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Baltimore Catholic League Hall Of Fame Shows Depth Of Local Basketball Talent

May 15, 2014

Jay Wright was an 18-year-old college freshman when he first learned of the Baltimore Catholic League.

Wright, the current men's basketball coach at Villanova University, had just graduated from Council Rock High, located outside Philadelphia, and began attending Bucknell University during the fall of 1979.

"My next-door roommate was Ray Barry," Wright said. "Both he and his older brother, Bob, played [basketball] for Jerry Savage at Loyola [Blakefield]. Well, Bob was also the all-time leading scorer in Bucknell history when I got there, and then I found out that Bob was only the third-best player on his high school team -- behind Pete Budko, who went to North Carolina, and Tony Guy, who went to Kansas. I knew then that the Baltimore Catholic League was very, very good."

Bob Barry and Wright were together May 1 at the Rolling Road Country Club in Catonsville. Bob Barry was there to reconnect with Wright, his former Bucknell teammate, and to show his support for Loyola Blakefield's Morris Cannon and Mark Rohde, who were both inducted into the Baltimore Catholic League Hall of Fame.

Wright was the event's guest speaker.

"It's an honor for me to be here," Wright said. "It really is. This is a big-time night. There's not many cities in the country that can do this and have the pride in their basketball that this city does."

Cannon and Rohde were inducted into the third BCL Hall of Fame class along with St. Maria Goretti coach Cokey Robertson, Mount St. Joseph's Danny Witt and Gene Nieberlein Jr., Towson Catholic's Adrian Hubbard, Cardinal Gibbons' Rob Valderas, Archbishop Curley's Carl Fornoff, St. Frances' Sam McGee and Calvert Hall's Juan Dixon.

But they weren't the only VIPs among the 350 guests. Former University of Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams, who received a standing ovation after his introduction in part because of his recent election into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, sat next to Dixon, a leader on the Maryland Terrapins' 2002 national championship team.

Williams recruited Dixon when most major Division I coaches did not. It was the summer of 1997, and Dixon, then a rising senior at Calvert Hall, was playing in an AAU tournament in Augusta, Ga.

"It was August," Williams said, "and the temperature was about 100 degrees in the gym. Juan's team was losing pretty big, and it was near the end of the game. A ball was going out of bounds, and he dove for it -- just went all out into the crowd. Whether he got the ball or not wouldn't have changed whether they won or lost. But he was still playing hard. I knew right then, he was the type of player we wanted."

Dixon became the all-time leading scorer in Maryland men's basketball history, a first-team All-American and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2002 NCAA tournament.

Issue 197: Terps Maryland Basketball: Juan Dixon (2012)
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

"I can't tell you what it means to have coach Williams here tonight," Dixon said. "To have my college coach and my high school coach here means everything to me. Both of those guys were like fathers to me."

Mark Amatucci, a 2012 BCL Hall of Fame inductee, coached Dixon at Calvert Hall and was part of a who's who of former and current BCL coaches at the 2014 induction.

"You look out in this crowd and see these coaches -- absolutely amazing," Wright said. "… Can you believe this? [It's] as fine a collection of coaches as anywhere in the country."

The night belonged to the nine players and one coach who now bring the number of elected members in the BCL Hall of Fame to 37. Here are their stories. 

Danny Witt, Mount St. Joseph, Class of 1966 

"We say in the record book the Catholic League was born in the 1971-72 season," 

Rohde said. "But there was a thing we called the U-BCL -- the unofficial Catholic League that was around for many, many, many years. You think of the great players then -- the great Jim Lacy, Gene Shue. You think of the great teams at Loyola and Calvert Hall during the 1950s and early '60s. The 1962 Towson Catholic Owls won the Alhambra tournament in Cumberland. There is a rich tradition before 1971-72."

Witt was part of it. He grew up in Irvington, two blocks from the Mount St. Joe campus, and started for Gene Nieberlein Sr. as a freshman during the fall of 1962.

