(Editor’s Note: This account of the now legendary game between Lebanon High and Steel-High was penned by then Cedar head coach Charles ‘Chic’ Hess.)
BY CHIC HESS
Many versions of the unforgettable Cedar/Steel High game that took place in March of 1978 at the Hershey Arena continue to be rehashed, but my rendition is the one that I will never forget.
My memory kicks in at the point when the referee called me to center court to inform me that #31 had been ejected for committing his second technical foul. I can still hear his voice, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but your center has been ejected.” T’s were assessed back then for grasping the rim as Sammy used to do when delivering one of his thundering dunks.
It is not as if Sammy hadn’t been chastised on numerous occasions for this same offense. A teenager in the spotlight, as Sammy was, didn’t always react well to suggestions from others, including me. Because Slammin’ Sam had a propensity for looking at things differently, I began to prepare the team for such a moment early in the season.
A few times each week near the end of a practice session, I would have the team work on our special offense, which amounted to us holding the ball at half court, weaving or passing and picking opposite looking for a defensive foible to exploit.
For the ten minutes or so we used to spend working on this offense each week, I had to listen to Sammy complain. “Why are we working on this? This offense wastes my talents. What am I doing out here at half court? This is no way to use me—blah-blah-blah, etc.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was our Plan B in the event that he disappeared on us some evening for committing some unimaginable infraction related to being a celebrated, self-centered teenager.
Like WMD, the Plan B was in the system from the beginning, but I hoped that we would never need it. Obviously, we were a much better team with Sammy on the floor, but it was my responsibility to have the team prepared for all situations, and my sense of survival told me that this was a prudent insurance plan.
A sober Cedar team walked off the court to the catacomb-like locker rooms under the arena for the half time intermission. A paltry four point lead did not seem like much of an edge. The consensus of opinion from those in the seats, aisles, hallways, refreshment stand lines, and restrooms was “This is going to be interesting. The Cedars are in big trouble without their franchise player. If they lose now, the Lebanon boys at least have a good excuse.”
I remember the scene as if it just happened. My clever partner, Charlie Fink, and I met outside the locker room. I sat on a beat up old training table that sixteen years before could have been the same table Wilt Chamberlain sat on before scoring 100 points against the Knicks.
At that point, neither Chamberlain nor Bowie was on my mind because I had visions of Plan B dancing in my head. As I was relating the plan to Charlie, the minutes ticked away. Dave Dundore stuck his head out the locker room door to inquire whether we were going to come in.
Dundore, the deep thinker on the team, probably sensed we were considering getting back on the bus and beating the traffic back to Lebanon or perhaps heading west for safer ground.
Coach Fink, who was also responsible for our JV team, was never present when we worked on our delay game (AKA Plan B). When Dundore inquired about our willingness to join the team, he noticed Fink nervously flicking his halftime cigarette as I explained the plan.
As you would expect, the dressing room was quiet as the team anxiously waited for us. There was nothing new to explain except the role Dave Dundore was to play. They heard nothing new because they remembered reviewing it and reviewing it in practice, except now we were smaller, quicker, and all of the same frame of mind.
I was sending five tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound homegrown boys (Jon Lebo, Chuck Peffley, Tabb Bickell, Scott Fralick, and Dave “Cy” Dundore) out to safeguard Lebanon’s pride. The boys’ demeanor acknowledged what was at stake.
Before the halftime talk was concluded, a question was raised by Scott Fralick to clarify our strategy. After hearing our plan to be patient and wait for the lay up that we knew Steelton would be vulnerable to, Fralick was uncertain. “Coach, do I shoot it if I’m open?” he asked. Now coming from a pure shooter who had been directed, mandated, and often threatened, that if he didn’t shoot the ball whenever he was open, it would be his ticket to the bench, it was a good question.
To leave no doubt in this gifted shooter’s mind, I said, “Yes!” And with the same conviction as the “Yes,” I added, “You always shoot it.” Plan B – holding the ball for a lay-up did not pertain to a shooter of Fralick’s quality. Shooters like John Holler, Don Trostle, Steve Weddle, Doug Barry, and Steve Whitman envied this kid, and was I suddenly going to tell him not to shoot?
The five anointed ones with their supporters led by Sam emerged from the tunnels of the arena anxious to resume play. At this point, I thought I should have been a car salesman. I knew that they felt good about our plan; they were confident.
The four-point lead grew to eight, ten, and continued to grow. The three Cedars at half court weaved and waited. When the Rollers’ defense sputtered, the Cedars attacked. If it wasn’t Bickell breaking loose from the center of the court speeding down the lane on a three on two, it was Lebo firing one of his patented clothesline passes to Peffley cutting backdoor from the corner for a lay up with an opponent or two on his back.
Pressure mounted as the two ancient rivals began matching baskets. Emotions rose, as did elbows, and barbs were exchanged as District Three’s crème de la crème put it all on the line for everyone to see. The adrenaline on the court was gushing. Steel High wanted to mix it up by turning it into a brawl, but the Cedars stuck to their plan.
It was Lebanon’s Tabb Bickell, whose capacity for turning the other cheek was almost nonexistent, who’d suddenly had enough of Steelton’s feistiness. Because Tabb was the one player who, without a doubt, would rather stop a bullet than walk off that court a loser, I knew that my job was to find a way to keep him in the game?
Keeping Bickell’s will to win in the game was a must if we were to be successful. But I could see he was entering into a metamorphosis that was tantamount to “seek and destroy.”
As though I were reaching for a fire extinguisher, I called Tabb over to me. Sensing my thoughts, he stayed out of arm’s reach as I read him his options if he chose to go postal at this particular time. Edited for family reading, I told him, “To get his head back in the game or else.”
Lebanon’s leader got the message. Bickell told me that he would be okay and not to take him out. As I lowered myself into my seat, I thought that this was one less hurdle, but it was a huge one.
For the 13,000 fans in attendance and the additional 30 thousand who today swear they were there, the Cedars’ game plan was obvious. They are not going to shoot unless it was a lay up. The Rollers adjusted by stepping up the pressure but at the same time clogging the lane with their interior men, thus cutting off Bickell’s highway to the basket.
Just when it appeared the Rollers solved the Cedar riddle, Fralick caught sight of the rim from the deep corner and let it go. A hush fell over the covered ice rink. At courtside, a SWISH was heard as a loud roar filled the arena.
On the minds of many was, “What was Fralick doing? This was no time to be putting up low percentage shots like that.”
As Steelton’s monstrous defensive pressure continued in the backcourt, Dundore found Fralick open again in the corner and again Lebanon’s finest marksmen struck. The physically spent and now mentally befuddled Steel High boys bent over and glanced at their coach for help.
Steelton had no answer. The Cedars were in control, and both teams knew it. The lead continued to grow until the waning minutes, but it was Fralick’s two long range missiles from just inside Three Mile Island that etched the Rollers’ epitaph—on this night, the Hershey Arena belonged to the Cedars of Lebanon.
Never could an entire city be more proud as they watched their boys pick apart a quality opponent in a game of huge importance.
After the game, I finally sat back into my assigned seat and watched as the Lebanon fans heaped their congratulations and praises on their heroes, and I thought to myself, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Thank you, boys, and thank you, Lebanon for all the great memories.
Chic Hess, Ed. D., the author of Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams: The True Story of Basketball’s First Great Coach, is also former NAIA College District and NABC-Kodak National Junior College Coach of the Year who now serves as a Board of Director for the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.