Written by Art Petrosemolo
As you know, one of the things that has kept me busy in my more than two years in residence at Garden Spot Village (Sycamore Springs) is writing for the local weekly papers owned by Lancaster Newspapers as well as photographing and writing too for Lancaster Farming.
I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience this week. On June 7, I got a call from the sports editor of the Ephrata Review. He told me that an Ephrata native and local sports icon—Whitey Von Nieda—had become the oldest living former player of the National Basketball Association. Who’da thought that an Ephrata High School player made it to the NBA?
The sports editor was reaching out to me to see if I wanted to profile Whitey for the newspaper. I have some basketball background and jumped at the assignment.
First, it always is nice when the editor reaches out to you because he/she knows the story is a good fit from your past work. It is a pat on the back and we all can use those occasionally.
Second, I graduated from Springfield (Mass.) College—the birthplace of basketball—and had been involved in some of the activity surrounding the planning of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield as a student in the early 1960s. And finally, my father, Edward Petrosemolo, Jr., was a college basketball player in the 1930s and was involved in one of the first, trial games where the “jump ball” after every basket was eliminated. Ironically and fittingly, the game he played in without the “jump ball” was against my future alma mater.
So, needless to say, I am all in with Whitey Von Nieda and call the 97-year-young basketball player at his home at Masonic Village immediately and get invited to lunch on Monday, June 10, with Whitey and his wife Arlene.
It was an enjoyable two hours talking with a man who remembers details from games played more than 70 years ago. For me, and I truly don’t believe it is a coincidence, it is the fourth story since January that I have written on super seniors who are 85 years and over including the 100-year old vet George Houck who I profiled at Memorial Day.
I got back to New Holland mid-afternoon and was so excited about my conversation with Whitey that I sat down to write a 900-word profile and within 90 minutes had a 1400 word narrative. The writing is always easy….the editing and what I call “tweaking” takes the time, but, surprisingly that went quickly too.
Suddenly I had a story they might be able to use on June 12 rather than the following week and I would scoop the Lancaster daily paper and local TV stations that had not hopped on the story to date.
So, I fact checked the story with Whitey and wife Arlene, and got it to my editor Tuesday afternoon before I headed out-of-state Wednesday and the story ran in Wednesday’s (June 12) edition of the Ephrata Review. For me it was like my early years in journalism working for a afternoon daily (they are long gone) where you went to meetings in the evening and arrived at the office very early the following morning and got the story done on a manual typewriter by 8 a.m. while the copy boy was tearing sheets out of the typewriter to be typeset. You learned quickly to use carbon paper (also long gone) to keep a copy for yourself as three pages in you might have forgotten what you had already written! Oh, the good old days!
Anyway, one of the funny stories Whitey told me—as if it happened yesterday—was about a road game in 1944 when he was a rookie for the Baltimore Bullets in the first season of the newly formed National Basketball Association.
Whitey recalled a game the team had played in Fort Wayne, Ind., on a snowy December night. “We had to be in Syracuse for a game the following night,” Whitey said, “and all the trains (the way the NBA traveled in the 1940s) were cancelled and buses too.” So, Whitey said the coach put all 10 players (including their seven-foot center) into two taxicabs and they drove the nearly 600 miles to Syracuse.
Today, on modern interstates, that drive would take nine or 10 hours. On 1940s roads, in the snow, it took overnight and most of the next day until they arrived in Northern New York State fueled only on candy bars from service stations as restaurants were closed in the blizzard.
“Anyway,” says Whitey, “we arrive in Syracuse all pretty cramped up from the ride and have to put on cold, wet, sweaty uniforms from the previous night’s game to play.” He said it took the first half to warm up and a victory wasn’t in the cards.
Whitey spun story after story about his college (Penn State) playing career, World War II army service as a paratrooper during the invasion of Europe and pre-NBA experiences with the Lancaster Red Roses and the Tri-Cities (IL) Nighthawks, now Atlanta Hawks.
Whitey is still an avid sports fan and watches any game that is played with a ball or a stick on his large-screen TV. And yes, after his 76ers lost in the NBA semi-finals, he cheered for the Toronto Raptors who won the championship.
As I closed my notebook and left for home, I shook Whitey’s hand and said “It was an honor to meet you Whitey, and it will be a privilege to do the story.” And it was!