"I remember this like it was yesterday," Witt said. "The day of our first game my freshman year, coach Nieberlein called me into his room. He asked me if I knew why he was there. I said, 'You are going to send me down to the JV.' He said, 'No, you're starting today.' "

Witt went on to score 1,600 career points, including 51 during a game against Carver when he was a senior. He was named to the Naismith High School All-American team and earned the Brother Eugene Award, given to the Gaels' best scholar-athlete.

Witt left Mount St. Joe during the fall of 1966 and went to High Point College in North Carolina, where he once guarded Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who was then a small-college All-American and later starred with the Baltimore Bullets.

 "I wasn't the only one who guarded him," Witt said. "We doubled-teamed him the whole game. We held him to 33 points. The next night, he scored 63, so we didn't feel too bad."

Witt and his wife, Jean, live in Jacksonville, Fla. Their oldest son, Kevin, was the Toronto Blue Jays' first-round pick during the 1994 MLB First-Year Player Draft, while their youngest son, David, now coaches tennis star Venus Williams.

"They've both done well," said Witt, whose son Kevin hit a home run against the Orioles at Camden Yards in 2006. "It's been fun watching their careers. I can't tell you how much it means to go into this Hall of Fame and how much thanks I owe Gene Nieberlein. He gave me the chance to play. Jerry Savage was an assistant coach at St. Joe then, and he used to play pickup games in the gym and helped teach me how to play. I owe those guys a lot."

Cokey Robertson, St. Maria Goretti, Coach

Robertson said he remembered the night his St. Maria Goretti basketball team was invited into the Baltimore Catholic League.

"I had become very good friends with Jerry Savage," Robertson said. "In March of 1984, we were at the Alhambra tournament in Cumberland. Jerry says, 'Let's go talk to Ray Mullis about getting into the league.' He was staying at the Holiday Inn downtown. We show up and knock on his door. He's in a card game.

"Coach Savage says, 'Hey, Ray, what do you think about Goretti joining the league?' Ray was true to his form. He was in a game and didn't want to be interrupted and said, 'Yeah, love to have you.' That was our entry into the league."

In January 1985, the Gaels of Hagertown played their first game in the Catholic League. It was against Mullis and Cardinal Gibbons.

"We got a rude awakening that night," Robertson said. "They had Rodney Walker, who went to Syracuse; David Brown, who went to Old Dominion; Bernard Royster, who went to Old Dominion; and Jerome Felix, who went to Western Kentucky. That's four Division I players on the same team. I hadn't seen four Division I players in my 10 years at Goretti. And we got waxed. I knew then as we traveled back to Hagerstown, our work was cut out for us."

The Gaels regrouped under Robertson, winning the Catholic League tournament nearly two months later, beating the same Gibbons team, 66-62, behind Rodney Monroe, Lee Hicks and Paul Muldowney.

Robertson won 697 other games during his coaching career, which began at Westminster High School in 1960. A native of Lonaconing in western Maryland, Robertson led Valley High School to the first of its five state championships in 1956.

From Westminster, he went off to Thomas Johnson High and Hagerstown Junior College, then to St. Maria Goretti in 1974. With Monroe, who went on to play at North Carolina State, the Gaels won three straight BCL championships -- in 1985, '86 and '87 -- and another in 2001.

"It's an honor to go into the Hall of Fame in this league with Ray Mullis, Jerry Savage and Mark Amatucci," Robertson said, "an honor to stand at this level with all of those fine people."

Morris Cannon, Loyola, Class of 1972

"I didn't start playing basketball until I was 10 years old," said Cannon, who grew up in east Baltimore. "I was a football, baseball, bike-riding, street-skating, card-playing, jump-roping, dodgeball-playing kid."

Then, he met Clarence "Du" Burns.

"One day, a couple of kids I played football and softball with asked me to go play basketball," Cannon said. "That's when I met the Honorable Du Burns. I watched the entire practice. The next day, I was allowed to play." 

Burns went on to become the mayor of Baltimore City. Cannon went on to become an All-Catholic League and All-State scorer for Loyola Blakefield and a top player for coaches Nap Doherty and Tom O'Connor at Loyola College (now Loyola University).

"I was one of seven kids," Cannon said, "and there was a work-reward system in our family. You work hard. You get rewarded."

That work ethic and talent carried over to the Dons' basketball program.

