Commentary

Legendary Philadelphia coach reflects on hoops greats

Updated: March 26, 2009, 1:15 PM ET
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPNRISE.com

If you haven't heard of Cecil Mosenson, you're in for a treat.

Wilt Chamberlain
Cecil MosensonCoach Mosenson guided future NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain at Overbrook High School.

Coach or educator? For Mosenson, the titles are interchangeable. When it comes to high school basketball in Pennsylvania and his hometown of Philadelphia, he's an ardent supporter.

Mosenson, 79, coached for 34 years at four schools. He won 325 games, was cited for running an exemplary (he was a principal at a suburban junior high school) by former President Ronald Reagan, coached the Maccabi USA under-16 team to a gold medal in 1999 and rubbed elbows with greats of Philadelphia basketball.

Mosenson's players used to play in dingy gymnasiums and wear four-inch-inseam silk shorts. They've stroked set shots at Overbrook High in Philadelphia, at Temple University and with Harrisburg of the Eastern Professional Basketball League. He has seen the sport morph into a glitzy global game played above the rim.

When Mosenson was 22 years old, he was hired to coach at Overbrook. He inherited player Wilt Chamberlain, who later changed his life. Last year, Mosenson wrote the wonderfully wrought memoir, "It All Began with Wilt."

Although Chamberlain was a larger-than-life star, the book chronicled how many lives the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants touched.

Recently, Mosenson reflected on Wilt and basketball in Pennsylvania.

ESPN RISE: You coached Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the game's greatest player. What made him so special?

Cecil Mosenson: He was a freakish player. He had the rare combination of coordination, height [he was 7 feet tall] and skill. Plus, he had a great behavior on the court, he never went after a player or tried to show up the other team. Wilt worked hard each day; he never loafed.

RISE: You've said Wilt was the greatest player ever. You'll have plenty of pundits who will say Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson is the greatest. Why are you convinced Wilt holds the mantle?

Mosenson: Nobody held the record or broke them like Wilt. He was the first one. He did it with ease. He was a tremendous athlete; he ran the 220 [yards], threw the shot put and probably would have been a great defensive end in the NFL if he put his mind to it.

RISE: Pennsylvania is known as a strong football state. What about basketball? Does it rank as one of the top states?

Mosenson: I think it's more of a basketball state. Philadelphia is obviously the main city, but the rest of the state holds up. You look at some states, there are only two or three star players statewide. You might find that on one team in Philadelphia alone.

RISE: Philadelphia might be the best basketball city in America. Do you agree? Why?

Mosenson: I really believe it's the best city because of the tradition. It starts with the recreation centers where the players learn the game and eventually play against college and NBA players. The college tradition, the Big 5, is unlike any other place. It's special when [Division I] schools such as Temple, Saint Joseph's, Villanova, Drexel, Pennsylvania and La Salle all play each other for a city title. Many of the local players stayed home to attend one of these schools.

The Sixers and Warriors won NBA world championships. Wilt played for the Warriors [before they moved to Oakland, Calif.] and players like Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham, Bobby Jones, Moses Malone and World B. Free starred for the Sixers.

The Palestra [on the University of Pennsylvania campus] is the greatest place to watch a game. It's a special environment; all fans need to see a big game at the Palestra.

In the spring and summer, the high school kids played in the Gold Medal and Sonny Hill leagues.

RISE: Who were some of the great players you coached against or saw play over the years?

Mosenson: Paul Arizin and Tom Gola were two of the greatest and NBA pioneers. Earl Monroe was a dominant player in the public league along with Walt Hazard, Wayne Hightower, Guy Rodgers and Wali Jones.

RISE: What coaches do you admire? How about a few old-timers you went head-to-head against each year?

Mosenson: I was good friends with Red Auerbach; we met at resort in the Catskills [Mountains] back in the 1950s. Dr. Jack Ramsay was a great coach, as was Bill Ellerbee, Speedy Morris and Stan Novak.

RISE: How dominant a player was Wilt? Any antidotes? How would the opposition defend him?

Mosenson: Here's a funny story. We played Germantown High one day, and they decided to guard him with all five players. So I told Wilt to stand in the corner while the five players went with him. We thought it was comical, and, well, you can just imagine it backfired. The problem for Germantown was we had four other players who made several uncontested layups. They ditched that strategy in the second quarter, but by then the game was over.

RISE: You coached in Philadelphia's public league, but Catholic League also has a great tradition. What's your take on both powerhouse leagues?

Mosenson: When I was coaching at Overbrook, the public was mostly African-Americans while the Catholic league was white. Both leagues had totally different styles. The Catholic league strictly played man defense, pressed and played defense right in your face. Those players were disciplined and gave 110 percent. The public league played combination defenses, zones or man. Both leagues still are great today, probably the best in the state.

RISE: Kobe Bryant attended high school in suburban Philadelphia [Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa.]. Did he have the same effect on the game as Wilt?

Mosenson: He couldn't have; it was a different era. He came along long after my time, but I admire how skilled he is. In my final game at William Tennent High, we lost to Coatesville Area, with Richard Hamilton [now of the Detroit Pistons]. The inexperience of playing before thousands of people unnerved us in the beginning of the game.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys' and girls' basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.