Lou Coopey, a 1960 Nanticoke graduate, owns a golden basketball watch fob. Engraved on it are the words “World Champions 1915-1916”.
The old family heirloom belonged to his grandfather, who he shares a name with, and harkens back to the day Lou Coopey and the rest of the Wilkes-Barre Barons were champions of the world.
April 15th marked the 100th anniversary of the Barons winning the World Series of Basketball.
The Barons, coached by George Keller, were among the first professional basketball teams in history. They defeated the Patterson, New Jersey Crescents, the Interstate League Champions, 22-17 at the Armory in Patterson in the second and final game of the World Series of Basketball.
Four thousand fans were on hand for what the Scranton Republican Newspaper called the first “world championship” basketball game.
The Barons were made up of players from local communities and nearby states and cities who competed in the Pennsylvania State League against teams from Freeland, Carbondale, Nanticoke, Scranton, Pittston, Hazleton and Plymouth.
The team won that league’s championship on March 31, 1916 defeating Plymouth 45-29, and earned the right to face the Interstate League champs.
Keller’s Barons played the game in a net cage, hence the name “cagers” and had only six players on the roster. Team members on that 1916 championship season were forwards Sam Curlette of Philadelphia and Lou Coopey of Nanticoke, center Bernie Dunn of Kingston and guards Frank Foster of Wilkes-Barre and Willie McCarter of New Jersey.
As professionals, the Barons were paid a share of the admission fares, which varied from 50 cents to $2 a head. One of the first professional players to be traded was Coopey who went from Nanticoke to Wilkes-Barre.
Three days before the championship, the League’s managers voted 5 to 3, to change the foul shooting rules in an effort to curb Wilkes-Barre’s foul shooting edge.
Prior to the rule change, one player was the designated foul shooter. Wilkes-Barre’s Curlette was their go-to guy, having sunk 21 of 26 free throws in the first game.
The change dictated that the player who was fouled had to shoot his own foul shots, altering the game forever. But Keller had seen the change coming and had his players practicing foul shots for three weeks, so when the rules were changed, the Barons were ready.
In the first game of the series played on April 13, 1916, the Barons before 1,500 fans at the Wilkes-Barre 9th Regiment Armory defeated the New Jersey team 31-22.
They were outplayed in the first half, but, according to an article in the Wilkes-Barre Record on April 14, 1916, “after the first few minutes of the second half, the Wilkes-Barre players assumed the offensive. Lou Coopey was the star of the memorable second half, with three field goals and with the injection of confidence to his teammates that went far toward changing the conflict toward a victory.”
The article continued:
“Coopey showed that he was on deck and ready for action by driving down the floor with every bit as much speed as Clinton (Crescent star) and tossed in Wilkes-Barre’s first goal with two players on his shoulders. He tallied his second one with a long heave from the center of the floor, and the crowd went wild. When the Wilkes-Barre forward threw in his third goal from under the basket the score stood at 26-20 against the visitors.”
In game two, which took place at the Patterson Armory, the Pittston Gazette reported in its April 17, 1916, edition that the Barons “started in right where they left off at the close of the first game, playing the floor like veritable whirlwinds. After the first five minutes, it was apparent that the visitors were playing the better, faster basketball. The crowd was spellbound at the form displayed by the Wilkes-Barre Team.”
The game was 14-12 in favor of Wilkes-Barre at the half. There were four lead changes in the second period before Wilkes-Barre pulled away en route to 22-17 win. Curlette led all scorers with seven points, followed by Coopey and Foster with five each.
The Pennsylvania State League continued as a professional contender until 1921 when financial difficulties drove it out of business, but not before basketball had become the most popular winter sport nationwide.