"My junior year, I started," Cannon said. "I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. Again, work reward, as a senior playing in league. Well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Cannon averaged 17 points per game his senior year and, along with teammate Rohde, led the Dons to an unbeaten Catholic League season and a tournament championship win against Calvert Hall.

"I personally think Morris was one of the most underrated players to ever come out of the city," Rohde said. "We only played in the Catholic League for one year, but we played in the [Maryland Scholastic Assocation] for three years before that. We played against Marvin Webster at Edmondson, George Pinchback and Ronald Smith at City, Leon Love at Carver. How Morris handled those situations, as an African-American player wearing a Loyola uniform, and going back into the neighborhoods where he knew a lot of people -- I don't know too many people who could have handled it like him."

Mark Rohde, Loyola, Class of 1972

Rohde said he and Cannon had been like John Stockton and Karl Malone, a former point guard/power forward duo for the Utah Jazz.

Rohde was 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds, while Cannon was 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds.

"I was Stockton, and he was Malone," Rohde laughed. "I was the big guy passing him the ball."

Rohde played on the Loyola varsity for three years, graduating in 1972 with 859 career points, 705 rebounds and 166 assists.

"How about coach Savage?" Rohde said. "He's going to take this 6-[foot]-7 white guy, and he's going to play him out front. He's going to shoot 20-foot jumpers and, in essence, play the point."

It worked. 

Rohde grew up near Archbishop Curley High School in east Baltimore.

"I was almost a 6-foot-8 soccer goalie at Curley," Rohde said. "I went to Loyola because of a guy named Dick Ross and the Dixie Boys Club. We used to travel down to east Baltimore and play Tony Brown and Box Owens and Larry Gibson when they were playing for the Buccaneers. Dick Ross pointed me to Loyola, and it made all the difference in the world."

Rohde and Cannon helped lead a Dons team that finished 22-7 in 1972, ranking second in The Baltimore Sun, behind Dunbar.

"We had a group of guys who were singularly motivated," Rohde said. "The fact that we won the [1971-72] title was not a matter of talent, other than Morris Cannon. We had a group of teammates that were focused on each other."

Cannon agreed.

"The entire team was a team of starters," Cannon said. "The rules say only five could start, but each player pulled for each other like no other team I've ever been on."

Cannon and Rohde both went on to play at Loyola College. Cannon is still among the school's all-time leading scorers, and Rohde is the fourth-leading rebounder in school history.

Rob Valderas, Cardinal Gibbons, Class of 1975

Valderas' basketball journey took him from St. William of York grade school in west Baltimore to Cardinal Gibbons, to St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, to the Bayamon Cowboys of the Puerto Rican basketball league.

Like Rohde and Hubbard, Valderas was one of the best big men of his generation. He arrived at Gibbons during the fall of 1971 after getting the hard sell from Mullis, who convinced Valderas, then a 6-foot-4, 160-pound center, that Cardinal Gibbons was the perfect place to display his good hands, quick feet and overall toughness.

"Coach Mullis was a very important, strong-willed man in my life," Valderas said, "with a lot of pride and toughness. He was huge in my life."

Valderas grew to be 6-foot-7, 200 pounds. He started for the Crusaders as a sophomore. As a junior, he helped lead Gibbons to its first of six BCL championships with a 51-50 win against Calvert Hall at Essex Community College.

As a senior, with his brother, Mark, starting as a sophomore, Valderas and the Crusaders lost to Loyola, 60-54, though Valderas' legacy at the school was sealed.

One year later, he was at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.

"The Catholic League was a wonderful league," said Valderas, who has worked as a Baltimore City firefighter for the last 30 years, "and my experience at Cardinal Gibbons was like a fairy tale."

Valderas also earned induction into the Bayamon Hall of Fame last year for the time he spent playing professionally for the Cowboys in Puerto Rico.

Adrian Hubbard, Towson Catholic, Class of 1975

Hubbard once played on one of the finest AAU teams of its era, and it was part of a summer league in Columbus, Ohio.

"Adrian Hubbard was one of the best basketball players ever around here," Valderas said. "He was my brother. We played against each other in high school, but we were teammates at St. Joe. He's a brother. I love that man."

