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A Winning Combination

by Richard Hughes Liddell

Even though it has been renamed in honour of Major Allison, to those of my generation, over 47 years later, Walkerville C.I.’s second gym, built in 1955, will always be known as the “New Gym.”

My first visit to this hallowed place occurred in 1956. I was part of a group from Hugh Beaton Public School that snuck in each Saturday morning to play basketball. One of the guys’ dads, Bert Brown, had just been named principal after Mr. Ball’s death, and since Bert or Bruno, as he was known, had some office work to do, he invited us to play. His son Don, John Mahon, John McGee, Pee Wee Lawson, Brian McCabe and I took full advantage of these moments and dreamed of becoming Walkerville Tartans.

I had been to the Patterson gym several times with my Dad. To this day, my all-time definition of the word “intimidation” continues to be playing basketball in the Patterson Gym. Its tiny size and brick walls, into which we constantly seemed to be colliding, together with the loud shouts from the other team’s side, beautiful distracting cheerleaders and the trick home team bounces from an overused slanted floor were a lethal combination. The New Gym at Walkerville on the other hand was new, clean, bright and huge and we enjoyed every moment of it.

I became a Walkerville Tartan basketball player a few years later but I must now confess I got there under false pretenses. In 1960 I was playing on the Junior-B team early one Friday night and Max Karcz, the Junior Coach was watching the game. As a guard, I was bringing the ball up the court and I noticed Doug Stuart was free under the basket. I lobbed the ball to him but in my nervousness over threw him. The ball went swish! and people started to applaud.

The next time up the court, I swear the same thing happened: bad pass – swish! After the game, Max came up to me and said, “Liddell, I want you to start practicing with the Juniors. You have a great shot but we’ll have to improve your arc. It almost looked like two of your baskets were passes.”

So I joined the Junior basketball team and was a consistent 10th player on the bench on a team of ten. Max also coached football and he taught his basketball teams how to intimidate the other team, even in the Patterson Gym.

I was on the so-called “football squad” along with Ron Shulgan, Bob Stewart, Don Routliffe and Doug Stuart. We would start some games and kind of rough up the other team. We were never leading when we left the court but the opposing team spent the rest of the game looking over their shoulders while our finesse team with players like John Mahon, Willie Malack, John Palko, Scoop Elcombe, Don Brown, Joe Cipparone, Joe Robich and Bruce Goodbrand would run rings around them.

I played on the team for three years and we never lost. (I believe Max’s winning streak lasted over four and a half years.) We had some very close games during that streak. John Palko saved one game at Corpus Christi (Brennan) High School by dribbling the ball the entire length of the court and throwing up an impossible combination jump-hook shot through the hoop at the final buzzer. Kennedy Collegiate, with the dreaded Harvey Strosberg, always gave us trouble. He insisted on arguing every single call against him but the refs never kicked him out of a game. I admired his zeal and thought that someday he would make a great lawyer. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Our team manager was Walkerville’s version of “the Fonz,” Willie Palko. He was one tough, cool and great guy. In my final year on the team, I challenged his authority over something long forgotten. As he approached me to discuss my last statement, I saw my life flash before my eyes. We stared each other down and then we both walked away. Both of us were shaking but for very different reasons.

I kept a low profile for a while but after our winning WOSSA game at Thames Hall at Western in London, Willie approached me again before we got on the bus ride home and we shook hands. “You stood up to me this year and I was wrong,” he said, “but don’t ever do that again.” Then we laughed and resumed our friendship.

Thinking back, I realize how much I loved those moments. I was not a great or even a good basketball player but I watched a great coach and a group of guys with various strengths and weaknesses, blend together and mold something very precious: a winning team!

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