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Jan. 15—Sixty years ago, Portage Area High School basketball fans nearly faced a difficult decision regarding which game to attend.
Luckily, schedule makers improvised and pulled off an incredible hoops doubleheader.
The Mustangs originally were scheduled to host Franklin High School in a boys basketball game on Jan. 12, 1962.
That same night, Len Chappell — one of Portage's most successful athletes and a future NBA standout — was back in the region with the Wake Forest University basketball team set to face St. Francis College at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
"The people at Portage couldn't be at two places at one time," said former Conemaugh Valley High School boys coach Garry Lupek, who was a sophomore on the Franklin High team in 1962.
Portage coach Jim Hess made a request to Franklin coach Bob Pavlovich regarding a potential venue change.
"It's amazing how one phone call made such a difference to so many people," Lupek said.
"In order to give Portage fans a greater opportunity to see Chappell in action, the Mustangs game with Franklin High School was shifted to the War Memorial Arena for a 6:45 preliminary," The Tribune-Democrat wrote a day before the game.
The St. Francis contest against Wake Forest was scheduled after the high school boys contest, a revised pairing that would be difficult to pull off today due to NCAA recruiting rules.
"Lenny was a legend," said George Salovich, 77, who led Portage with 22 points against Franklin. "He was four years ahead of me. He graduated in 1958.
"Len was a laid-back guy. He didn't talk much. He was a real nice guy."
Chappell was inducted into the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame with the inaugural class of 1965.
His basketball resume is impeccable, beginning with 2,240 career points at Portage.
Chappell tallied 977 points as a senior, when he was an Associated Press all-atate selection.
At Wake Forest, the 6-foot-8 forward/center was a three-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) pick and two-time conference player of the year, as well as a first-team All-American in 1961 and 1962.
Chappell had a three-year record of 2,165 points with the Demon Deacons.
The Syracuse Nationals took Chappell in the first round with the fourth pick overall in the 1962 NBA Draft. He scored 5,621 career points in 591 NBA games.
"I remember sitting in the stands at the War Memorial and watching the game after we went out to the bleachers," said former Franklin player Ralph Conrad, 78.
"I remember it was a pretty good game," added Conrad, who later moved to Portage, where he's spent 51 years. "Lenny Chappell had a pretty good game."
So did Portage and Franklin in the opening contest at the arena.
'Like it was yesterday'
Coach Hess and his Mustangs brought a 7-2 record into the game. Coach Pavlovich's Blue Jays were 8-1.
Bill Chappell, the younger brother of Len, played on the Mustangs squad. Jerry Hess, son of the Portage coach, averaged 22 points a game through the early portion of the 1961-62 season. Salovich averaged 15.2 points a game.
Franklin High was led by Conrad's 135 points, and Carl Stepien and Lupek each entered the Portage contest with 114 points.
"I can remember it like it was yesterday," said Lupek, who went on to a record-setting career as a player at Indiana (Pa.) and eventually coached 36 seasons with 536 wins at Conemaugh Valley High, the merger of the former Conemaugh and Franklin high schools.
Lupek noted he only played in five high school games at the War Memorial during his distinguished career with the Blue Jays.
That first visit made an impression, as Portage edged Franklin, 61-60.
"I can still hear the clanging on the turnstiles as we went through," Lupek said. "I can still see the chalkboard with the final instructions (to the players) once we got in. I looked up at the scoreboard and how big it was. The floor was spacious. Everything was perfect.
"The lights went dim and the announcer announced the lineup. My knees were shaking. The game went by so fast."
At halftime, Coach Hess presented his former star player Chappell with a certificate "on behalf of the townspeople" of Portage.
The Mustangs' Jerry Hess converted a conventional three-point play with a minute remaining in the high school game to break a 58-all tie with the Blue Jays. Hess drove in for a layup and was fouled as the ball went through the hoop.
Franklin High's George Mesaros made a late basket in the game, which the Blue Jays had led 28-26 at halftime and 42-41 through three quarters.
'I missed the shot'
Conrad and Lupek each recalled that Franklin had a last-second opportunity on a shot that rolled around the rim and out.
"I missed the shot, an 18-footer," said Franklin's Conrad, who later was a teacher for 31 years at Portage High, where he also was a basketball coach. "We called timeout. They set up a play for me at the top of the key. It hit the rim and bounced out. I didn't put enough touch on it."
Portage's Salovich and Jerry Hess (16 points) combined for 38 points. Franklin's Conrad tallied 19 points, and Mesaros had 13. Lupek had seven points and was a presence inside.
"To play on that floor, that's hallowed ground for a basketball player," Lupek said.
"Back then, I'm a 14-year-old kid. I only played five times there, and I remember them all. I played once against Claysburg.
"We played for a district championship against Cresson, and my senior year we played twice against Bishop McCort."
As good as the high school game was, the marquee matchup was what followed.
A crowd of 2,781 fans attended, many with hopes of a St. Francis upset while others simply wanted to see the hometown favorite Chappell star for Wake Forest.
According to The Tribune-Democrat preview, Dr. William "Skip" Hughes was confident that his St. Francis College team could upset Wake Forest University, despite the challenge presented by the Demon Deacons' twin towers of Chappell and 6-11 Bob Woollard.
Hughes is a Cambria County Sports Hall of Famer.
"The Frankies play better against giants than they do against a smaller, fast-moving club," the preview story noted.
Wake Forest also had 5-9 guard Billy Packer, a close friend of Chappell. Packer had a three-plus decade career as one of the most recognizable college basketball television color analysts.
St. Francis College was led by co-captains Cal Fowler and Ed Winters, a pair of senior guards, in the 1962 game.
Fowler was a key part of the 1968 U.S. Olympic championship men's basketball team in Mexico City and was inducted into the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
"We all knew Lenny Chappell because we all lived and died for basketball," said Salovich, a retired owner of an engineering firm in Frederick, Maryland, where he has resided since 1968.
Chappell scored 34 points and had 16 rebounds as Wake Forest beat St. Francis 71-66.
"The pride of Portage showed his Central Pennsylvania friends why he is an All-America player," the article on the game noted.
Woollard had 14 points and nine rebounds as the Demon Deacons posted a 37-19 advantage on the boards. St. Francis' Winters had 24 points, including 19 in the first half.
"It's yesteryear, and I'll never forget how one phone call made such a difference to so many people," Lupek said.
Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.