TYRONE - Don Wagner's first love wasn't always basketball.
"I always loved baseball. Some of my friends talked me into going out for basketball in seventh grade. I made a couple of baskets and I was hooked," said Wagner, 74, who continues to play the game with which he fell in love. "I've been playing basketball for 61 years. That sounds terrible."
Wagner, who has lived in Tyrone since 1965, is a member of the Carlisle-based Penn Warriors which recently won the championship in the 70-74 age group at the Pennsylvania Senior Games and qualified for the National Senior Games next July in Cleveland. The team finished third in the 70-74 age group in the 2011 nationals in Houston.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Jim Bigelow and Talmadge Cupp watch Don Wagner shoot foul shots at the Reservoir Park basketball court.
Wagner was the star of the 1956 Williamsburg High School team which won its first 27 games before losing to Jenkintown 79-66 in the PIAA Class C state finals.
He finished his senior year with 758 points - 27.1 points per game - and finished second in the state in scoring. He finished his career with 1,202 points.
Wagner said he loved playing for Coach Bill Casper.
"We averaged 83 points a game, there was no 3-point shot, we went over 100 three or four times," Wagner said. "Bill Casper was progressive: He was offensive minded, he felt other teams had to defense us. We ran and ran and he let the players play; he was a player's coach and let your talent come out."
Playing in the state championship game at Juniata College was a thrill.
"I can remember the crowd was so loud I couldn't hear or think. They were much bigger than us. We ran out of gas and they wore us down," Wagner said. "It was like the world tipped off center; it took months to get back on track. It was a crushing low."
Wagner - nicknamed "Stag" after a character in an old Roy Rogers movie - is almost a legendary figure in Williamsburg athletic history, said Don Appleman, a 1962 graduate who was recently inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame for his exploits on the basketball court and as a coach.
"He had as much athletic ability as anyone I had ever seen. He could hit a softball and throw a football but he concentrated on basketball," Appleman said. "He was the first guy in this area who had a true jump shot; he was a phenomenal shooter. I admired Don. We all looked up to him, we idolized him. We all wanted to be like him."
Appleman, who scored 2,100 points in his career, had an opportunity to break the school record of 55 points in a game Wagner had set against Greenfield-Kimmel.
"I had 54 one game and they put me back in so I could break the record," Appleman said. "I was glad I didn't break it. I would have felt bad. I had so much respect for Don and I would have had some guilt if I broke it."
Bill Kagarise broke the record in 1966 with 60 points in one game and 62 in another.
Wagner received a basketball scholarship to St. Francis College but decided not to stay in school.
"I realized it was going to be a long time before I got a chance to play. When you are a shooting guard at 6 foot, you don't fare well at the Division I level," Wagner said.
Joe Aston and Wilbur "Tree" Trosch, who went on to outstanding careers, were members of Wagner's recruiting class.
Wagner was amazed at the quality of those players.
"It is a shock, you are used to being able to do anything you want on the court, then you are up against guys 4 or 5 inches taller. I am not the first guy who ran into that," Wagner said. "You are not aware of how much super talent is out there."
Wagner married his high school sweetheart, Mary Good, in 1959 and moved to Philadelphia where he worked and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He came back to the area in 1965 to accept an accounting job at the Westvaco paper mill in Tyrone. He completed his education and received a degree in accounting from Penn State in 1966.
He never envisioned becoming an accountant.
"My career plan was to play in the NBA before reality set in. I hadn't planned on accounting. I enjoyed the work once I got into it. I enjoyed working with figures," Wagner said. "I did cost analysis of new products; I was at the creative end of accounting and I enjoyed it."
Wagner retired in 2001 when the mill closed.
Although he never played in college, he played in numerous leagues throughout the area.
"We had a Westvaco team and won 110 out of 112 games in the old Tyrone YMCA Open League. He was the best pure shooter I have ever seen in my life," Talmadge Cupp of Tyrone said.
Cupp, Wagner, John Ramsey and Jim Bigelow recently won the 60 and over age group competition at the Hoopfest in Tyrone.
"I have played basketball with or against him ever since he came to Tyrone. He was a basketball junkie and I was a basketball junkie, so we hit it off pretty well," Bigelow said. "Don Wagner, based on my experience, in my opinion, he is one of the best basketball players in the country at age 74. That is how good he is."
"He is a tremendous shooter for his age," Ramsey said. "I had played against him for years and we always said you can't let that guy open."
Wagner said despite their age, senior basketball is very competitive.
"When people think about guys that old playing basketball, they think they can't play but the big guys are still big; you would be surprised at the level of the competition," Wagner said. "We don't walk up and down the court. It is real competitive and tough, you have to go all out. It has been a good experience."
Wagner has no immediate plans to stop competing.
"I like the competition, I really enjoy it. I will probably keep playing as long as I am successful and I enjoy it," Wagner said. "I can still shoot. That is the last thing that goes."
Wagner said on occasion he gets back to his hometown.
"Once in a while, we go back and drive through town. I will always have a special feeling about Williamsburg. It was a good community," Wagner said.
Basketball has played a big role in his life.
"That is what everyone remembers about me. My life has been defined by basketball, at least part of it has," Wagner said. "Other than my wife and family, it has been one of the big things; it has always been a part of my life."
Wagner has another talent of which many people are not aware: He is an artist.
"I have sold between 75 and 100 paintings. I am still painting but not as much as I was. I started with oil but now it is primarily water colors and sketching," Wagner said. "I have exhibited at the Arts Festival in State College and won some awards at the Blair County Arts Festival years ago."
Wagner also is active in the community serving as a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels and has held positions at the First Presbyterian Church in Tyrone. He also handles accounting work for the American Legion.
When not playing basketball, he and wife Mary enjoy traveling.
Appleman said Wagner was Williamsburg's first basketball superstar.
"Stag was the guy we looked up to. He was a silky smooth shooter, no one played like that in those days," Appleman said. "I think the world of Don and still do. He was the main cog in our basketball tradition."