Some 50 years ago, a group of friends played softball together and decided they wanted to do something for the youth of Avoca.
“We weren’t very good at softball,” said Ray McAndrew, an original Avoca Jolly Boy who was at the Gramercy Restaurant Wednesday to hear basketball legend Bill Walton. “But we were good at socializing.”
And the Avoca Jolly Boys were born in 1964. McAndrew and a group of friends, including Tony Blaskiewicz, a Scranton transplant with a passion for helping youth, formed the organization that is going strong today.
Stan Waleski, former Pittston Area basketball coach, now retired, runs the organization that provides basketball and other sports and activities for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade and currently has 600 boys and girls playing on weekends in the Avoca Community Center.
“A Jolly Boy is a community service person who’s tied to Avoca,” Waleski said.
The newest member of the Jolly Boys, UCLA and NBA great Walton, addressed the group for nearly three hours Wednesday, signing autographs, posing for pictures and weaving stories of basketball, struggles and life.
When Walton took center stage at the Gramercy, all 6-foot-11 of himself, and faced about 140 members of the Avoca Jolly Boys, he removed his pullover jacket and revealed an Avoca Jolly Boys shirt, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the organization.
Walton was in town to be the featured speaker at Wednesday night’s Northeast Pennsylvania Council Boy Scouts of America dinner at Genetti’s Best Western in Wilkes-Barre. State Attorney General Kathleen Kane and longtime political consultant Pat Solano of Pittston Township were honored by the Boy Scouts.
“Building community is what it’s all about,” Walton said at the Gramercy Restaurant on Main Street. “That’s what the Jolly Boys are about — helping others chase their dreams.”
Fore nearly three hours Wednesday, Walton told stories — of his college and NBA teams and teammates, of his coaches and of his life experiences. The crowd never lost interest as Walton offered a candid and learned talk on basketball, “the perfect game,” as he called it.
“Live for what the Jolly Boys organization is,” he said. “Substance, character and values. That’s what’s important.”
Walton injected local references, telling the Jolly Boys that he and his longtime friend, Tom Blaskiewicz, stopped at the Butler Mine Tunnel Memorial to pay respect. He mentioned the Susquehanna River, West Pittston and teased Blaskiewicz — known as Harry — saying he must be in the Witness Protection Program.
John Walsh of Hughestown brought his 10-year-0ld son, J.J., to meet Walton. J.J. plays in the Jolly Boys basketball league and he read about Walton before getting a basketball signed. Walton signed everything everybody brought, including magazines, photos and countless basketballs.
The Jolly Boys honored key volunteers: Blaskiewicz, McAndrew, Bob Berlew, Jim Gilhooley, Jerry Allardyce, Joe Renzi, Dr. Terry McMahon, David “Botch” Berlew, Waleski, Johnny Soy, Mike George, Mike Carroll, Sr., John Joyce, Leo Ruda, Pop Clifford and more.
George Aldrich, a former Jolly Boy and Pittston Area star, was there with his son, Will, 11, a student at Holy Rosary in Duryea. They had Walton sign a copy of his book, “Nothing But Net.”
“I remember the game against Memphis State when Walton didn’t miss a shot,” Aldrich said.
Walton thanked him for the kind words and said, “We had a good game. The team won.”
Tony Blaskiewicz remembered the early days of the Jolly Boys. He said they needed a place to play and the old Avoca American Legion building had a basketball court, but the roof leaked.
“We held a bunch of fund raising events to get the roof fixed,” Blaskiewicz said. “And then we had to buy baskets and put them up. We got permission from the town council to do the work. We also fixed the heating system.”
Blaskiewicz said every person in the room knew each other — they have a bond born of community service that began 50 years ago and flourishes today.
Walton’s message was clear and poignant, articulated in a manner that would never reveal his lifelong struggle with stuttering.
“I couldn’t say hello or thank you until I was 28 years old,” he said.
His story began from his early days of playing pick-up basketball as a 14-year-old youth in San Diego, where a group of guys in their 30s inflicted his first injury, but not his last. He had 37 surgeries during his career.
Walton used words like “industriousness” and “enthusiasm” to explain what it takes to be successful — not just in athletics, but in life as well. He told his memories, talked about his coaches, players and fans. He revealed his fierce competitiveness and listed the great names who influenced him — Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Maurice Lucas, Oscar Robertson, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird, Chick Hearn, Jamaal Wilkes and John Wooden.
But his fondest memories are away from the playing of the actual games.
“Being on the bus, in the locker room, practice, those are the places where lasting relationships and memories are made,” he said. “Make each day a masterpiece. Think of today, this moment, as an opportunity we have to make a difference. Especially in the lives of these young guys. We used to be those guys.”
He said basketball is the perfect game.
“Not like football,” he said. “Football is just a halfway house between military service and prison.”
He talked about his family, his “perfect” parents, his four sons, all who played collegiate basketball. He said Artis Gilmore was the toughest guy he ever faced.
“Artis was 7-foot-2, 300, 400, 500 pounds — how could you tell,” Walton said.
And he spent much time talking about Coach Wooden and his seven principles: be true to yourself; make each day your masterpiece; help others; drink deeply from good books; make friendship a fine art; build a shelter against a rainy day; pray for guidance, and give thanks for your blessings every day.
He said Wooden even came up with one for Walton on his graduation day at UCLA: “The things you learn after you know it all are what count.”
Walton talked about his poets — Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Walton talked basketball and life’s lessons. He talked about his injury-plagued career — having 37 surgeries and excruciating, debilitating pain that drove him to contemplate suicide.
“If I had a gun, I would have used it,” he said in detailing the pain he endured before an eight-hour back procedure got him back on track. His spine was rebuilt.
Walton said he would love to play for Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski. He told everybody to stay focused, to reach your goals, to always send a positive message.
“Groups like this have to combat the negatives that are out there,” Walton said. “You have to remove the selfishness, the greed, the excessive waste. Pull the team together. Lead the relentless offensive attack.”
Who would be on his team if he started one today?
“Lebron (James) and Lebron’s first four children,” Walton said.
Kevin Durant? “Good player, but he has to win a big game.”
Carmelo Anthony? “Next,” he said.
Walton named his top seven players: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Walton injected Pittston Area head basketball coach Alan Kiesinger into his talk several times, calling him “Coach Alan.” Kiesinger said he learned a lot from Walton in the brief time they had to talk.
“He’s tremendous,” Kiesinger said. “I asked him for advice, what I should be teaching. He told me it’s all about the team.”
Deflecting any self-accolades, Walton kept his message clear — that he has become who he is because of his parents, his teachers, coaches, mentors, fans and teammates.
“Remember, success is based on how good those other guys are,” he said. “Team comes first. Live for what organizations like the Jolly Boys and Boy Scouts are about. Substance, character and values. That’s what’s important.”