Billy Melchionni recalls his glory days

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Billy Melchionni recalls his glory days

Postby rlee » Sat Oct 19, 2013 7:23 pm

Billy Melchionni recalls his glory days
By Lou Orlando

People often say, “It’s a small world!” Such was the case on a cold and wintry night in 1971 for Billy Melchionni, the former Villanova basketball All-American.

Melchionni’s New York Nets were off that night when Melchionni decided to watch a Big 5 college basketball game on television featuring a strong Penn team against an unheralded squad from the University of Massachusetts.

Melchionni, himself a member of the Big 5 Hall of Fame, saw a familiar sight, the Palestra, Penn’s home court and a venue where the sharp-shooting Melchionni often scored 20 or more points during his college career.

Despite the familiarity of the Palestra and all the traditional hoopla that goes hand in hand with a basketball game involving a team from the Big 5, Melchionni saw something that night he hadn’t seen before. One player stood out among all others.

“The following day at practice I began telling my Nets teammates about this player I saw on TV the night before,” said Melchionni. “I never saw a player play so fluidly above the rim, especially in the era when dunking was illegal. Plus, he was doing all his scoring on Corky Calhoun, who was by far the best defensive player in the Big 5.”

Little did Melchionni know at the time, but that player, Julius Erving, would one day be his teammate on the New York Nets.

Furthermore, Melchionni couldn’t have known that night that, just a few years later, while serving as the Nets general manager, he would be the man who would trade Julius Erving to the Philadelphia ‘76ers.

“Pat Williams was the general manager for the Sixers at that time,” said Melchionni. “He called one day, and out of the blue, asked me if Julius Erving was available. I told him, ‘You don’t trade a player like Julius Erving. That would make me like that guy from the Boston Red Sox who traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees’, and I don’t want to go down in history as the guy who traded Julius Erving.’”

But a few weeks later, with the Nets in a financial bind and needing cash to finance their move to the NBA, Melchionni, at the behest of his owner, Roy Boe, called Pat Williams back and sold Julius Erving to the Sixers for three million dollars.

“That’s how Doc got to wear No. 6 in Philadelphia,” said Melchionni. “The three million dollars the Nets received for him, plus the three million dollars the Sixers were paying him, made Julius Erving the six million dollar man.

“Pat later told me, even after we had agreed on the money, he wasn’t sure the deal would get done because he had one little problem to overcome. Pat’s ‘little’ problem was when he told Sixers’ owner Fitz Dixon that he had a chance to acquire Julius Erving, Dixon’s response was, ‘Who’s Julius Erving?’”

But to only think of Billy Melchionni as the man who traded Julius Erving would do injustice to a magnificent basketball career that first took its roots on the playgrounds of South Jersey.

Melchionni grew up with his three brothers in Pennsauken, N.J. Playing basketball was on their menu each day.

“We lived in a neighborhood that had small backyards,” said Melchionni. “So rather than have my brothers and I playing basketball all over town until all hours of the night, my father paved our backyard and installed a basketball court with lights.

“Our neighbors didn’t particularly like the lights or hearing that bouncing basketball late at night. But whatever it cost my father to pave our backyard definitely paid off, because all my brothers and I went to college on basketball scholarships.”

But no one would have envisioned Melchionni as a future college All-American, much less someone who would go on to play professionally, when he first stepped onto the court for basketball tryouts as a freshman at Bishop Eustace High School.

“I was about 5-feet-2 and weighed 95 pounds,” said Melchionni. “But we only had about 20 boys try out, and I made the team.”

During his playing days at Bishop Eustace, Melchionni and his teammates won two state championships. By the time Melchionni was a senior, he grew to over six feet tall and college recruiters started calling.

“Back then, there were no elaborate recruiting visits with limo rides and fancy dinners like you read about today,” said Melchionni. “When I went to see Temple, I took the train into Philly and hopped on the Broad Street subway to meet with Harry Litwack. Coach Litwack took me to a White Castle restaurant near campus and we ate hamburgers. Today’s recruits would laugh at that, but that’s the way it was back then.”

“It was the same story when I went to visit Villanova,” said Melchionni. “I took the old P&W line out to the Main Line and walked to the Field House to meet with Jack Kraft. And I don’t think I got lunch that day!”

