Atlantic City basketball legend Gene Hudgins dies at 73
By MICHAEL McGARRY
His nickname was "Hooks" and his name is synonymous with Atlantic City basketball.
Gene Hudgins, a 1952 Atlantic City High School graduate, died Sunday. He was said by many to be the greatest Atlantic City player ever. He was 73 years old.
Hudgins earned his nickname for his hook shot.
"He had a hook shot from deep in the corner," long-time basketball coach and observer Boo Pergament said. "He would take it, and it would kiss off the backboard and go in. It was amazing. You couldn't believe it."
Hudgins also gained prominence as a labor leader in the casino industry with Local 54 of UNITE-HERE.
He was honored throughout the years by several local organizations, including the Philadelphia 76ers in 2004.
After high school, Hudgins went on to star at Morgan State University in Virginia. He played professionally, including for the Harlem Globetrotters alongside Wilt Chamberlain.
Hudgins excelled in legendary playground games in the 1950s at "The Yard" against professionals such as Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. The Yard was a court at the corner of Pennsylvania and Arctic avenues in Atlantic City.
An exhibit dedicated to Hudgins' career was on display at the Atlantic City Art Center last month.
"Each town had their guy," long-time local basketball fan and Atlantic City resident Ron Jordan said. "Gene was Atlantic City's guy. If you talk to any of the old timers up in Philadelphia and ask about Atlantic City, the first name they'll say is Gene Hudgins."
Hudgins, an outstanding shooter, changed the way the game was played locally.
"He was the first one to shoot a jump shot," Pergament said. "When he was on, he was unstoppable."
Hudgins played for the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters' long-time opponent. Margate resident Red Klotz coached the Generals and was friends with Hudgins.
"He had a great big smile," Klotz said. "He was always smiling. I knew it wouldn't be long before the Globetrotters would want him, and that's exactly what happened."
Many observers from that era say Hudgins was good enough to play in the NBA but his chances were hurt because back then the league had a quota system that limited the number of black players on each team.
After the Globetrotters, Hudgins starred for the Allentown Jets and the Wilkes-Barre Barons in the Eastern Professional Basketball League, a minor league that served as a farm system for the NBA.
After he stopped playing, Hudgins was a fixture on the local basketball scene. He coached Pleasantville High School in the late 1960s.
Hudgins was also a prominent local figure off the court.
He cleaned up Local 54 after years of alleged mob ties were discovered in a federal probe in 1991. The racketeering charges against several union officials, including Roy Silber, were dropped in exchange for their resignations.
A court-appointed monitor named Hudgins manager until the next election for union president in 1993, which he won. He spent the next few years improving health insurance, implementing various training and English as a second language programs.
He also started a scholarship fund and immigration assistance program, as well as TV and radio spots targeted at members. Hudgins was at the helm when the union threatened to strike during the 1994 Miss America Parade, but didn't after reaching a resolution hours before the start of the event. He lost an election for union leadership in 1996.
Hudgins life off the court was not without controversy.
He pleaded guilty on Oct. 21, 1977, to official misconduct when he was the Atlantic City recreation director. Hudgins admitted writing checks to fictitious city employees and funneling almost $2,400 into the city's After School Program. He later tried to change the plea and contest the case, but was denied. Coworkers defended his innocence.
Hudgins' name also attracted controversy in 1999 when then Atlantic City mayor Jim Whelan chose him for a $50,000, 12-week job as a minority labor consultant on the building of a new public works yard. The city council that approved the contract included his ex-wife Barbara Hudgins.
But it is on the basketball court where Hudgins first made his name.
The Atlantic City boys basketball team is exploring the possibility of wearing black arm bands this season in honor of Hudgins.
He volunteered long hours as coach of the city's youth. He gave Atlantic City Council President William "Speedy" Marsh his nickname.
Hudgins was inducted in the Atlantic City High School Hall of Fame in 2003.
"There's nothing like an in-town award," he said that day.
Staff writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.
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