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Category:  Sports History
Published:  February, 1997

The Playground of Champions

By Al Owens
Perhaps my memory is a bit hazy but I can never remember snow falling on East End playground when I was growing up. If it had fallen, I'm sure twenty red-hot, Chuck Taylor clad feet would have trampled it away without it causing even the slightest impediment.

East End playground was a parking lot sized play area jammed behind a majestic yellow brick grade school at the corner of Main and Grant Streets in Uniontown.

A place where darkness was ignored, so errant jump shots after sundown frequently bounced off the rim and then off the top of many heads. An architecturally curious place where a long metal railing had been erected perilously close to the entire length of the sideline. If a basketball took flight over that railing it usually rolled down the sharply inclined street below for as long as two blocks before it could be retrieved. None of those things seemed to matter much.

Sometime between the late 1950's and the mid-1960's it had somehow become a basketball mecca where young men with names like Mutt, Doc and Train came to play daily. You could find a Ham and a Cheese running fast breaks together.

We had a Spider, a Junebug, a Bull, a Hawk and even a Fish. There was one Pope and there were several Parsons. A Slick and a couple Slats. There was one guy we called Fast for the obvious reasons, and there was another guy we called Hobo but I don't know why.

Everybody played basketball throughout the day and into the night, no matter what the season. Most of us lived within a few blocks of the place. Some of us lived close enough the hear the words, "I've got the winner", until midnight.

In those innocent days the only serious laws the on the East End considered defying were the Laws of Gravity. Fortunately jumping into another solar system wouldn't get you hard time.

A guy named Stu Lantz, for one, was rumored to have gone up for a rebound in the spring of 1964 and they say he didn't come down before Labor Day. That was an overstatement. I saw him land on July the Fourth.

There was another guy they called "The Little Magician". I've been often reminded that Mel Freeman jumped center for Uniontown High School. Did I hear somebody say, "so what"? Mel Freeman stood five feet, nine inches off the ground. He was usually the smallest player on the court.

In the summer, on late Sunday afternoons carloads of challengers from all over Pennsylvania would come and declare basketball war on the reigning East End court kings. There were no sanctioning organizations, no rules and no referees. Just excited standing room only crowds roaring their approval.
It was basketball pure and simple, in a little town with a big reputation. Dozens of future All-Staters and All-Americans taking on the world in an arena not much bigger than your back porch.

I've always wonderful how things got to be that way, and the way they are now.

Today East End playground lies decaying and empty. A haunting reminder to anyone who passes it that things just aren't the way they used to be.

We were a gang of rabidly competitive young people. Encouraged by well meaning adults who provided a sports assembly line, unlike any in this country. The most talented of the group were strong, creative and resourceful young men who managed to play those children's games into polished precision.

There is that marvelous sign on Fayette Street which declares Uniontown Area High School is THE SCHOOL OF CHAMPIONS. I am firmly convinced that without THE PLAYGROUND OF CHAMPIONS on Grant Street, that sign in front of the high school would be much smaller. If it would exist at all.

Those East End playground days were indeed memorable and, I think, easily worth the retelling. I've always known some day, somebody would write about that those days. I had no idea I would be that person.

Part One
I've always wondered why Uniontown doesn't have a Sandy Stephens Avenue or an Ernie Davis Boulevard. By the why, just whom is Pershing Court named after anyway?

The Heisman Trophy had been handed out for two and a half decades but not to an African American before Ernie Davis earned his in 1961. He his earned twenty-two years and twenty-five days after being born in New Salem.

He spent his earlier days in Fayette County before moving to Elmira, New York and then on to the University of Syracuse, where he broke future Hall of Famer Jim Brown's rushing records. Ironically, it was Jim Brown who personally recruited Ernie Davis to play for Orangemen.

East End native Sanford ( "Sandy" or" Mutt") Stephens came in fourth in the Heisman balloting that same year. A three year starting quarterback at the University of Minnesota, Stephens became the first African American quarterback to gain All-American honors.

I remember one brisk fall afternoon in the early 1960's when Sandy Stephens and Ernie Davis returned home to Uniontown. This pair which had no doubt played together as youngsters on East End playground, had each stood in the recent glare of a national sports spotlight. But on this day they stood side-by-side on the corner of East Main Street and Grant Street.

