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Bringing Bower Basketball Back

If you happened to pass by the Curtin Middle School last Saturday, you might have heard a familiar sound from the past emanating from that old familiar educational landmark. If you thought you were hearing things or might want to experience it for yourself, stop by again this Saturday.

At a time when some are engaging in activities to erase portions of our history, volunteers associated with the John H. Bower youth basketball league are awakening the shadows darkened by the COVID outbreak with an abbreviated league schedule being played the four Saturdays of February.

For 100 years after its November 1921 launch, the league that bears Bower’s name has been known as the “Oldest and Largest Church League in America.” Pre-dating Carl Stotz’s founding of Little League Baseball, Bower loved the game of basketball. He’d get every boy he could and spend his own money to pay their fee at the Y. Since then, it has been that kind of spirit and dedication by others that has kept the league operational.

COVID forced the cancellation of league activities last year, but a small group of league volunteers, headed by Bob Cellini, have led efforts for a scaled-down operation this year.

“We’ve reserved the gym at Curtin Middle School for the four Saturdays in February, and we are hoping to get a fair turnout of kids interested in playing basketball,” Cellini explained. “Given the lateness of our organized efforts, it remains uncertain as to how successful we will be. We don’t think we will fail because of being able to have the gym open for kids to play some basketball as this league has always done; what could go wrong?

“A small regret we have is that this year we are only opening the league for those youngsters kindergarten thru sixth grade. Throughout its history, the league has served youngsters thru grade twelve. We just weren’t sure we had enough manpower to cover all the grades this year in such a short season.”

According to the best records available, the league started in November 1921 when John Bower began taking kids to the YMCA. Bower wasn’t a big man, but he was considered to be one of the best athletes in the Williamsport area at the time. Beginning with Bower’s early efforts, the league operated every year until last year, when we had to cancel because of COVID.

Since its inception, the teams in the league were sponsored by the various churches, with administrative volunteers serving the modest role of coordinating by scheduling the games. The churches would take care of everything else with regard to costs they may incur and getting the volunteer coaches needed. Over the years, there has been an entry fee varying from $25 to $50 per team to participate in the league. In operating, the league took care of the costs of paying the officials, gym rental, providing the basketballs and championship trophies, and some related supply costs.

“Over the years, one of the strengths of the league has been the larger church parishes in the county, that because of having a larger number of kids have always been able to field a team,” Cellini explained. “There have been some cases when smaller churches only had a few kids interested in playing; the larger churches were willing to provide them a place to play on their rosters. That allowed every church to participate, whether it was directly or indirectly. Just as in the schools and communities themselves, we have seen a steady decline in the number of kids playing youth sports.

“Throughout our 100 years, the league has played its games at the YMCA, Curtin school, and Penn College. We were most appreciative of Kirby Shimp when he was running the Arena. We enjoyed a nice 10-year run playing our games at the Arena and YMCA through his efforts. During that time, the league enjoyed record participation numbers, with over 100 teams playing. Two years ago, we had less than half that number.

“Over the years, I’ve often been asked how many volunteers it took to keep the league going. I’ve always pointed out that everybody coaching a team for their church are volunteers. The churches and their volunteers really have done all the work. The league has a handful of volunteers who do the administrative work, and we’ve been able to get things done.”

Literally, thousands of today’s area adults can look back to fond memories playing in the Bower League. For a few seasons, I enjoyed coaching the Christ Episcopal Church Bower League team. We would practice once a week with Saturday mornings providing fun and excitement for the kids and parents. Among those youngsters coached on that team were Nick Henrko and Bruce Alling, who would go on to play important roles as members of the Loyalsock and Williamsport High School teams.

As for Cellini himself, he described his satisfaction with the league as, “Being able to see the longevity of the league and seeing the generations come through. Some of those kids I coached years ago are now coaching their kids in the league. I’ve also heard some very kind words, and that has been rewarding.”

Years ago, records showed that when asked how long the Bower League would continue, once league official responded, “As long as youth want to play basketball.” Hats off to Bob Cellini and his group of volunteers for keeping this wonderful tradition alive.