50 Decades

From Pittsburgh, with love

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BY ROBERT WILLIAMSON

In Seattle, on a cold mid-January night in 1974, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suited up for the NBA All-Star Game. The event was being held at the Seattle Centre Coliseum with a little over 14,000 eager fans in attendance. At home, thousands of basketball heads tuned into Pat Summerall and Rod Hundley calling the game on CBS. It was the kind of marquee event that would have any fan of the game buzzing. Marv Snowden had been looking forward to it himself. There was only one hitch, he had a game of his own to play.

That didn’t stop Marv or the rest of the George Brown Huskies from trying to catch the action. Faced with an away game against Georgian College up in Barrie, the Huskies made a simple request.

“The NBA All-Star game was on T.V. that night,” recalls Snowden, now a 68 year old man thinking long and hard about his days as a star ball player. “So we wanted to play at five o’clock instead of eight…and they refused. I felt a little bad afterwards.”

The Huskies demolished Georgian 187 to 39.

Snowden laughs, “We just wanted to run it up on them.”

A little over 4,200 kilometres away, the Western Conference All-Stars edged out the East by a score of 134 to 123.

And on a night when Walt Frazier went for 12 points, “Pistol” Pete put up 15 and Kareem finished with 14…Marv Snowden dropped 87 points. Before the 3-point line existed.

Pittsburgh

Courtesy George Brown College Athletics

Back in his original stomping ground of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Marv Snowden recalls to me over the phone the strange path he took to suiting up for George Brown. He’s brief in is his recounting of a childhood long gone.

For Snowden, only one event in his first stint in the city demands elaboration.

In 1966, Schenley High School had an opportunity to end an embarrassing 29-year drought.

“Usually the suburban schools used to win it,” says Snowden, “and we came along and we changed everything.”

“SCHENLEY REVIVES CITY PRESTIGE,” read the headline sprawled across The Pittsburgh Press’ sports page on March 24, 1966. The Spartans had just punched their ticket to the state championship game after a grueling double overtime brawl with the rival Uniontown Red Raiders.

Two days later, as over 20,000 gathered in Washington in protest of the Vietnam War, with thousands more protesting across the country, and globally in places like Ottawa and London, over 10,000 fans packed into the Pittsburgh Civic Arena for the finale of the 1966 season in Pennsylvania high school basketball.

The Schenley Spartans matched up with the Chester Clippers out of the east. It was neck and neck. In the third, a worst-case scenario struck the Spartans. All-State star Ken Durrett hit his fourth foul in the third quarter and was benched.

Snowden was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “I was thinking I really had to hustle now,” he said on the exit of Durrett. “Before Ken left, I felt more secure.”

Rather than shy away, Snowden stepped up, dropping 16 points and snagging a game-high 14 rebounds, leading Schenley High School to its first ever Pennsylvania state championship.

Marv takes a second to himself after thinking back to those moments.

“It was big news, city was ablaze, we had a lot of fun back then.”

On the Road

Regret is a curious beast. A driving urge to be able to change what is unchangeable seems like a redundant ambition to develop in the chain of evolution. What a useless feeling, to depress yourself with something that can’t be undone. Yet it strikes the best of us.

Snowden was recruited to play for the West Virginia Mountaineers after the championship campaign with Schenley. During the Bucky Waters era, the Mountaineers were a middle of the pack team, made the National Invitational Tournament once, never making the NCAA D1 Tournament but the program had recently churned out NBA stars Jerry West and Rod Thorn.

Snowden was quick to impress. Shooting a blazing 56.7 percent from the field, and averaging 19.5 points per game.

After being sidelined with an ankle injury for two games, the Mountaineers travelled to Pittsburgh for a game and Snowden didn’t head back with them to Morgantown.

Snowden takes a breath, “One of the biggest mistakes of my life.” He wouldn’t have much more to say about that.

After playing some Division 2 ball at Oklahoma State, Snowden was invited up to play for the Harlem Diplomats, a comedic basketball team much like the now-famous Harlem Globetrotters, that operated north of the border.

“The two owners of the team, they lived in Toronto so I ended up staying there,” Snowden remembered. “I love Toronto, beautiful people, beautiful city.”

At the time, OCAA basketball was just coming into its own as a legitimate league for community colleges to compete amongst each other in Ontario. At George Brown, Vincent Drake, the long tenured athletic director and men’s basketball coach, now in the OCAA Hall of Fame, had begun to put together a super-team. Made up of both prime Canadian and American ball players that included an ex-Argo’s player (wrong sport, I’m aware), he wanted to put the Huskies program on the map.

Drake’s next target? Marv Snowden.

“I met Vince Drake in Toronto […] and they had just built a new campus, the Casa Loma campus and we were playing ball and they talked me into coming back to school,” said Snowden.

The Husky

It isn’t often that a community college’s basketball team gets weekly space in the sports section of a major publication. Though from 1973 – ’75, the George Brown Huskies earned just that.

