pittsburgh not only producing quality head coaches but impact players.

Two of the leading men in the Sweet 16 are Pittsburgh products. There is current Cylone and former Schenley High School star DeAndre Kane, who has proven to be an impact player for Iowa State. There is also TJ McConnell, the Duquesne transfer, the starting point guard for the Arizona.

The McConnells are a basketball family, his father Tim is the varsity head coach at Chartiers Valley High School, his Aunt Maureen played at Pitt. His Aunt Suzie is the current head coach there and his Uncle Tommy lived March Madness personally as coach of Dayton and St Francis University and now coaches the women’s team at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Kane is a story of determination, of perseverance. He is one of the few to make it out of “The Hills,” a notorious area of Pittsburgh known for gangs, drugs and violence. From Schenley to Patterson School to Marshall University and now the star at Iowa State, leading them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years.

Walking through the hallways at Cornell High School, Sacco could overhear the students asking, “Did you see what DeAndre did?” and “What about the play TJ made?” Sacco can feel the energy and how this success inspires the kids. There is a buzz around town and it serves as motivation that it’s possible for this city to produce college basketball talent at the elite level.

In the Steel City, this Sweet 16 means something more; it represents a renewed hope for the sport of basketball. A hope that Sacco and dedicated disciples like him take to the court every season.

Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft and is a frequent national radio guest. Klein can be followed @LeighAlanKlein.