Hockenos’ recent distinction a well-earned accolade

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Rick Hockenos has enjoyed his life in basketball, and it came full circle with his enshrinement in his high school’s athletic hall of fame.

Hockenos, a former Saint Francis standout, was inducted into Niagara (N.Y.) Catholic High School Athletic Hall of Fame on July 14 for his achievements as a player in the late 1960s at Bishop Duffy, which later became Niagara Catholic.

“I was very thrilled because I really didn’t even know about it until I received something in the mail,” Hockenos, a 1969 Bishop Duffy graduate, said. “They’ve had it through the years. There were a lot of good athletes, and to be considered one of them, I was very honored. It was a fun thing to have my family with me and go up and receive the award.”

After a distinguished high school career as one of the top players in the Buffalo region, Hockenos became a junior college All-American, leading Niagara County Community College to the national finals as a sophomore.

That led to a scholarship offer at Gannon, but Hockenos didn’t care for the then downtown Erie campus, and he was invited in 1972 to Loretto, where Dick Conover, formerly Frank Layden’s assistant at Niagara University, was now the head coach, and Pete Lonergan, who coached Hockenos at Niagara County Community College, had become an assistant.

Because of NCAA transfer regulations, Hockenos was forced to sit out until January of 1973 — “because I went to Gannon for two weeks,” he said — but he established his game by practicing alongside the likes of Kevin Porter and Joe Hazinsky.

“I was scoring 40 a game in intramurals,” he said.

Just as he only played about a year and a half of high school ball because of an injury his junior year, Hockenos played just a year and a half with the Red Flash, but was the team captain as a senior under Lonergan in 1974 when the program turned a 5-21 record in 1973 to 15-11 in 1974.

Those strides instilled the confidence that young players like Jack Phelan, Pat McGeary, Willie Wilkerson, Pat Sweeney, Nick Leasure and Ken Horoho used to eventually stun 1977 Final Four participant North Carolina-Charlotte for what still is the biggest regular-season victory in school history.

Some of the team members and alums were on campus this past weekend celebrating their 40-year milestone. Lonergan and Hockenos were among them.

“Rick’s senior year was his first complete season at Saint Francis, and I asked him to be a leader and captain, and he responded with a great season,” Lonergan, who introduced Hockenos at the Niagara Hall, said. “He was the key player in turning us around, and he’s meant a great deal to me. I know he didn’t play long enough at Saint Francis to be in their Hall of Fame, but I think he certainly deserves his place in it.”

Hockenos, now 66, was drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago Bulls and was among the team’s final cuts. He then played professionally in Israel and Iceland before becoming one of the best players and mentors at Mansion Park and other local leagues in the Altoona area.

Today, he’s coaching in the Penn Cambria High School program, where his daughter, Ryanna, will be a junior.

“Saint Francis is where the rest of my life began,” Hockenos said. “I’ve been very blessed. It seemed like I was respected not only as a player but as a person. What causes that, I don’t know, but during those years as a player and basketball fixture — all the way up to today, people tell me they remember me at Saint Francis and at Mansion. I’m very thankful I ended up there and remained in this area.”

As Hockenos stood at the podium to reflect on his induction, he couldn’t help but go back to his roots.

He thought about going to Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium — known as “the Aud” — to watch the NBA’s Braves with Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio, scrimmaging at Niagara during the days of Calvin Murphy and shoveling snow at his friend’s house in order to shoot at an outside hoop.

“When I was growing up, I had no local gym to play at,” he said. “We’d go to the playground up the street, where we played football and baseball. My friend, Mark Violante, had a basket at his house. That’s where I played. I was the kid who would shovel snow off his little court and play in the rain — the things that don’t happen anymore. That’s how I grew up playing.”

Hockenos’ recognition was well received at his alma mater.

“Since the committee decided to induct Rick, I have been truly impressed with all of the feedback,” Mike Volpe, Niagara High School director of advancement and alumni relations, said. “I have received numerous emails and letters stating what a deserving player he is for the Hall of Fame. I have also continued to run into old teammates of his who are not shy to brag about Rick.”

The basketball community in this region that has shared Rick Hockenos all of these years — at Saint Francis, in Altoona and now at Penn Cambria — no doubt feels the same way.

Rudel be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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