“Marv would be in the dressing room putting on lip balm or whatever, never knew when the reporters would show up to cover the game.” said Val Pozzan, former guard for the Huskies, who was one of George Brown’s big three along with Snowden and Chicago native Mike Asque. Pozzan was inducted into the OCAA Hall of Fame in 2003 for his contributions to the team at point guard.

The buzz started small. A few four inch reports occupying tight corners between features.

‘Brown cagers win’ November 8, 1973, ran in a tiny space between paragraphs of a feature on a junior hockey star. ‘Brown Cagers extend streak’, 5 days later. Both in the Toronto Star’s sports section.

In January of ’74, four days after Snowden’s record breaking 87 point game, the feature story on the front page of the Star’s sports section was ‘George Brown’s Cagers will vie for national crown’.

They almost went perfect in Marv’s first season north of the border, beating out St. Clair college for the OCAA crown. Snowden lead the way earning the first of his two OCAA M.V.P. awards.

“At the time, they didn’t have an official national championship,” Pozzan recalls. “Instead, we went out to Montreal and challenged Quebec’s champion, for a sort of unofficial title.”

In the middle of March that year, after the finals sweep that landed them atop the Ontario Colleges throne, George Brown headed to Montreal to play Dawson College. Snowden drained a game high 25 that night in Montreal to lead the Huskies; and on March 18, 1974, George Brown College became the first ever (unofficial) national champion in Canadian college basketball.

Over the course of that season, Snowden would amass 582 points, an OCAA record that stood for over 40 years. The team gained traction in the basketball community. Both Canadian and University teams invited the Huskies to play in invitational touraments.

“We got to play both the British and Chinese national teams,” Pozzan remembers. They beat the Brits, and lost to China.

As the following season came and went, so did another bout of George Brown dominance. Almost every news clipping read, ‘Marv Snowden led the Huskies…’. It was Snowden’s league, and nobody could do a damn thing about it. Their winning became so commonplace, headlines were written when they lost.

“George Brown loses a game!” reads a headline on the Star’s sports page in early 1975, after Buffalo State University snapped a 27 game streak. “A strange thing happened to the George Brown College Huskies yesterday…”

In the spring of ’75, Marv Snowden and the Huskies captured their second consecutive Canadian College national championship. Handling Vancouver College 91-71 in the final game, both Val Pozzan and Herman Sheppard were named to the all tournament team…Snowden won his second M.V.P. title.

Over the two seasons Marv Snowden played for the Huskies, the team amounted a record of 104 wins and four losses. One of the greatest sporting dynasties in the history of OCAA athletics.

There and Back Again

Snowden hasn’t been back to Toronto in over 20 years, he figures.

After his time at George Brown, he headed back south of the border, “I lived in L.A. for about 10 years.”

Completely off the grid. No indication that he continued to play on after such a wildly successful college campaign. A budding career cutoff. Left behind.

He says softly, “You know how life is.”

Retirement can hit a star athlete hard. “That planning and starting that second chapter in your life before it’s right in your face,” said Judy Goss, Ph. D and mental performance consultant for the Canadian Sport Institute, on how an athlete transitions to a average paced, dormant life. “Things usually unfold better if there is planning and preparation.”

If there is one thing that is abundantly clear, it is that Snowden had planned almost none of it. Going with the flow, fixated on any court that called his name.

Goss trains the athletes to look past the present, past the eventual end of glory. “You know there’s more to your life. All that life ahead of you…Is there a desire to go on and be something else?”

Whatever that desire may be, he must have found it in California. A little while later he returned home to Pittsburgh, just up the road from Schenley High School. It has since been boarded up.

“I don’t know why I got married again,” he chuckles. He reconnected with an old friend Myrna Johnson and found answers within the church.

The OCAA would induct Marv into their Hall of Fame in 2003, though Snowden was none-the-wiser at the time.

For almost 7 years, Marv Snowden had no clue his achievements were still being celebrated in Toronto.

“I didn’t even know I was elected to the Hall of Fame, no one had a way to find me,” Snowden said

“I went down to give him the hall of fame award [In Pittsburgh] and surprisingly enough he knew nothing about it,” said Pozzan.

“I was on Facebook and my buddy found me and got in touch with me […] and saw me with Pozzan,” said Snowden. “They came to Pittsburgh and visited me and brought me my little crystal.”

While his name may never have gone up in lights like a Frazier, Maravich or Abdul-Jabbar or never been chosen for an NBA All-Star team, there is no doubt that the game of basketball has cherished the memory of Marvin L. Snowden out of Pittsburgh. Selected to the OCAA All-Millennium team at the turn of the century, Marv’s accolades are still lauded in the circles that are aware of his achievements.

He left behind a life connected to the game he once loved, never stopping to look back. Until now.

“You know my knees are shot and I don’t have the energy,” Marv laughs. “I mean I haven’t touched the ball in 20 years!”

“But in my mind, I can still play.”

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