Varsity Xtra: Sun is setting on Schenley High


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Fred Skrocki still keeps a number of old Schenley High School basketball warmup jackets at his home just outside Butler. A few of the jackets are from 15 or 20 years ago, keepsakes from Skrocki's 24 seasons as Schenley's coach.

"My wife," Skrocki said, "always says to me, 'Why don't you get rid of these jackets?' I tell her, 'No way. It says Schenley basketball on them.' "When I go to my grave, I've told her to put some of those jackets with me."

How coincidental that Skrocki's comments came only two days ago, just as Schenley basketball was taking some of its final breaths. There will be no more Schenley at the end of the school year. The Pittsburgh Board of Education has decided to close the school. Schenley's boys basketball team played its final home game Thursday night and will participate in the City League playoffs next week. Schenley, of course, was many things to many people since it opened in 1916. Artist Andy Warhol and musician George Benson are Schenley graduates.

So is legendary former Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince. Schenley also had some extremely successful athletes in other sports, such as Larry Brown, who went on to be an All-Pro running back for the Washington Redskins.

But as much as anything else, Schenley was known for basketball. Great basketball. Schenley had great teams and great players over the years and for much of the 1960s and '70s, Schenley was considered one of the best high school programs in the country. The '66 team with Kenny Durrett, the '71 team with Maurice Lucas and most recently the 2007 team with DeJuan Blair all are considered some of the greatest in Western Pennsylvania history.

And soon, Schenley basketball will be history.

Maybe this year's team can give Schenley one more playoff ride and make some noise in the City League playoffs. But no matter what, it has been one great ride.

Schenley basketball -- enough said.

"I think those words still have magic to them," said Ken Saybel, Schenley's director of athletics the past 10 years.

Skrocki feels the magic often. He felt it just the other day when he went to Butler Catholic grade school to work as a substitute physical education teacher. Skrocki, 59, wore an old Schenley basketball jacket.

"It does hurt that they're taking down a school that was doing a lot of good for a lot of people," Skrocki said. "It's like they're closing down a chapter of your life."

The old Schenley High School building on Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland was closed three years ago, and the remaining students were moved to Reizenstein in East Liberty. The senior class is the only grade at Schenley now. The school gets underclassmen athletes by way of a cooperative sponsorship with three other schools in the city.

Schenley has 19 City League basketball championships, including seven under Skrocki. Schenley also has five PIAA championships, one under Skrocki. The other teams to win state titles besides the 1966, '71 and 2007 teams were the '75 and '78 teams. The '66, '71 and '75 teams were coached by Spencer Watkins; the '78 team by Fred Yee.

Fred Lucas, 67, taught at Schenley for 30 years and also coached football and track at the school. He saw all of the great Schenley teams play.

"That team of 1971 just had so much depth and more than one shooter," Lucas said. "I think I'd have to put that '71 team No. 1, but I would probably put the 2007 team No. 2."

Bill Seitz worked for City League athletics for more than three decades and is a retired teacher.

"One of the things I remember about that 1971 team with Maurice Lucas and Ricky Coleman was that sports writers would ask [coach] Spencer Watkins 'What kind of offense is that?' " Seitz said. "He would say 'controlled freelance.' In other words, those guys just did their thing. They didn't need a coach too much."

Many of Schenley's teams in the '60s and '70s had players who went to Division I colleges.

Durrett, a smooth 6-6 forward, is considered one of Western Pennsylvania's greatest players. He went on to play at La Salle University and was the fourth player taken in the '71 NBA draft. But a knee injury ruined his career.

Point guard Petey Gibson was another star with Durrett on the '66 team.

The '71 team was loaded with Lucas, Coleman, Jeep Kelley, Jeff Matthews and Tom Thornton. Lucas had a long NBA career.

The state championship team of '75 had 6-11 Kelvin Smith, Wayne Williams and Nathan "Sonny" Lewis, who all eventually played at Pitt. The '78 team had Larry Anderson, who played at Nevada-Las Vegas, and Jamie Smith, who went to Wisconsin.

But the 2007 team had three highly successful Division I college players. Blair, who played at Pitt, is in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. D.J. Kennedy is having a fine career at St. John's, and DeAndre Kane is the leading scorer at Marshall.

"I know I'm biased, but I'm saying the '07 team was the best," Skrocki said with a laugh.

The debates will go on for years as to what team might have been the best. But, oh, the memories of Schenley basketball.


Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com


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