- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
The butt kick comment backfired.
It came just before the 1978 big school state championship game at St. John Arena between Alter High School and Akron Central-Hower, unbeaten in 24 games, ranked No. 1 in the state and filled with quick, high-flying dunkers.
“As we’re warming up, one of our balls rolls the other end of the court and Dan Bockhorn went to get it,” remembered Alter coach Joe Petrocelli. “A guard from Central Hower – a little guy maybe 5-8 – looks at Bockhorn and says ‘We’re gonna kick your butt!’
The kid had looked at Bockhorn, who had a gimpy knee from a collision two games earlier and had scored just two points in Alter’s semifinal victory over Miami Trace, and then looked at the rest of the Knights, saw mostly white, suburban kids and quickly stereotyped them as soft, not especially athletic and easily intimidated.
“Well, Bockhorn was the wrong person to say anything to,” Petrocelli laughed. “The whole game he took that kid into the lane and then went up over him. He finished with 18 points.”
Backcourt mate John Paxson led Alter with 22 points and, like Bockhorn, would be named to the All Tournament team.
The game was enough of a romp that Petrocelli pulled his starters with 1:42 left and a 16-point lead. And the second team that came in was nearly as good as the first.
“They could have started at any other high school in the state,” said Alter assistant coach Gary Trick.
With the 68-53 victory, Alter became the first Dayton area team to win the Class AAA crown since Chaminade in 1970.
Alter’s only loss in that 24-1 season came in early January, a one-point setback at Meadowdale. Pete Boyle, Alter’s 6-foot-6 captain, missed that game with strep throat. He played when the teams met again in the tournament and Alter prevailed by 10. It was the Knights closet game in the postseason
The Knights had a special connection to UD. Five players — Paxson, Bockhorn, Boyle, Don Meineke and Tim Riazzi — all had dads who played for the Flyers. Three of the fathers — Jim Paxson Sr., Monk Meineke and Bucky Bockhorn — played in the NBA.
The entire starting five of the 1978 team — and seven players in all — got Division I scholarships.
Paxson, a junior in ’78, became a two-time All American at Notre Dame, an NBA first round pick of San Antonio and then shared the backcourt with Michael Jordan as their Chicago Bulls won three NBA titles.
Petro, as Petrocelli is known – now 80 and retired — would go on to win two more state titles (1999 and 2001) and finish his 50-season career at Alter with 831 victories, nine trips to the Final Four and enshrinement in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.
Governor James A. Rhodes – or as Knights’ super sixth man Dart Ramsey referred to him when he walked past: “Who’s the old guy with the blue hair?” – summed it up best when he spoke to the 1,400 students, parents and fans who crammed the Alter gym for a celebration the day after the title game.
He called the Knights “one of the top three or four teams in the history of the state.”
Saturday the ‘78 Knights are having a 40th anniversary reunion. There’ll be at late afternoon mass at St. Leonard’s and then a team dinner at BRIO Tuscan Grille in the Greene.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Paxson said from Chicago, where he’s now the Bulls’ Vice President of Basketball Executive Operations. “I tell people all the time, until I played with the championship teams here, that’s the most fun I ever had as a player.”
The players are scattered all over the country now and yet all but two are returning. They’ll likely talk about the championship culture they helped build in the 1970s, as well as the backbone they showed.
“We had a kind of toughness and nastiness to us on the court that carried us a long way,” Paxson said.
And it showed most in practice.
“Practices were really intense, really physical,” Dan Bockhorn said by phone during a layover in the Atlanta airport as he came to Dayton from his home in Orlando. “It was a dogfight every day and that prepared us for the season.”
Jim Nowicki, a back-up guard who’s now a vice president with Bob Evans Restaurants, concurred: “Some of the toughest games the starters had all year were against our second string. In practice we could be at each other’s throats, but come game time we were all pulling for each other.”
“A lot of our talk will be aimed at Petro, too,” Paxson said with a laugh: “He’ll take some stuff.”
As Bockhorn explained: “We had a lot of personalities on the team. A lot of characters and free-spirited guys and high-strung guys.”
“We just drove Petro batty,” laughed Pete Boyle, who lives in Dayton. “He just shook his head.”
He actually did more than that. Before the state championship game, he took the free-spirit ringleaders — the “worst ones” he laughingly called his tri-captains Boyle, Meineke and Bockhorn – and had each share a room with a coach.
He said he also “turned all the phones off in the rooms and I had private police at either end of the hallway after Friday’s game.”
A couple of weeks after they won the title, the Knights were invited to a luncheon at the governor’s mansion in Columbus.
“I’m up there talking to the governor and I saw some of the guys were missing,” Petrocelli said. ”I thought I better go see where they were. Turns out they were down in the laundry room ready to have a fire extinguisher fight.
“In the governor’s mansion! Talk about crazy!”
Basketball bond starts early
The basketball bond they formed started early, said back-up forward Rick Minor, who now owns a housing company in Texas:
“It started in third grade. We’d be dribbling the ball in the snow, icicles hanging off the rim. It’s what we did. You’d go to a party and a basketball game would break out.
“We were a bunch of guys who went to St. Charles and joined the culture of the guys who’d come before us.”
Paxson spoke of those forerunners: “In the early to mid-70s, there was Joe Siggins and my brother Jim, Doug Harris, Jack Zimmerman, a bunch of guys,
“Back then there were no AAU teams so in the summertime you had to find competition. They started the trend of going out to Roosevelt to compete a couple nights a week. And Fairmont had the lighted courts and you’d go there seven nights a week and guys from other parts of the city would come out. It was wonderful.”
Coming into the ‘78 season – with six starters back from a team that made the regional finals the year before – there were high expectations.
“Before the season they had shirts and buttons that said ‘State in ’78,’” Bockhorn remembered.
The team handled the pressure and, come tournament time, Petrocelli said he tried to guard against bad luck:
“I was very hyper about it so the last practices before state I didn’t want any contact. We even ran our fast break drill five-on-none. But then the first group goes down the court and Bockhorn or somebody goes in for a layup and Meineke – his own teammate – tries to block it and knocks him down. I let out a string of cuss words you wouldn’t believe.”
In the state semifinal Alter faced a Miami Trace team led by Art Schlichter, a standout basketball player who was the Class AAA football player of the year and would become a star quarterback at Ohio State.
OSU coach Woody Hayes was at the game, standing just beyond the Miami Trace bench, rooting against Alter while riding the refs as though he were stomping around the sidelines at Ohio Stadium.
‘Special’ connection to UD
Paxson said as the years have passed he’s begun to appreciate the connection his team had with UD and its era of great basketball in the 1950s:
“Our dads all stayed in Dayton after their careers and then we all end up playing together. When my dad passed away a few years ago, I began to think about that connection more and more and how special it was. One day – as time goes by and we lose more guys — people will forget about that.”
Paxson said the lessons he learned at Alter have served him well since:
“When you play with a group of guys who all buy in and work together to win at a high level, that’s what team basketball is about. I always want to be associated with that type of group.”
Minor summed it up. He said everything that went on beforehand all went away in the pregame dressing room:
“Everybody looked at each other and thought, ‘Alright Man, I got your back’. And on the floor that’s just what happened.
“It was just the right place at the right time with a bunch of cats that loved it and just refused to lose.”