Melchionni decided to attend Villanova mostly because he liked the style of basketball that Wildcat stars Wali Jones, Hubie White and George Leftwitch played.

“While I was in high school, I spent a lot of time playing basketball at a playground near 25th and Diamond Street in North Philadelphia,” said Melchionni. “Some of the best players in Philly were regulars. Guys like Sonny Hill, Hal Lear, John Chaney, Chick Scott and Johnny Sample all played there. And the games would get a little rough at times. Johnny Sample played in the NFL and on some days you couldn’t tell if he was playing basketball or football.

“Once I guarded Wali Jones, and when he took a jump shot, if he thought I was guarding him too closely, Wali would intentionally hit me in the face during his follow through. That was sort of Wali’s way of saying, ‘Don’t bother me when I’m shooting.’”

Ironically, while they were teammates at Villanova, it was Wali Jones who gave Melchionni his nickname, “Cyclops” because, when it came to shooting a basketball, Melchionni had a terrific eye.

“I always had a decent jump shot”, said Melchionni. “But this one day during practice I must have made 20 or 30 jumpers in a row and all of a sudden Wali started calling me Cyclops and the name stuck. I guess it’s a good thing Wali never knocked out one of my eyes when he used to hit me in the face or else I really would have been a Cyclops!”

Another Melchionni memory of inner-city basketball was the times he played against basketball legend, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.

“We played on a court at the Bright Hope Baptist Church on north Broad Street,” said Melchionni. “The local fans called Monroe Black Jesus, and he never warmed up with the rest of us. Instead, Monroe used to wait in his car until his fans called for him. About two minutes before tip-off, the crowd would start chanting, ‘Jesus, Jesus,’ and that’s when Monroe would get out of his car and take the court.”

While at Villanova, Melchionni’s Wildcats enjoyed several successful seasons with invitations to play in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments. Though Villanova never won either tournament during Melchionni’s career, Melchionni, after averaging more than 30 points per game, did become the first player to win the NIT tournament’s MVP award while playing for a non-championship team.

Melchionni scored 1,612 points during his career at Villanova, which ranks him 17th all-time. But to fully appreciate that total it’s worth noting that Melchionni scored all those points in just three seasons because, during Melchionni’s days at Villanova, freshman were not permitted to play on the varsity.

Kerry Kittles, who had a four-year career, is Villanova’s all-time scoring leader with 2,243 points. Adding just an average year of production to Melchionni’s totals easily puts him among the top five.

And one could make a solid argument that Melchionni might have been Villanova’s most prolific scorer ever when one takes into account that there were no three-point baskets when Melchionni played.

Since Melchionni, who averaged more than 19 points per game and did most of his scoring away from the basket, and often times from beyond the key, there’s simply no way of knowing how many of his patented jump shots would have tallied three points instead of two.

After graduating from Villanova in 1966, Melchionni was chosen in the second round of the NBA draft by the Sixers. He joined fellow Big Five alumnus Matty Guokas of St. Joseph’s University (then St. Joseph’s College), whom the Sixers chose first.

“It was odd,” said Melchionni. “The Sixers never called to tell me they drafted me. I found that out from Bob Vetrone, who used to write for the Evening Bulletin.

“I thought about playing in the NBA. But back then there were only nine teams and they just had 10 players on a team. Unlike college, where there were hundreds of teams and thousands of players, the odds of playing in the NBA were much longer.”

That summer, Melchionni honed his skills playing for the Phillips 66 AAU team in Barton, Okla., and traveled throughout Europe with other college stars on a goodwill tour sponsored by the State Department.

“In protest over the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, Russia pulled our visas and wouldn’t let us play any games behind the Iron Curtain,” said Melchionni. “I really wanted to visit those countries, but it wasn’t all bad. Instead, we played in Finland, Sweden and North Africa and I had never been to any of those places either.

“By summer’s end, I still hadn’t heard a word from the Sixers. I knew training camp was about to start, so I just assumed they weren’t interested in signing me and made plans to play in Europe for a team in Milan, Italy.

“NBA teams didn’t have general managers back then. About a week before the Sixers training camp was to begin, I got a call from Irv Kosloff, who co-owned the team. He said he wanted to talk to me about a contract and he invited me to his home in Penn Valley.

