Man, the stories they could tell. And have.
As kids, Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein were thick as thieves, pals from the time they started school together at Audubon Elementary, through their high school days at Prep and Central, respectively, and then off to Georgetown University together.
But if there’s one thing that truly binds the 1973 high school grads together, it’s their love of basketball. Specifically, the old Eastern Basketball League.
Sunbury, Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre, Trenton, Wilmington, and of course, the Scranton Miners, just a handful of the franchises that made basketball at the old CYC rock in its day. And when it did, chances are that Rosenstein and Sobel were there together.
Which is why the childhood pals teamed up one more time to co-author a book that started out as a fond remembrance and turned into much more.
“Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League,” is not only a collection of stories from the players who lived those days, but tells of a social awakening for our area, which welcomed Black players at a time when the NBA had unofficial quotas limiting to two or three the number of minority players allowed on a roster.
In the Eastern League, up to 10 teams in places that wouldn’t seem to be hotbeds for basketball opened their gyms and their arms to players like former Temple University basketball coach John Cheney, Swish McKinney and many, many more. McKinney turned into such a popular figure that he had his own radio show here before he eventually landed in Binghamton — thanks to a full-time job at the IBM facility there.
Through the years, Sobel and Rosenstein bandied the idea of writing a book about the colorful and fast-paced league. In April, it will be published, although preorders through online vendors are being taken now.
“I think the last time we co-authored something together was our seventh- or eighth-grade yearbook at Audubon,” Rosenstein said.
It took lots of legwork as the authors sought out former stars and ordinary players, who were anything but ordinary in ability.
“Jay and I went into this book thinking we’re gonna write a nice, fun book about, you know, guys who played minor league basketball,” Sobel said. “And the more we talked to these guys we realized there’s a really good story here because on the one hand, you know, the Eastern League back in those days was really, really very good basketball. There were only eight NBA teams in the ’50s and ’60s and 10 players on the team. That’s it. There’s 450 players in the NBA now.”
Do your own math. Doesn’t take much to figure out that those guys would have been solid NBA players today.
“The other thing is, there were informal quotas on Black players,” Sobel said. “Back then, guys, particularly from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, didn’t get a chance to play in the NBA. So you had some legendary black players who were playing in the Eastern League.
“There’s also sociological importance to the story because of the racial aspect. So, you know, there’s a lot of different elements to the story. And the more we got into it, the more we realized you were really, really lucky to have a chance to have these guys share their story with us and we get a chance to tell.”
Ray Scott, who played in the Eastern League, went on to play three years in the NBA and was coach of the year in the early 1970s with the Detroit Pistons, explains that in the book.
“These guys would come in to play, and you get to know him, root for him,” Sobel said. “It kind of broke down some of those barriers. People from the small, mostly white, little cities got to see black people and relate to them.”
Players stayed to chat after games with young fans who were enamored with them, starting at age 7 when their dads took Sobel and Rosenstein to games. Rosenstein’s dad worked in the auto parts store of Miners owner Art Pachter. Rosenstein and his dad were second-row fixtures at the CYC until Jay inherited older brother Bruce’s job as statistician for home games.
“I’m telling you, it was just an education, a wonderful experience to go with my dad and to talk to players after games,” Rosenstein said. “It was a highlight of my life.”
Their research turned up more than just basketball stats.
McKinney didn’t go to college to play ball but it turns out he had a feel for information technology and went on to find a successful career there. Duquesne University Hall of Famer Willie Somerset played for the Miners after an NBA career and became a pharmacist. Julius McCoy, one of the league’s all-time leading scorers, went on to become a state government official in Harrisburg and a well-known community leader.
“So many of these guys, they weren’t just really really good basketball players, they’re really good people,” Sobel said.
And then there are the stories of people we know, like Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim, whose playing-days photo graces the cover of the book.
“He’s a low-key guy yet he does get excited and enthusiastic about the Eastern League,” Sobel said. “It clearly meant a lot to him. He just could not say enough times how much he loved playing in Scranton.”
Boeheim relates driving down Interstate 81 in a snowstorm, playing a game and driving back through a blizzard to get home at 7:30 a.m. and going to work.”
Rosenstein shared similar memories from former Dunmore High great Joe Lalli.
“Joe’s day job was teaching in Washington, D.C., at a school,” Rosenstein said. “And he would be done with a game on a Sunday night at like 11 o’clock, then he would have to drive from Scranton to Washington on a four-hour drive to be ready to teach the next day. And the other part of that story is, he told me that he almost killed himself twice, because he fell asleep at the wheel.”
OK, maybe parts of the stories are a little scary, but that’s what the Eastern League was all about, and it’s what Sobel and Rosenstein are sharing in their book.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of guys who got together and played weekends,” Sobel said. “We had some real quality individuals in that league and that’s the takeaway that just meant the most to me.”
‘Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League’
- Authors: Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein, with a foreword by Bob Ryan
- Release date: April 14, 2021
- Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
- Pages: 216
Marty Myers began his career as a sports writer at The Wayne Independent in Honesdale, where he served as sports editor and later managing editor. After 10 years there, he joined The Times-Tribune in 1994 and has spent the ensuing years reporting on high school sports, local and professional golf. An award-winning journalist, he also enjoys his duties as a copy editor for The Times-Tribune, editing stories and designing pages. A native of Williamsport, Marty resides in Clarks Summit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 570-348-9100 x5437 or @mmyersTT.