For us kids on the East End, on that single glorious day, Main and Grant became SANDY STEPHENS AVENUE and ERNIE DAVIS BOULEVARD.

One night last year in Los Angeles I got another one of those warm East End feelings. I happened to be watching an LA. Laker basketball game when the Laker's usual play-by-play announcer, Chick Hearn, took ill. It was the first time in nearly three decades Hearn did not broadcast a complete Laker game.

Stu Lantz, The Lakers' color commentator, would have been forced to do the play-by-play alone if it had not been for the efforts of one of the Laker's part owners. Ervin "Magic" Johnson joined Stu Lantz at halftime. They shared the microphone and the camera for the rest of the game. Uniontown's Stu Lantz and a future Hall of Famer, talking about the same sport Lantz used to dominate on East End playground 35 years ago. Truly a night to remember.

Two years ago all eyes in the country were poised on a newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner as he spoke at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. Rashaan Salaam nervously thanked the people who had helped him win the award. But he saved his heartiest thank-you for last. Coach Gregory, his backfield coach at Colorado University had shepherded him through some tough personal times before he'd reached that day's Heisman glory. Salaam calls him Coach Gregory, I think most of the people on the East End of Uniontown just call him "Pope".

There are times I've had bittersweet East End moments too. Two of them in fact. Being a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, it's always sweet to witness the Steelers win another play-off game. That sweetness took on a slight bit of bitterness the past two years. Indianapolis assistant coach Eugene Huey has prowled the sidelines as the Steelers have bounced his Colts from the play-offs two years running. Sorry Junebug nothing personal. And while I'm at it the next time you drop by your mother's house on the East End, can you leave us a playbook?
Junebug Huey and his cousin Pope Gregory used to live a few blocks away from the playground. I know a few prized athletes who could hit an East End jump shot from their front porch.

Four Muncie brothers (or Munsey depending on which brother you talk about) lived directly across the street from there. All four played professional football at one time or another. The oldest George, played semi-pro ball. Bill was a starting running back who joined Sandy Stephens at the University of Minnesota before turning pro in Canada. Nelson played for the Norfolk Neptunes before playing in the defensive backfield for the Baltimore Colts. And then there was Chuckie.

Chuckie gets a of his own paragraph. His is one of those legendary tales people still talk about on the East End. Chuckie's youngest sister Marsha used to outrun him in foot races across the East End volleyball court. That was after a truck hit Chuckie one day near East End playground and there were fears he'd never walk again.
He did walk again. In fact, in his senior year at California, Chuckie outran just about every defensive player who tried to tackle him. He finished second to Archie Griffin in that year's Heisman trophy balloting. He had an illustrious professional career with the New Orleans Saints and later with the San Diego Chargers. In both places the big, fast running back continued to do to defenders, what he couldn't do to his little sister Marsha. He simply outran them.

The Muncie family was unique, but not that unique. There were families of great athletes all over the East End. Most of them carried a local name and memories of East End on to college glory, and in some cases beyond. There were the Parsons brothers (Raymond and Edmund) the Curry brothers (Clark and Dickie) The Curry cousins (Ronnie and Allyn) The McLee brothers (Kevin and Brad) a McLee cousin (Reggie) The Harrison brothers (Gary and Ed) the Manning brothers, The Wright brothers, The Etheridge brothers, the Jenkins brothers, and the Thomas brothers.

We had a set of Wilfred Minors. An uncle nicknamed Spider and a nephew nicknamed Hawk. Hawk, the younger Minor, was a starting guard for two years on two of Uniontown's better basketball teams. He was the starting quarterback on Uniontown High School's WPIAL championship team in 1965. A spirited competitor and a natural leader in every sport he endeavored, Hawk always seemed to be the first to arrive and the last to leave East End playground everyday.

Spider Minor was the gate keeper for all serious sports competition on East End playground in those days. An unofficial coach who did in the summers what A.J. Everhart did during the winters. Except Spider never got paid for his dedication. His resonant voice would echo across the East End each summer as he stood near that sideline railing and exhorted great young athletes to become even greater.

When future Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis left Uniontown as a child, he left behind a younger brother. Charles Carlton Davis graduated from South Union in 1956. He became an All-Stater who's name seems to be mentioned most frequently when the subject of of the greatest to ever play on East End playground comes up.

And I haven't even gotten to those Yates brothers. But I will next week.