The Philadelphia basketball community just lost another special person. Alonzo Lewis, former Darby High and La Salle University basketball standout, died in a car accident on Tuesday night, Feb. 21. Lewis was one of the all-time great players and coaches in the Philadelphia area. He was a trailblazer for so many people who played the game of basketball. Lewis, 77, was a person who certainly made a difference in the lives of youngsters for a long time.
Lewis was a big time player at Darby High. He scored 1,048 points in his career. He was a 6-foot-3 guard who could do it all. He could handle the ball, shoot from the outside, hit the open man, rebound and defend. Lewis was a complete player. There was no question about it.
It was no surprise that a school like La Salle recruited him. The biggest thing was the timing. There weren’t many African Americans playing at the five city schools. Jackie Moore, former Overbrook High star, preceded Lewis at La Salle. Moore was a real pioneer. He was the first Black Explorers’ player. He was also the first African American to play for the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors.
Lewis played three seasons with the Explorers. He played on La Salle’s 1954–55 team, which dropped a 77-63 decision to the University of San Francisco in the NCAA championship. That San Francisco team had Hall of Famer Bill Russell. Lewis scored 1,137 career points while averaging 13.8 points a game during those years. Lewis was inducted into the La Salle College and Big 5 Hall of Fames for his basketball prowess.
“If it were another time, he would have been an NBA player,” said Jay Norman, former Temple basketball standout. “He had the size. He had the ability. It was just not the time. You figure he was a year after Hal Lear (ex-Temple star). Lear didn’t make it and was a great shooter. Al [Lewis] was bigger. It was just the times. A year after Al, Guy (Rodgers) comes along and had a great career (at Temple). A year makes such a big difference.”
Lewis did play in the old Eastern League, which featured some great players like Wally Choice, John Chaney and others. He played against the best. Lewis knew competition would bring out the best in every player.
Lewis and his good friend George Carey from Darby used to take players everywhere to play the game. Charles “Pete” Coleman was a terrific shooting guard for two back-to-back state championship teams at Darby-Colwyn High (1962 and 63). Coleman played with Hal Booker, Sonny Realer, Dave Kennard and Adrian Harmon on those state championship teams that posted a 50-0 record over that two-year period. Lewis had a big impact on Coleman’s game.
“He used to come to my house on Saturday morning,” Coleman said. “It would be early on Saturday morning. He would get me up and take me up to (Darby) Township to play basketball. He had me playing one-on-one fullcourt. He wanted me to be in shape. Then, he would take me in the city to play at Tustin (Recreation Center, 60th and Lancaster) and Marian Anderson (Recreation Center, 17th and Fitzwater).
“I remember Al and George took us down to (Washington) D.C. to play basketball. We played against Dave Bing down there. He loved basketball. He believed in discipline. He’s going to be really missed.”
In addition to being a mentor, Lewis was a sensational basketball coach. He coached Geoff Arnold during his scholastic career at Darby Township. Arnold played on some marvelous teams under Lewis’ tutelage. He also went on to have a magnificent college basketball career at Saint Joseph’s University. He is now an assistant basketball coach with the Hawks.
“Al was the man who introduced me to Philadelphia basketball,” Arnold said. “He took me down to South Philadelphia. He dropped me off with Claude Gross who coaches in the Sonny Hill League. I played for the South Philadelphia team in the Hill League. Al introduced me to so many people over the years. I remember he took us out to Cheyney State when John Chaney was the head coach there. We had a chance to watch Cheyney State practice. His relationship with John Chaney and all the guys in the Eastern League was incredible.
“He used to pile five and six guys in his car and take us to summer league games. He truly cared about the kids. I told a guy about him and the Sonny Hill League. We’re able to do the things that we’re doing because of Al, Coach Chaney, Claude Gross, Tee Shields, Tony Samartino, James Flint Sr. and Cal Smith. Those guys gave their time for the betterment of us. I’m talking about Bruiser (Flint, Drexel head coach), Monte’ Ross (Delaware head basketball coach), Horace Owens (La Salle assistant), Jeff Battle (Wake Forest assistant) and others who are now college basketball coaches.”
Lewis coached at Darby Township and Academy Park for several years during the late ’70s and ’80s. After that, he moved to Chester High where he had a tremendous 10-year coaching career (1985–1995). He posted an impressive 237-67 record. In 1989, he led the Clippers to an amazing 30-2 record and a PIAA state championship. Following his Chester High coaching career, he was later the head coach at Cheyney University. Fred Pickett was an assistant on Lewis’ Chester staff and later succeeded him at the head coach there. Pickett will never forget the basketball legacy Lewis developed over the years.
“He has meant so much to the enrichment of the basketball program and the model he put in place,” said Pickett, who was the head coach at Chester for 13 years, posting a 331-80 overall record while winning three state championships. “He had so much knowledge. He really cared about the kids. We’re looking forward to doing a memorial tribute next Saturday night (at Chester High on March 3 at 1 p.m.). He did everything with the kids in mind. He wanted them to grow. He wanted them to grow as young people. He gave them a lot of exposure.”
In addition to coaching, Lewis was a public school teacher. He placed a lot of emphasis on achieving on and off the court. Lewis lived in Chadds Ford with his wife, Kathy, and daughter, Alison. The other survivors include another daughter, Anastasia, along with three grandchildren. The funeral arrangements are not complete at this time.