Ralph J. Leng was an excellent All-Catholic League basketball player for St. Wendelin High School in Baldwin in the early 1950s, but it was his intelligence, not his athletic ability, that earned him a scholarship to Duquesne University.
Mr. Leng did get the opportunity to continue his basketball career at Duquesne when Dukes assistant coach Red Manning offered him a spot as a practice player in 1954 because the team needed extra players to fill out the roster.
Mr. Leng died Sunday at a hospice in Mt. Lebanon after a yearlong battle with leukemia. He was 77.
Mr. Leng's primary task for the Duquesne basketball team was simple: Take on All-American Sihugo Green daily at practice and help Mr. Green and the rest of the varsity players get better each day.
"The coaches looked at my dad and figured he was the same size as Sihugo Green [about 6 feet 2] and played the same position so it would be a good matchup at practice," said his son Mark Leng. "Of course, he may have been about the same size as Sihugo, but he wasn't nearly the same talent level. But hey, one of those two went on to be the first pick in the NBA draft."
Mark Leng obviously was talking about Mr. Green, who was selected by the Rochester Royals with the first pick of the 1956 NBA draft, but Ralph Leng had a small role in helping Green become the player he was and he was a member of the Dukes' 1955 NIT championship team.
Duquesne marked the 50th anniversary of the championship season on Dec. 4, 2005, at halftime of the Dukes' game with Robert Morris. Mr. Leng was one of four 1955 players -- along with Bob "Duke" Schneider, Jimmy Fallon and Paul Lojpersberger -- who attended.
A native of Carrick, Mr. Leng moved to Baldwin at an early age. He attended St. Wendelin grade school and high school and was a standout in multiple sports.
He earned an academic scholarship to Duquesne and was involved in the ROTC program. He played as a walk-on with the basketball team during his freshman and sophomore years but quit after 1955 to focus on baseball, which he also played for the Dukes.
Upon graduation Mr. Leng had a tryout with the Pirates at Forbes Field, but his baseball career never panned out. He joined the Air Force, serving 2 1/2 years and becoming a special services officer -- a job he loved.
"Basically, he was in charge of coordinating all of the activities and sports for his base," Mark Leng said. "And he got to travel around the country and play on various sports teams against teams from other bases. So if there is such a thing as a fun job in the military, he certainly had it."
After leaving the Air Force, Mr. Leng took over the family business -- Leng Insurance in Caste Village Shopping Center -- and ran it for nearly 40 years before selling it to Mellon.
Mr. Leng is survived by his wife, Janet Leng of Whitehall; sons Mark of Peters and David of Whitehall; a daughter, Donna Nahourali; and seven grandchildren.
Friends will be received at the John F. Slater Funeral Home, 4201 Brownsville Road, Brentwood today from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. A Mass will be celebrated in St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church at 10 a.m. Thursday.
The family suggests contributions to Whitehall Lions Club, P.O. Box 98201, Pittsburgh, PA 15227; or Cloverleaf Area Food Bank, 1 Grove Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15236.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com; Twitter: @paulzeise.