Beating the odds


Lou Pucillo is enjoying retirement in Raleigh, N.C., but hasn’t forgotten his South Philadelphia roots as a scrappy basketball player.

As a teenager, he would spend night after night practicing his game at a local schoolyard, some nights until 11.

That kind of dedication usually leads to a standout high-school basketball career and college scholarship offers. Usually.

In Pucillo’s case, he didn’t make the Southeast Catholic (now St. John Neumann) team until his senior year — 1954 — and played limited minutes. Still, the 5-foot-8 guard managed to earn a Division I basketball scholarship to North Carolina State, where he went on to earn All-America honors.

Even though Pucillo, 66, now calls North Carolina home, his accomplishments will be honored back in Philly next Thursday night. The Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame City All-Star Chapter will welcome the former athlete into its shrine. The event will be held at Dugan’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia. Pucillo, originally of the 2500 block of South Mole Street, said he was very excited when he received the surprise call back in January.

Growing up, Pucillo was just another player coming off the bench. He gained experience via the Catholic Youth Organization and Police Athletic League. After getting cut from the Pirates basketball team his freshman and sophomore seasons, those outside leagues were his best option. After spending his junior year in recreation leagues, Pucillo went out for the school team one more time and made it. But the guard was stymied by a lack of playing time.

"By the time I made it my senior year, most of the guys had been playing together for a couple years," Pucillo said. "I never scored in double figures. I was very frustrated. I just wasn’t at the right place at the right time."

His 1954 Pirates team defeated North Catholic 63-59 to win the Catholic League title, and earned the right to play Wilt Chamberlain’s Overbrook squad for the city title. The future hall-of-famer proved to be too much to handle, as Chamberlain tied his city title record with 32 points on the way to Overbrook’s 74-50 victory. Pucillo made it onto the court briefly, and was in awe over the big man’s size.

"You had to shoot the ball real high or he would knock it down your throat," he said.

With dreams of playing in the NBA someday, Pucillo needed a breakout season to get noticed by college recruiters. He enrolled at a prep school, Temple High, to play and take a couple of courses before college. The athlete averaged 25 points per game and led his team to a 25-1 record.

Finally, Pucillo was noticed somewhere other than the schoolyard. North Carolina State’s top assistant, Vic Bubas, made the player his only scholarship offer.

"I think I was very, very lucky," Pucillo said. "I believe in destiny and that God has a plan for everybody."

By 1959, his senior year, the 5-foot-8 player earned a collection of individual honors that included Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, ACC tournament MVP and First-Team All-ACC. The Associated Press named him Second-Team All-America. First-team honors went to the likes of Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Chamberlain.

Though Pucillo wanted to continue playing after college, he never caught on with an NBA team. The St. Louis Hawks drafted the guard, but couldn’t guarantee a contract, so Pucillo looked into other options. The athlete had two strikes against him: his size and lack of high-school experience.

"The only hope I had was that Paul Arizin lived two blocks from my house, and he didn’t play high-school basketball, and he played in the NBA," Pucillo said of the hall-of-famer. "I thought maybe if I keep on playing, maybe I could get in the NBA sometime. That was my goal."

Not quite ready to call it a career, Pucillo went to Kansas and played for Bicker’s Petroleum of the National Industrial Basketball League, but the team folded at the end of the season. The following year, he played in the Eastern League with South Philadelphia’s Ernie Beck and Bob Herdelin, but that was the end of his hoop dreams.

After returning to NC State to serve as the freshman basketball coach for three seasons, Pucillo entered the business world as a beverage broker, a job he stayed in for 38 years. His leisurely retirement is spent playing golf and going to the local YMCA. Pucillo and his wife of 42 years, the former Marcie Higgins, a Hallahan grad, have three children.

Next week, the whole family will return to Philadelphia to hear that once-unknown guard from Southeast Catholic make his induction speech. Pucillo, who was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, said he plans to thank the people who helped him throughout his athletic career.

"I have a lot of passion for basketball in Philadelphia," he said. "That’s where my love for the game began."

Former major-league catcher John Marzano, originally of 11th and Wharton streets, also will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame next Thursday night. Now the owner of a local baseball academy, Marzano enjoyed a lengthy professional career with the Boston Red Sox, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, and played on the U.S. Olympic baseball team.