Remembering Summer Basketball in the Fabled Baker League
By Kevin Callahan
Wali Jones is his own Mount Rushmore of Philadelphia basketball.
Jones grew up in West Philly and played at legendary Overbrook High School. He then starred at Villanova University before starting for the 1966-67 NBA champion 76ers.
And in-between and during all those games in West Philly, the Main Line and in Center City at Convention Hall, Jones played in the fabled Baker League during the summer.
Now that is four places worthy of the Philadelphia hoops faces of Mount Rushmore – Overbrook, Villanova, the 76ers and the Baker League.
“I have a lot of history with Philly ball,” Jones said earlier in the week from his home in Florida. “I bleed Philly all the way.”
That is why Jones will travel back to Philadelphia to see the documentary The Baker League on August 4th at West Catholic High School.
“I will be at the unveiling of the Baker League story by Tony Paris,” Jones said about the local filmmaker.
In June over 300 people, including many Philadelphia basketball legends, attended the premiere of The Baker League.
“Bill Baggett and Mo Howard told me there was a nice turnout,” said Jones, who helped the Sixers bring home the team’s first world championship.
“I'm trying to get some of the rec centers and the kids I work with to come to the viewing,” added Jones, who is the founder and director of the national Shoot For The Stars basketball camps and clinics.
“I saw the whole thing and it was fantastic,” Jones said about the documentary. “It's a history that I think needs to be told."
The Baker League was started in 1960 by Sonny Hill. It was originally a four-team league, a place for professional players to work on their game in the summer. The games were first played on the sweaty outdoor courts in North Philadelphia before eventually moving into the comfortable air-conditioned McGonigle Hall on the campus of Temple University.
From the beginning, the league boasted basketball legends Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, Hal Lear and Guy Rodgers – all Philly guys like Jones.
Other Philadelphia stars like Gene Banks, Lewis Lloyd, Jerome “Pooh” Richardson, Rasheed Wallace, Lionel Simmons, Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers and Kobe Bryant played in the Baker League.
Like Jones, many 76ers played in the Baker League in the early years, including Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker, Jim Washington, Billy Melchionni, Joe Bryant and Mike Bantom. Later, the 76ers team included World B. Free, Charles Barkley, Tim Perry and Darryl Dawkins.
“It was a big part of my career and kept me in shape, well it kept a whole lot of us in shape,” Jones said. “We had to work, we had summer jobs. We didn't make that much money."
“Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer and myself did clinics, we went all around Philadelphia,” Jones said. “And then at night, I would see all the guys, not only from the Sixers, but all over like Earl Monroe and Archie Clark.”
“It was real basketball,” Jones said. “And New York would bring its best teams down and it would be the Rucker against the Baker leagues."
“I remember playing against some great players from New York.”
Paris, 54, has been living in South Jersey for over 20 years now after moving from New York City, where he played in the Rucker League.
“I think it is a better story than the Rucker’s story because of the history that is involved with Philadelphia basketball,” Paris said.
“The Warriors won two championships and the Sixers won two championships,” Paris said. ”That's a lot of history there.”
Paris, who lives in Cherry Hill, has also worked as a basketball coach, trainer and league director as well as making eight documentary films. He trains Tim Perry’s son, Timmy, who plays at Drexel.
“The Baker league is a big story in Philadelphia because all of its history,” Paris said. “It’s just so phenomenal, there are so many things I didn't know with it being the first pro summer basketball league in America. That says a lot.”
“That is where the NBA got the idea of doing a pro summer league, from the Baker league,” added Paris. “It all started in the Baker league.”
Paris, who has also done documentary films on Chamberlain, Gathers and "Chocolate Thunder” on Dawkins, has a degree in computer science and studied film at Scribe Film School in Philadelphia.
“There were a lot of stories in the building that day,” Paris said about the premier.
Paris hopes to see the documentary shown in a theater or maybe “another major network.”
“Right now, Comcast is airing it,” Paris said. “If we could get it on ESPN or MSG or Showtime, that would be great.”
South Jersey’s Timber Creek High School basketball coach Rich Bolds played at Ben Franklin High School in Philly and then was a walk-on at Temple University under coach Chaney as well as in the Baker League. He saw the documentary and said, ”It was great, it was awesome. It brought back a lot of memories.”
“I told a lot of people they need to check it out, that it was really cool,” Bolds said. “A lot of kids don't know about the history of it … it was great.”
Bolds, who was an assistant coach at Saint Joseph’s University under Phil Martelli, used to pick up the Philadelphia Daily News to check out the box scores from the Baker League.
“Everybody would read the box scores to see that this kid had 23 or this kid had 28,” Bolds said. “It was great.”
In 1966-67, the champion 76ers, coached by Alex Hannum, went 68-13 and are still considered one of the NBA’s greatest teams.
Running the point, the 6-2 Jones averaged 13.2 points and 3.7 assists in 81 games. In the 15 playoff games, he averaged 17.5 points and 4.1 assists. He was the leading scorer with 27 points in Game Six when the 76ers beat the Warriors to win the title.
But, he still remembers the Baker League games.
“I played in the Baker league with the 76ers,” Jones recalled about the summer of 1976, “I was just helping them out, I was about 33.”
Although Jones was at the end of his playing career, it was important for him to still play in the Baker League. Just like he feels the documentary is a must-see for Philly hoop fans.
“I think it's important for people to see the history of Philly basketball,” Jones said. ”It's really important.”