Before Hubbard teamed with Valderas at St. Joseph's, he teamed with Larry Harrison, a 2011 BCL Hall of Fame inductee, at Towson Catholic to form one of the finest frontcourts in Catholic League history.

"This is all a very humbling experience," said Hubbard, who is the East Coast manager for Hospira Worldwide Inc. "I think playing in the Catholic League helped you look at life differently. All the things you go through, all the different people you meet, I think it helps you become a Hall of Famer in life as well."

A quick and smooth, 6-foot-7 forward, Hubbard was one of the most highly decorated players in Towson Catholic history. He earned All-Catholic League honors; was selected to The Baltimore Sun's All-Metro team; was named the 1974 Towson Catholic Male Athlete of the Year; and was the winner of the 1975 Jenkins Award, symbolic of academic excellence.

At St. Joseph's, he helped the Hawks reach the NIT as a junior in 1978, while as a senior in 1979, he hit the game-winning shot to beat Georgetown. The Hawks also won the East Coast Conference championship all four of his seasons.

"I remember [former DeMatha High basketball coach] Morgan Wootten saying this once," Hubbard said. "He tried to make a distinction between character and reputation. He said character is who you are inside, and reputation is who people think you are. I think playing in the league helped you build your reputation and, in doing so, helped you build your character."

Gene Nieberlein Jr., Mount St. Joseph, Class of 1976

One of the most talented multi-sport athletes of his generation, Nieberlein Jr. had both the luxury and burden of playing for his father, Mount St. Joe coach Gene Nieberlein Sr.

"I literally grew up at St. Joe," Nieberlein Jr. said, "and it was a great experience. [I] grew up watching the Catholic League -- Mark and Morris, played against Adrian, the Valderas brothers, Norman Black. They were some great days, great memories."

On the basketball court, Nieberlein Jr. teamed with Delmar Harrod, Jeff Cross and Jeff Stone to help the Gaels finish with a 29-4 record in 1976, and a berth in the BCL championship game.

Behind Nieberlein Jr. and Harrod, the Gaels led early and late, though they lost the tournament championship to Loyola, 59-55. Nieberlein Jr. averaged 17 points and 14 rebounds per game during his senior year and was a major college basketball recruit.

He played quarterback on the football team, which his father also coached.

"I had an experience with him that was unique," Nieberlein Jr. said. "I went to work with him every day, and it was special."

At 6-foot-6, Nieberlein Jr. was a tough matchup, a great shooter, a strong rebounder and one of the toughest competitors in the area. His brothers -- Chris, Rob and Karl -- followed him to Mount St. Joe, after Nieberlien Jr. laid a foundation of excellence. 

His legacy is cemented in one of the great two-year runs in local prep history. As a junior, he earned All-Metro honors in both football and basketball. As a senior, he was named All-State in both sports as well. Initially, he attended Indiana to play football, though he transferred in 1978 to Rutgers.

Carl Fornoff, Archbishop Curley, Class of 1979

After hitting game-winning shots against Towson Catholic and Calvert Hall, Fornoff earned the nickname Mr. Clutch while playing for coach Dan Popera at Curley.

A piece of advice from his father left a lasting impression, Fornoff said.

"We didn't have a real big team at Curley," Fornoff said, "and I was talking about that with my father. I said, 'We're going to have trouble rebounding.' He said: 'You don't get rebounds by being tall. You get rebounds by getting to the ball first.' So I quietly dismissed it. 

"And then, a couple of years later, I'm at a camp, and George Raveling is at the rebound station. He was one of the authorities on rebounding at the time. [He] asked for volunteers, so I did. I was 6-foot-2 with guys 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and the whole camp came over to watch the drill. So the first thing he said, and he said it loudly, was: 'Listen. You don't get rebounds by being tall. You get rebounds by getting to the ball first.' "

Along with his brother, Bob, Fornoff started playing basketball at the Gardenville Rec Center under coach Bill Grace. Fornoff ended up at Curley, where he and Popera saw the game the same way.

"I must've been a match for coach Popera," Fornoff said. "His practices were quick and fast paced, always moving. He had four or five ways to teach one fundamental. We never walked anywhere -- we ran from station to station. It was hard work, but fun."

