Remembering Fowler, SFC great

As a lifelong follower of the sporting panorama here in the Blair County area, it was very sad to learn of the recent passing of Calvin Fowler, former St. Francis College basketball great.

A golden era of St. Francis basketball originated in the early 1950s with the reign of the legendary Maurice Stokes. It continued through the late 1960s, epitomized by head coach Skip Hughes, the once sacrosanct Jaffa Mosque, and sustained by a steady influx of outstanding players, which included Fowler, an athletic point guard whose exploits always exuded style and class.

Throughout these memorable seasons, the “Jaffa Temple,” as Hughes referred to it, was the only place to be on a Saturday evening in mid-winter. With sparse competition from other venues for entertainment, both high school and college basketball were a huge draw in Altoona and surrounding communities.

St. Francis hoops and the Jaffa Shrine made for a perfect combination, providing an accessible outlet for a growing, fervent cult of hoop aficionados.

On weekends, empty seats at the Mosque were hard to come by. Most of the local schoolboy athletes congregated to be exhilarated and inspired. We got both. The pre-game dunking exhibitions, then still legal, were spontaneous, high-flying acts and always spectacular to behold.

Local businessmen and families along with aspiring politicians and minor celebrities adorned the Mosque courtside in their weekend finery to see and be seen. Usually by halftime, the glittering chandelier, which hung eloquently above midcourt, was enveloped with a hazy fog as “no smoking” signs were decades off into the future.

The near stifling aroma of popcorn, relish, mustard, hot dogs, perspiration and cigar smoke, combined with seating in close proximity to the portable hardwood floor created an intoxicating ambiance never to be duplicated.

No doubt Fowler was the indisputable floor leader of those Frankie squads from 1959-1962. Accompanied by outstanding teammates like sharpshooting guard Ed Winters, center Wilbur “Tree” Trosch, power forward “Jumpin'” Joe Aston, explosive New Yorker Bobby Jones, Gallitzin standout Tom Muriceak, and sophomore sensation Sandy Williams, Fowler and company took on some stiff competition and held their own.

The small college among the pines hosted the likes of Duquesne (Willie Somerset), St. Bonaventure (the Stith brothers) and Marshall (Hal Greer). In later seasons, Lucious Jackson, Jimmy Walker, Bill Melchionni and Skip Hughes II (son of St. Francis’ coach) paid their respects by showcasing their ample talents in Altoona.

Fowler’s St. Francis squads never quite approached the success attained during the incomparable Stokes years, but nevertheless they were captivating to watch.

The frontcourt assemblage of Trosch, Aston, Jones and Williams would attack the offensive boards with a relentless ferocity, tipping and slapping errant shots back toward the rim until a basket was achieved, or any one of those four might stuff it home with an exclamation point, bringing down the house in the process.

Not the best outside shooter, Fowler’s trademark was a lightning quick first step, which allowed for elusive dribble penetration down the lane, followed up by a feathery touch off the glass. If he met defensive resistance, Fowler instinctively distributed the ball to appreciative teammates, gathering up tons of assists in the process.

Etched in memory was Fowler’s patented around-the-back passes to the acrobatic Jones, who filled the left lane on the fast break, culminating in an amazing assortment of slam dunks.

Fowler amassed 1,179 career points and was a tenacious defender as well.

After graduation, he played for the Akron Goodyears, a semi-pro team, and professionally for the Carolina Cougars of the old ABA (American Basketball Association). Though he is best remembered as the captain of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, which captured the gold in Mexico City, wherever he played, Fowler was the consummate teammate and a fierce competitor.

This is a special and heartfelt thanks to St. Francis University Hall of Famer Calvin Fowler for his extraordinary contributions to his alma mater, and especially for those legendary days at the Mosque, now fondly looked back upon as a “golden era.”

Our sincere condolences to the entire Fowler family and to the St. Francis University community at large.

Don Appleman was a two-year letterwinner in the St. Francis basketball program, graduating in 1967. He resides in Williamsburg, where he’s been a teacher and basketball coach.