Nov. 11, 2012

This story appeared in the dinner program Thursday evening at the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Sheraton Society Hill and written by Philadelphia basketball guru, Mel Greenberg. Read more at the Guru’s new web site with some photos

By Mel Greenberg (Follow Mel on Twitter)

Ohio State Women’s Basketball Coach Jim Foster remembers the first time he ever saw Debbie Blackon a basketball court back in the early 1980s when he was at the front of his career on the sidelines guiding Saint Joseph’s University.

“Pink ribbons. Blonde ponytail. Just a bundle of energy. And she was 14 years old,” Foster recently recalled of his future Hawks star who first made her mark at Archbishop Wood in the Catholic League.

“And her energy was such she could overcome those (opponents) who had superior skill,” Foster continued about Black, who is one of the tonight’s Class of 2012 inductees into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

“Back then there were no limits on how much time you could spend recruiting and I saw a bunch of Debbie’s games, in part to see if there were any significant others,” Foster referred to additional potential prospects.

“And with her, it was always `will’ over those who had natural gifts and I used to think, `What am I seeing that others are not. This is going to be easier than I thought.'”

Black, who is now one of Foster’s assistants with the Buckeyes, arrived on Hawk Hill in the autumn of 1984 and quickly made an impact at Saint Joseph’s.

A month into her freshman season the Hawks were in La Salle’s holiday tournament where they upset nationally-ranked Western Kentucky and Iowa, which was then in its first year under former Cheyney great C. Vivian Stringer, who is now at Rutgers.

The Western Kentucky game became memorable in local women’s hoops.

Black, playing like a pesky gnat on defense, so frustrated Hilltoppers star Clementte Haskins, the daughter of men’s collegiate coach Clem Haskins, that after the contest went into overtime, Haskins had had enough and launched a roundhouse at Black that got Haskins tossed.

The Hawks went on to capture the the event, as mentioned, and the following week Saint Joseph’s had its first national ranking under Foster in the Associated Press women’s poll.

In fact, Black so made Foster’s career, which has included a stop at Vanderbilt and an assistant on the 1992 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, that he himself is headed for induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., next June.

The Hawks played Western Kentucky several more times during Black’s career and eventually Hilltoppers coach Paul Sanderford conceded, “I used to think all she does is foul and the officials don’t call it. But after seeing her enough, I’ve decided she really is a great player and it just looks like she’s fouling, when she’s not.”

Black is considered Saint Joseph’s all-time all-around athlete after also starring in field hockey and softball and winning 12 letters.

Statistically, Black’s basketball marks with the Hawks have continued to hold up several decades after she had moved on to the next phase of her career.

The fiery point guard, whose older sister Barbara played two seasons with her, averaged 7.4 points per game, 5.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 4.7 steals.

She led the squad through her senior season (1987-88) three times in assists and all four times in steals. Her records for steals in a game (12) season (153), and career (572) still top the charts of the Hawks women. Black dealt 718 assists,which held No. 1 for a decade until Angela Zampella surpassed her.

The numbers, of course, turned into accolades with Black making the Big Five Hall of Fame as well as both the Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball and athletics halls of fame before tonight’s honor. She was Big Five player of the year as a senior.

Black, who helped lead the Hawks to four straight NCAA tournaments during her entire career, was a multi-named honoree in the Atlantic 10 to various squads and her battles on the court with the legendary Suzie McConnell-Serio were worth the price of admission when Penn State was a member of the conference.

“She was a tough defender, in college and the WNBA” says McConnell-Serio, who now coaches Duquesne in the conference. “Just a bundle of energy. And she was a great point guard, also. Just fantastic on both defense and offense.”

Black says growing up she modeled her style in terms of determination after Phillies baseball great Pete Rose.

“I liked the way he played, you know, Charlie Hustle and all that,” Black said.

She also is a member of the Bucks County chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

“One thing I take pride in is the fact I never missed a game or a practice in 30 years, Black says.

“Kids today want time off if they break a fingernail.”

Following her collegiate career, Black went off to Australia for eight years playing with the Tasmanian Islanders and twice led them to national titles.

That may be the name of the team, but when she became a pro in the United States, many nicknamed her “The Tasmanian Devil” because of her tenacity on defense.

In the spring of 1996 when the American Basketball League was forming, she flew back to Atlanta to the combine that would determine 100 or so candidates for the draft.

Yours truly remembers arriving on the scene later in the week and being told by a sportswriter from the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve been here the entire time and there’s this kid from Australia and she’s sensational.”

“What’s her name?”

Debbie Black.”

While she was Down Under, the women’s game here are was developing in popularity and Black took a modest approach at the combine.

“I think I could contribute a little something off the bench, help the team a little, ” Black said at the time.

She easily made the draft list, was chosen by the Colorado Xplosion and after a few games coming in off the bench, Black was made a starter and achieved all-star status the two years the ABL existed. She led the league in career steals with 330 and and was second in all-time assists with 608.

Black accomplished this going against some of the former collegiate greats such as Hall of Famers Dawn Staley, who was inducted into the Philly Hall here last November, and Jen Rizzotti, the former University of Connecticut star.

Though only 5 foot, 2.5 inches, a half-inch less in height than Muggsy Boles, the shortest player in NBA history, Black never let her size get in the way of performance.

In her first ABL season, one night while playing through an injury, Black posted a quadruple double (10 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists, 10 steals).

She continued her notoriety for six seasons in the WNBA.

Black, who played on three WNBA teams, including the former Utah Starzz and Miami Sol, retired as one of the more popular players on the Connecticut Sun after the 2004 season. She was named the league’s defensive player of the year in 2001 at the age of 35.

Her court duels with the New York Liberty’s Teresa Weatherspoon, the former Louisiana Tech star, were such that the Madison Square Garden crowd would emphatically boo the mention of Black’s name when the opposition starting lineup would be announced.

Having played for coaches who had been NBA assistants such as Ron Rothstein when Black was with Miami and Mike Thibault, who coaches Connecticut, she has taken her skills to the sidelines where she has helped Foster keep the Buckeyes in the national rankings.

Debbie Black is my favorite,” praised WNBA rookie guard Samantha Prahalis, who was a first round pick of the Phoenix Mercury after being an All-American as a Buckeye taught under the former Hawks star.

“She is going to have a great career in the WNBA, especially with talent surrounding her in Phoenix and they’re getting the No. 1 draft pick,” Black said of Prahalis, her former basketball student.

Black also played in the then-named Philadelphia Dept. of Recreation NCAA Women’s Basketball Summer League.

“I hear it is all indoors now,” said Black of Warminister, near where the two-nights-a-week Philadelphia/Suburban NCAA Women’s Basketball Summer League competes in Hatboro in lower Bucks County.

“It’s so different now. When I played, it was all outdoors. Great atmosphere. Who cared how hot it was. Just suck it up, grab your bottles off water and play,” Black laughed.

The effervescent Black was also an intern with the 76ers. That was lots of fun. One time I walked around all day in green as Gumby with Allen Iverson.”

She says after this season she will look for her own college program to coach if a desirable opening occurs.

A team of full of Debbie Black clones? Now there’s a scary thought. But one that would be quite entertaining, nonetheless.