LORETTO - Len Murray came to St. Francis sight unseen because he wanted to play for one of the better men's college basketball programs in the East.
That was in 1964, and Murray, a black youth from Chicago, had no idea what he was getting himself into. There was the inevitable culture shock of coming to a predominantly white college during those racially uncertain times, but Murray had read in some magazines how good St. Francis was in basketball, so he made up his mind that's where he wanted to go.
Many components of that story differ greatly from the college basketball world of today. An athlete going to a school sight unseen? A player choosing St. Francis because of its great success on the court? And a standout player from Chicago spurning bigger programs to attend a tiny school on the top of a mountain in Pennsylvania?
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
(From left) Ed Dugan, Gene DeBeradinis, Leonard Murray, Joe Hazinsky and Ed Winters returned for St. Francis’ Golden Era celebration.
Murray even went as far as to write a letter to legendary coach Skip Hughes asking if he could come to St. Francis. He basically did his own recruiting rather than the coach coming after him.
Those were different times, indeed.
Tradition doesn't die. But sometimes it can be forgotten.
St. Francis' struggles on the basketball court for more than three decades make it easy to forget the school once played at a high very level for a very long time. Events like the one held Saturday night at the school are designed to make people remember the good ol' days, and hearing stories from Murray and other former St. Francis standouts about how much the school played a role in their success in life emphatically make the point hit home.
"I've had a wonderful life," Murray, now a circuit court judge in Chicago, said during the Golden Era Hall of Fame banquet. "St. Francis, as a student-athlete, provided me with a foundation for the rest of my life."
Murray was enshrined in the school's second Golden Era Hall of Fame class along with Joe Hazinsky (1968-72), Ed Winters (1959-62), Ed Dugan (1950-54) and Gene DeBerardinis (1961-64). St. Francis alum Bob Moore, the mastermind behind the Golden Era celebration, served as master of ceremonies for an event that easily topped last year's attendance.
"From the looks of it, basketball is alive and well in Loretto," Moore said.
Just like last year, Moore was joined on stage by each honoree, along with several of his former teammates. They shared stories and lots of laughs, and each player discussed how he ended up at St. Francis.
One of the school's all-time greats, Kevin Porter, told the story of how he nearly left St. Francis after his first year but was talked into staying by Hazinsky.
"Joe kind of took me up under his wings and made me want to come back," Porter said.
Porter, who also came from Chicago, thanked Murray for paving the way to St. Francis for some of the players who followed in the pipeline from the Windy City.
Winters told a personal story about how he was married with a young son when he came to St. Francis and that Hughes promised him he would be able to stay in an apartment off campus with his family. But he had to stay in the freshman dorm his first year and roomed with teammate Cal Fowler as a sophomore, only to tell Hughes that he might transfer if he couldn't get an apartment with his family after that.
Dugan told a story about how players used to come to St. Francis to try out, maybe 80-100 at a time. He made the team that way, which again points out the vast difference in how teams were compiled back then compared to the highly competitive recruiting that takes place today.
Dugan touched on one thing that's not too different today.
"Not too many of the major teams would play us," he said. "We were the little team up there on the mountaintop, and they just wouldn't take us on."
He was talking about how teams wouldn't come to Loretto to play St. Francis, and that's still the case now. The program has struggled mightily on the road for years, but at home it has been so competitive that teams don't want to risk losing by coming to Loretto.
DeBerardinis played alongside standout Sandy Williams, a Golden Era Hall of Fame inductee last year, and said, "God heard their prayers, and in answer to their prayers, they sent St. Francis Sandy Williams."
DeBerardinis also told one of the funniest stories of the night when discussing how he told his grandson, Sebastian, that he was going into the Hall of Fame.
"Grandpa played football in the NFL?" Sebastian replied.
The youngster then was told it was for his college as a basketball player, to which Sebastian seemed disinterested and said, "Can we go to the NFL Hall of Fame instead?"
Hazinsky was enshrined last and told numerous jokes, and he had many members of the 1972 team on hand to cheer him on. He joked that he once had a 4.0 GPA - 2.0 during the first semester and 2.0 in the second semester.
"You guys can see why this was the glue of our basketball team," Porter said of Hazinsky.
Several inductees and guests had messages for the members of the current men's basketball team, which was on hand. The Red Flash have had enormous struggles in recent years and went just 5-24 last season.
Porter, who returned as St. Francis' head coach in the mid-1980s following a successful NBA career, told the team, "Make sure that you take care of your home court and make sure that when people scout you they don't want to come in and play St. Francis."
Again, Porter's words are very true in that teams don't want to come to St. Francis to play, so when they have a choice, they don't. That makes it difficult for the program to achieve success, and matters are made worse by the team's major struggles on the road.
St. Francis is proud of its Golden Era, and the former stars of the program would love to see the current team turn things around and get back to winning ways. Former standout Don Appleman even made a telling statement at one point when looking out at the current players from the stage.
"We would like to see you guys do better this year than last tear," Appleman said. "Actually, we demand it of you. Respectfully."