Fornoff was a machine on the boards.

"Carl was a mentally tough player who never took a day off," Popera said. "He played hard at both ends of the floor, excelling not only as a scorer, but in rebounding and defense as well."

Fornoff moved on to Washington College, becoming one of its best all-time players. He started 95 straight games for coach Tom Finnegan and helped set the table for the Shoreman's berth in the NCAA national quarterfinals in 1983 behind three more Curley grads -- Kurt Keller, Leroy Keller and Joe Stallings. Bob Fornoff later played for the Shoremen as well, becoming one of the school's all-time leading scorers. 

"The reason I'm here getting honored is Hall of Fame parents, a Hall of Fame family and the coaches I had who were out of this world," Fornoff said. "The competition of the Catholic League made me so much better."

Sam McGee, St. Frances, Class of 1990

Will Wells, who was St. Frances' coach when the Panthers joined the Catholic League in 1989, said McGee had been the glue of St. Frances' first BCL championship team.

Devin Gray, a 2011 BCL Hall of Fame inductee, McGee and Eric Carroll led the Panthers to a 52-49 win against Towson Catholic in February 1999. St. Frances, located in east Baltimore, across the street from the Baltimore City jail, had put its stamp on the BCL.

"When I got to St. Frances, we didn't even have a basketball team or a gym," McGee said. "We traveled on the road for my first three years. We were going against powerhouse teams like Loyola, Calvert Hall, [Towson Catholic], McDonogh. It was tough."

McGee could have gone to any of those schools, but chose St. Frances and Wells, who remains his mentor and friend, McGee said.

"Coach Wells said you could be a big fish in a small pond," McGee said. "He said: 'Don't listen to the naysayers about going to a much larger school. Carve out your niche right here at St. Frances.' "

In 1990, McGee graduated and enrolled at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, where he became an NAIA All-American and Hall of Fame inductee in 2002. He scored 1,710 points during his career; earned a degree in English literature; and met his wife, Sheryline.

The McGees have two kids -- Deontrae and Adonis. McGee later received a master's degree in education and now works for the New Jersey Mentor Network, overseeing 11 residential homes for at-risk youth.

"The Baltimore Catholic [League] was a tough league that built character, will and desire," McGee said. "Success occurs when preparation meets opportunity. The Catholic League prepared us to be successful."

Juan Dixon, Calvert Hall, Class of 1997

It was appropriate that both Amatucci and Williams attended Dixon's induction. Who knows where Dixon would be today had he not played for those two coaches.

When Dixon was a 135-pound rising high school sophomore, Amatucci convinced him that Calvert Hall was the place to be.

"Bino Ranson is now an assistant coach at Maryland," Dixon said. "He was the one who told Tooch he had a kid for him. He's a guard, he's tough and can play. That's when my life started -- when I got to Calvert Hall.

"He came to my grandmother's house in northeast Baltimore. He sat on the doorstep and said, 'I want you at Calvert Hall.' I knew from that day on that Coach had my best interest. He raised me during my three years at Calvert Hall."

Williams took it from there. If Amatucci pushed Dixon with a series of long-distance runs and increased expectations -- both in school and on the basketball court -- Williams impressed Dixon, who was a 170-pound sharpshooter for the Terrapins, with his passion for the game and his intensity.

"Coach Williams and Tooch are a lot alike," Dixon said. "They remind me so much of each other. Tooch might have went through 1,000 pairs of running shoes, and coach Williams went through 1,000 suits sweating on the sideline during games. When Maryland offered me, I told Tooch: 'That's it. That's where I'm going. Cancel the other visits.' "

Dixon earned All-Catholic League and All-Metro honors while at Calvert Hall, and his accolades continued May 1 with the BCL Hall of Fame induction. In between, there were three straight trips to the BCL championship game, a national championship at Maryland and an eight-year career in the NBA.

"A lot of people didn't give me a chance," said Dixon, whose wife, Robin, and sons, Corey and Carter, attended the induction ceremony. "I wanted to prove that Juan Dixon had what it took to be basketball player and play at a high level."

Issue 197: May 2014