By Cindy Inkrote
While the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship captures the attention of basketball lovers today, the sound of fans cheering and the referees' whistles blowing brings back basketball memories of a different kind for some Valley residents.
From 1947-1971 the Sunbury Mercuries graced the courts of the Fourth Ward School in Sunbury, Sunbury High School, and Selinsgrove High School.
Under the leadership of player/manager Stan Novak, the Mercuries won its only league championship in 1951 and Jerry Rullo was named MVP. The team reached runner-up status the next year. Officials voted Mercuries player Jack McCloskey the league MVP for two consecutive seasons, 1953 and 1954. He continued his career in basketball playing, coaching, and managing in the NBA. Former Portland Trailblazers coach and Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay also played for the Mercuries.
The Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League got its start on April 23, 1946. It was renamed the Eastern Professional Basketball League in 1948, and after 1970 was known as the Eastern Basketball Association. In 1978 the league became the Continental Basketball Association. It still exists today and claims to be the oldest professional basketball league in the world, less than two months older than the Basketball Association of America, the NBA's predecessor.
The league started with six franchises located in Allentown, Hazleton, Lancaster, Pottsville, Reading and Wilkes-Barre. When Sunbury, Harrisburg, Williamsport and Philadelphia joined the league the following year, Allentown folded and Wilkes-Barre moved to the American Basketball League. Over the years, teams came and went, but the Mercuries continued playing in the league until the end of the 1970-1971 season when the league expanded the number of teams and the area in which they played making travel costs prohibitive for the Sunbury Mercuries.
Reynold Wolfe, of Herndon, served as the team's last president and principal owner. Franchises played two games each weekend, one Saturday night and the second at a different location on Sunday night.
Reviewing The Daily Item sports sections from the Mercuries' years reveals that the team played the game intensely and provided their loyal followers from the Central Susquehanna Valley area with intense, thrilling, and often high-scoring games. The team regularly attracted crowds of nearly 900 fans and the "Let's Go Mercs" chant thundered in the gym. Kids' Nights attracted the younger crowd and their families and often the preliminary game offered young YMCA teams the chance to show their stuff before the Mercs took over. Sports editor Bill Toland wrote colorful accounts and promoted the team heavily frequently mentioning them in his "Sports Sputterings" column. Life was simpler then, we had great basketball in the area, ticket prices for adults were under $1 and there were no bracket choices to ponder.
The Northumberland County Historical Society would like to expand its local sports collection. Do you have Mercuries memorabilia in a box in your attic or other local sports photographs, statistics, or other information that you would like to share or donate? Please call 286-4083 to discuss this opportunity.
The Society's Historical and Genealogical Library at 1150 N. Front Street, Sunbury, is open from 1-4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
n Cindy Inrote is the director of the Northumberland County Historical Society."Once Upon A Time In ..." is a Monday feature provided by the historical societies in Montour, Northumberland, Union and Snyder counties. The column will focus on people, places and objects of historical significance in those counties.
By Cindy Inkrote