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Quotes, anecdotes from Pittsburgh Pipers’ 50th reunion

Tribune-Review
| Monday, May 7, 2018 4:39 p.m.
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Tribune-Review
Members of the 1967-68 Pittsburgh Pipers, front, left to right: Dexter Abu Muhammad Washington, Herschell Turner, Mark Whited (author of upcoming book on Pipers), Barry Liebowitz and Ira Harge; back, left to right: Tom Kerwin, Charlie Williams, Jim Jarvis, Leroy Wright, Arvesta Kelly and Steve Vacendak.

The American Basketball Association is one of the few professional sports leagues that maintains any mystique — if not downright mystery.

Because there never was a mega TV contract, and, in many cases, media coverage was sparse, much of what is known about the league comes from the men who played and worked in the ABA. That is especially true of the Pittsburgh Pipers, whose short, roller-coaster ride in the city included the league’s first championship, a subsequent move to Minneapolis and ignominious return.

Over the weekend, 10 remaining men who played for the Pipers for all or part of that 1967-68 championship season, reunited for the first time. What follows are some of the best quotes and stories from that reunion.

• Charlie Williams, on being back together with his former teammates 50 years later: “I’ve never heard so many lies in my life.”

• Barry Liebowitz, who was with the team for the first 23 games of the season before being traded for Art Heyman, who became a key cog in the Pipers’ run to the ABA title: “I was only on the team for a few months, but I was responsible for their championship. I was really the most important player on the team.”

• Liebowitz: “I really cannot come to grips with the fact that I haven’t seen these guys in 50 years. That just blows my mind. I mean he (pointing to Ira Harge) looks the same as he did 50 years ago when I used to pass him the ball, and he couldn’t catch it.”

• Arvesta Kelly, on the move to Minnesota: “It was heartbreaking because we found out over the summer (of 1968) that we were moving. … I can speak for myself, but I was under the impression that Pittsburgh had accepted our team. They came and saw the talent that we had, so we were going to have support the next year. And we moved! And it was even shocking when we moved back.”

• Steve Vacendak: “There wasn’t a great attitude in Minneapolis to get a team to replace the one that just left. I think we were beginning to be assimilated into the sports scene in Pittsburgh, especially as we went through the last couple of weeks of the season. The playoffs were very exciting.”

• Dexter Abu Muhammad Westbrook, on Connie Hawkins: “Connie was an innovator, like Michael (Jordan) was, like LeBron (James) is, like Kobe (Bryant) was. His ability to take the ball and palm it and drive the lane or drive underneath the basket and come from the other side and dunk it looking away and keep on going back on defense, you just didn’t see those things during that day. Even now you still don’t see it. … There’s never been anyone like him. Probably never will be.”

• Herschell Turner: “Connie played with the Globetrotters, and that’s what changed his game. A lot of people forget that.”

• Tom Kerwin: “When I think of Connie Hawkins, I think of his sense of humor. He was kind. … Just a really nice, nice man.”

• Harge: “If you look at all the expansion teams in the NBA, most of them are in cities that were ABA cities: Memphis, New Orleans, Denver, Utah, Miami, Minneapolis.”

• Liebowitz: “I grew up in New York, and in New York, you used to hang out on the corners at night and talk sports. I was younger than Connie, so when we were growing up, we used to argue about who was the greatest high school player of all time in New York City. It was either Connie Hawkins or Roger Brown. This was every night, the same argument for years. You had your Connie people, and you had your Roger people. Well, in the city championship, Roger got 39, but Connie won the game. Connie had 18. And this went on for years. Now I’m in the ABA, and I’m playing with Connie Hawkins. … We’re playing in Indianapolis, and Connie says, ‘After the game, throw your bags in the room. We’re going out with Roger.’ I’m going, ‘Oh, my God. I’m going out with Connie, and I’m going out with Roger, too!’ … We get in Roger’s new Grand Prix. … We hit every party in Indianapolis. At 4 o’clock in the morning, I’m in the backseat. I’m drunk out of my mind. I can’t even see. … All of a sudden an argument breaks out in the front seat. I wake up, ‘What’s going on?’ They’re arguing who was better in high school! And Roger’s saying, ‘I got 39,’ and Connie’s saying that, ‘We won the game.’ And I’m sitting in the backseat going, ‘Where is everybody in the neighborhood? No one is going to believe this story!’ ”

• Liebowitz: “When Connie was playing in the ABA, he already had a bum knee. He was playing on one leg. … Talk about Connie Hawkins with two good knees? Another world.”

• Turner (on Hawkins’ pre-ABA days playing in the old American Basketball League): “He was taped up even in the ABL. You look at him and say, ‘This guy’s hurt. Look at all that tape.’ Johnson & Johnson should have sponsored him.”

• Leroy Wright: “You want to talk about his defense? I’ve never seen this since I’ve been playing: A guy would shoot a shot, and he’d go up and catch it with one hand. Not swat it. Catch it.”

• Jim Jarvis, on an encounter with Hawkins after his playing days: “I came back to my real estate office in Bend, Ore., where I was living at the time, and there was a message from Connie. He left his phone number. I played phone tag with him for a week, and I finally got ahold of him. I basically said, ‘Connie, why are you calling me?’ He said, ‘Well, I was at the airport and ran into some people from Oregon, and I asked them if they knew you. They didn’t but they knew who you were, and they got back to me.’ He said, ‘I’m just calling you to tell you that I wanted to know how you are doing. I respected you as a player and as a person.’ That was a big deal to me.”

• Liebowitz: “Connie claimed, if I’m not mistaken, that he could speak 50 or 60 languages. Because he played with the Globetrotters all over the world, and he learned one word in every country, so he thought he was fluent in 50 or 60 languages. And nobody was going to argue with him.”

• Vinnie Cazzetta (son of late Pipers coach Vince Cazzetta): “A few weeks ago, my older sister came across some memoirs my dad had been writing. One thing that struck me is the reason he took this job was because, as good as a motivator and X and O guy that he was … he got excited about this job when he found out who the players were. And he was smart enough to know you win with great players, and he realized with the Pipers, he had great players. And that’s why he took the job, because of the great players. That’s a testament to the guys who are here and those who have passed away.”

• Vacendak: “I had a chance to play in a wonderful town with some of the finest men and teammates you could ever want. (This weekend) has brought back so many wonderful memories of those days. Hopefully, somehow we’ll continue this type of association.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at ccurti@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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