Remembering a classic crosstown basketball game
I always loved that movie Hoosiers, the one with Gene Hackman as the coach. It’s set in the 1950s and was made in the 1980s. I saw it when I was a teenager, still playing basketball for Hammonton High School after playing in middle school with the Bulldogs.
It’s far more than a movie about basketball. There are a lot of life lessons in it.
This time of year, with the NCAA Tournaments going, always makes me think about that time in my life.
My father played baseball and basketball. He played for St. Joseph High School on the varsity team. He was a senior in 1956, and he played in a gym that looked like something straight out of the movie Hoosiers, a barrel-shaped beauty dedicated on February 22, 1953 that still sits at the corner of Third and Pleasant Streets.
He still hung out with some of the members of that team decades later, into his 70s, including Paul Steeb as well as my father’s cousin and teammate, Ronnie Rodio. Today Rodio’s better known as the longtime owner of Ronnie’s Garden Center in Northfield. In 1956, he was playing in a tight game against crosstown rival Hammonton.
Back then, there were far more connections between the two schools. St. Joseph High School was made up mostly of people from Hammonton or the nearby Rosedale section of Winslow Twp. Hammonton High School was nearly filled with local names as well. The two schools were both located downtown, just blocks from each other (St. Joseph was on Third Street, and Hammonton was located at the corner of Central Avenue and Vine Street, ironically the location of St. Joseph Academy today). The downtown was always filled with kids from both educational institutions.
According to a yellowed clipping from February of 1956, St. Joseph beat Hammonton at the St. Joe gymnasium thanks to the last-minute heroics of Rodio, capping off a great team effort. Here is the vivid description of what went on in the gym that night according to the Press of Atlantic City article from more than 65 years ago:
“HAMMONTON, Feb. 8—Little Ron Rodio, weakened by a recent siege with a pesky virus, had enough oomph for a long shot from near mid-court which split the cords just before the buzzer to give St. Joseph’s a thrilling come-from-behind victory over city rival Hammonton High School by 66-64 on the Parochials’ home court here tonight.
“Rodio not only made the decisive field goal after the home team held the ball on a freeze waiting for the final shot, but the shifty guard also stole a Hammonton pass with 30 seconds left which gave his team possession for its final maneuver … Then Rodio pulled his essential steal and followed with the shot heard round Hammonton,” the Press of Atlantic City article said.
The box score in the article included the names of all the team members, including Rodio, Steeb and my dad, Frank Donio. He and my mother Angela were both graduates of St. Joseph in 1956.
If you’ve never been inside the classic gym at the former St. Joseph High School at Third and Pleasant Streets, and you’ve never been there for a game between Hammonton and St. Joseph like the one described by the Press, let me tell you as someone who has: it’s one of the top games on the sports calendar each year.
They pack the gym, hundreds chant at each other back and forth, and everything is closer together than in the modern gyms. The concrete stands are elevated and the court is below them at street level—like in Hoosiers—and there is virtually no out of bounds. Decades after he played there, my dad and I sat in the stands for one of the rivalry games. It’s a fond memory.
Because we’re fortunate to have an extensive archive here at The Gazette, I was able to pull a couple of items related to the St. Joseph gymnasium—as well as Rodio’s big game in it—before I wrote this column. One was the souvenir book from the dedication of the gym, which outlined how it was built, including the fact that the maple floor was “one of the best and most modern in the whole country” and was the exact same floor that Yale University had at that time.
“Over 85,000 pieces of maple wood—9 inches long, one inch wide—were required to cover the floor space (50 by 100 feet), and not a single nail was used in the process. The maple floor was cemented over a half inch cork bedding, making it—in the athlete’s language—a fast and lively floor. The cost was $9,000.”
To my knowledge, while the floor has been refinished during the intervening years, it is the same floor that was dedicated with the entire gym in 1953.
The other item I used for reference was the 1956 Lily, the yearbook of St. Joseph High School. There were several references to the February 8, 1956 basketball game between St. Joseph and Hammonton in it.
“Yes, that was the game of the season. In the last few seconds we won 66-64 … This was a year of team effort and cooperation. Sparked by Paul Steeb, the team’s captain, Anthony “Ike” Macri and Robert Steeb, there were many contributions of basketball skill, such as the play in the last few minutes of the game against Hammonton when Ronnie Rodio sunk the final goal, thus beating our rivals for the third time in the school’s history,” the yearbook said.
Back then, the blurbs next to the seniors’ photos in the St. Joseph yearbooks were written for the students by the nuns, my mother always told me. Here’s what is written next to Rodio’s:
“He has proved to be the deciding factor in the Hammonton-St. Joe basketball game for which he has won a place in St. Joe’s history. His aim is the business world,” the yearbook said.
If you haven’t seen Hoosiers, see it. It’s amazing how a game like basketball—or any sport—can have such a lasting influence on the people who play it.
Enjoy March Madness, everyone.
Gabe Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.