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Williamsport Street Ball Legends

If I asked you who, at the end of the 1959 basketball season, was Pennsylvania’s 2nd leading high school scorer behind the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, who would you guess?

Chamberlain was 7’1, weighed 275 lbs., and played for Overbrook H.S. in Philadelphia for three years.

If you guessed Williamsport’s own, Joey Prato — while many would be amazed — you would be correct!

In 1958 Joey also set the single-season scoring record for Lycoming County of 483 points, and the following year he was the first to score 600 points in one season and received an honorable mention in the 1959 All-State Team.

Joey, in stark contrast to Wilt, stands only about 5’10 and weighs in at about 135 soaking wet. He played for the legendary Charlie Blackburn at the then local St. Joseph’s High school. Joey — probably better known locally as the former owner of Joey’s Place and Prato’s Produce — and I have been longtime friends, a friendship, as many I’ve had over the years, cemented together based upon a mutual respect of the game of basketball, which we both played and loved.

I met with Joey, now retired, and his lovely wife Ann after he sent a card to me — care of the Webb — in response to a previous article I wrote titled “Once A Coach, Always a Coach.” On the card, Joey wrote, “We love you, Coach.”

I knew then I had to go visit Joey again, as it had been way too long, to once again revel in the many incredible stories he would sometimes tell about his high school playing days. His wife Ann was a cheerleader for St. Joe’s — I’m thinking mostly for Joey — she remains his biggest cheerleader today, and she can tell stories of Joey’s basketball exploits almost as good as Joey.

Chamberlain graduated in 1956 and scored 2,200 points over his three-year varsity high school career — makes you wonder why he did not play as a freshman. Joey scored 1,872 over his.

Joey, a lefty, had parents who often worked away from home, so Joey grew up mostly under the tutelage of his grandmother in South Williamsport. His grandmother had a clothesline strung across the kitchen, and Joey, having purchased a tennis ball for a nickel he had borrowed from his grandmother, spent hours every day dribbling and shooting that ball over the line and off the wall until his grandmother would yell, “Joey stop making so much noise.” Joey was not deterred. Eventually, they located an old tin can, removed the bottom, then fastened it to the garage, and the shooting ritual continued. Eventually, Joey found a rim with a net and was in basketball heaven.

Although initially a good student, Joey lost his academic direction in 6th grade. In 7th grade, he stopped going to classes completely and eventually was dismissed from school. About that time, he watched a basketball game at Barto gym between Williamsport High School and St. Joseph’s High School.

With a packed house, “people hanging from the rafters,” Williamsport prevailed 61-60, and Joey was hooked on the game. Playing, at the time, for Mater Dolorosa in the Bower League at Curtin and having just scored 67 points at the South Community Center, he came to the attention of Coach Blackburn and enrolled at St. Joe’s shortly thereafter. Joey played JV in the 8th grade and moved on to varsity for 9th through 12th.

Due to his diminutive size, opposing coaches would assign football players to beat him up and try to slow down Joey, to the point that after a game, his thighs would be riddled with black and blue marks. However, Joey was very quick, had decent hops, and had a left-handed set push shot that was good from long-range and almost impossible to stop. Coaches would regularly say to him before a game, “Prato, you’re not going to do anything tonight,” and Joey would bark back, “Oh yeah, just watch me,” and typically go out and score 37. Did I say he had a lot of spunk? He scored in the 20s, 30s, and sometimes the 40s on a regular basis, and remember, this was long before the introduction of the 3-point shot.

Ah, the stories — like the time up in Renovo, a notorious place to play, Joey tells how he chased a loose ball through the push doors out into the outer lobby, and when he went to return to the court, he found the janitor had locked the door preventing his return to the court.

Another time sliding after a loose ball, his head went under a section of the bleachers, and some of the ardent fans began kicking him in the head.

At Canton, in one game, the player assigned to guard Joey held him to nine points in the first half, and when Joey went into the bathroom to relieve himself, the Canton player followed Joey in, exclaiming “my coach told me I’m to go everywhere you go.” Joey laughed and scored 38 that game.

My two favorites involve a half-court hook shot and an assist and score that never should have been.

As to the first, when Joey began practicing left-handed hook shots from half-court, Coach Blackburn chastised him to stop wasting his time as “you are never going to use that in a game.” A few nights later, as Joey is dribbling down the left side of the court with a St. Mary’s player in hot pursuit and with the ref ignoring the pounding he was taking, Joey left fly that left-handed hook shot from half-court. Coach Blackburn jumped up from the bench to let Joey know his displeasure just in time for the ball to hit the backboard and drop cleanly through the net. Coach Blackburn calmly sat down, and there was never another word spoken to Joey about practicing half-court shots.

The second was at one of the many legendary battles between rivals St. Joe’s and St. Mary’s High School. With the usual packed house and the crowd roaring, Joey was unsuccessfully trying to throw the ball inbounds to a teammate. Due to the noise level, the ref could not hear his request for a time-out, so Joey threw the ball down the court towards his basket, ran to retrieve it, and laid it in for a basket. The referees were so shocked they never called the obvious violation, and the assist and the bucket counted. Joey will laughingly tell you it was his first and only assist!

In 2004, myself and my good friend and teammate, the late, great Dennis “Dutch” Bogaczyk, attempted to start an outdoor 3-man basketball tournament — similar to the Carlisle 3-man I’ve written about before. It was called the Street Ball Legends Tournament, and the purpose was, in part, to honor annually a former player from the Williamsport area who honed their games on the “streets” of this city, playing mostly on the outdoor courts, like at St. Joe’s High School where Joey used to play, at Bishop Neumann’s old courts, at the old Bethune Douglas Center, and anywhere there was a basketball and a hoop and a kid with the desire and a dream to be the best. While the tournament only had one happening — more on that in another writing — the initial honor was given posthumously to Ronald Lee, who I will write about later.

I’ve decided, after a multi-year absence, to renew the annual presentation and to honor Joey Prato naming him as the 2nd honoree of the Williamsport Street Ball Legend recognition. Sorry, Joey, there is no tournament, and actually, there is no award, but you get the point. Players and non-players alike who now know your story, salute you as a true pioneer in the longstanding legacy of Street Ballers who have come from the Williamsport area. Congrats Joey.

Paul Petcavage