“That night, we sat in his den, drank Coca Cola, ate pretzels and watched the Phillies on TV,” said Melchionni. “An hour or so went by and I still wasn’t sure how serious Mr. Kosloff was about offering me a contract. When I looked over at him, he was sound asleep.”

Melchionni eventually got his contract.

“It was for $10,000 and it was conditional on making the team,” said Melchionni. “Training camp was held at the Jewish Community Center in Margate because Mr. Kosloff had a summer home in Ventnor and wanted to see us practice. We stayed at a modest hotel in Longport and practiced twice a day.”

Melchionni made the team and his professional basketball career was on its way.

“On the road, my first roommate was Larry Costello,” said Melchionni. “On game days, Larry wanted me to get up early every morning to exercise and run with him. But I was a reserve player and didn’t play very much, so I’m thinking. ‘Why would I want to run myself ragged at six in the morning if I’m going to spend most of the night on the bench?’ So we switched roommates and I got to room with Billy Cunningham, whose love for exercising at six in the morning was about the same as mine.

“Actually, in the early days of the NBA, you had to get your rest whenever and wherever you could. The league had a rule that required teams to take the first flight out in the morning after a game. A lot of times, we wouldn’t get back to our hotel until well after midnight and then we had to be in the hotel lobby a few hours later for our ride to the airport so we could catch a six o’clock flight. And we didn’t fly first class, we flew coach.

“Today, teams either have their own planes or hire charters to handle their large traveling party. When we traveled, it was only the 12 of us: 10 players, the trainer and the coach.

“We had a terrific team in 1967. But right before the season ended, I got called up by my Army Reserve unit. So instead of playing in the playoffs and celebrating with my teammates when they won the title, I spent six weeks driving an Army supply truck through the boondocks of Pennsylvania with Nate Ramsey, who played for the Eagles.”

“Our ’67 team would have won the championship again in 1968 if Billy Cunningham hadn’t broken his arm against the Knicks. We didn’t have anyone who could replace all the things Cunningham did, and we ended up losing in the playoffs to the Celtics.”

Chances for a championship the following year took a big hit when the Sixers traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers after the end of that 1967-68 season.

“Most people don’t know the real reason Wilt was traded,” said Melchionni. “Ike Richman, who co-owned the team with Irv Kosloff, had promised Wilt a percentage of the team. But Mr. Richman died that summer and supposedly never told Irv Kosloff about his deal with Wilt. Wilt wanted Richman’s promise kept, and when Kosloff refused, the Sixers traded Wilt to the Lakers.”

Melchionni’s tenure as a Sixer ended after the 1967-68 season, as well. He played one season for Trenton Colonials in the Eastern League before signing with the New York Nets of the ABA.

With the Nets, Melchionni regularly led his team in assists while averaging more than 10 points per game. But it wasn’t until Julius Erving joined the team in 1973 that the Nets literally took flight.

“With Julius, we won two ABA titles,” said Melchionni. “To be able to say I played with and won championships with Wilt and Julius, arguably two of the Top 10 players in basketball history, means something special to me.”

After his basketball days with the Nets, Melchionni began a long and successful career on Wall Street, but not before first turning down the opportunity to become the general manager of the Chicago Bulls.

“The Bulls job was tempting,” said Melchionni. “But it was time for me to move on. And besides, by turning down that job, it pretty much eliminated all possibilities that I might someday be known as the guy who traded both Julius Erving and Michael Jordan!”

Melchionni’s No. 25 was retired by both Villanova and the New York Nets. He’s in both the Villanova and Big 5 Hall of Fames, and was named to the first All-ABA team in 1972. Melchionni is just one of four players to win a championship in both the NBA and ABA. Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Tom Thatcher are the others.

Married for 47 years to his college sweetheart, Alicia, Melchionni is retired now and the couple lives in Naples, Fla. But they still maintain a home just a couple of three-pointers away from Villanova’s Jake Nevin Field House, where Melchionni once starred.

When in town and not playing golf at Applebrook Golf Club in Malvern, Melchionni will sometimes stop by the Pavilion to watch a Villanova practice or talk basketball with coach Jay Wright. And on occasion he can be seen shooting jump shots that are accompanied by that familiar swish sound. After all these years, Cyclops still has that eye that made Billy Melchionni one of the best players to ever wear the Villanova blue and white.
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