Dennis James had an outstanding college basketball career at Widener University. James played four seasons from 1974-78.
He will be recognized for his brilliant exploits along with several former athletes and the 1977 Widener football national champions as a part of the Class of 2017 heading into the Widener Athletics Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be held on Friday, Oct. 13 at Springfield Country Club in Springfield. The program begins at 7:45 p.m.
“It’s definitely an honor,” James said. “I’m honored. I played for C. Alan Rowe (the late Widener head coach). I played with Phil Martelli my first two years. He’s the head coach at Saint Joseph’s. He’s the most notable guy in terms of after their career there. I also played with Dennis Woodbury and Archie Hughes.”
Phil Martelli is really excited about James going into the Hall of Fame.
“He deserves to be going into the hall of fame,” Martelli said. “He’s a hall-of-fame person. He was a hall-of-fame teammate. He was a hall-of-fame All-American. He’s so humble. With regards to basketball, he was well ahead of his time. He was a multitalented forward who in today’s game would be a wing player and his game would translate. He would be every bit as successful today as he was years ago.”
James grew up in South Philadelphia. He played basketball in the Bill Berry League and the Sonny Hill League. He played at the Christian Street YMCA and Marian Anderson Recreation Center. He had two great mentors in Tee Shields and the late Claude Gross.
“Tee Shields and Claude Gross were my guys,” James said. “They really helped me. Claude used to say ‘look in the mirror.’ That’s what he used to tell us, like Michael Jackson’s song ‘Man in the Mirror.’ Claude picked up on that way before Michael Jackson.”
Before James made his way to Widener, he played his scholastic basketball at Southern. He didn’t get a lot of exposure during his high school career. James had a pretty good senior year. It looked like he was going to play his college basketball for Wilmington College before heading to Widener.
“I remember Jimmy Huggard from Wilmington College had an article in the newspaper saying one player he would pick would be Dennis James,” he said. “I was surprised. I think my senior year I made honorable mention All-Public League. He had put that in the paper. That summer, Wilmington dropped its basketball program. I was like wow. Then, out of the blue, Coach Rowe called me and we talked and that’s how I got to Widener.”
James also credits his former teammate Dennis Woodbury for helping him get to Widener.
“Dennis Woodbury had gone to Southern,” James said. “So, there was a connection there. He was at Widener a couple years before me. I played two years with him. I played with him my freshman and sophomore years.”
James played some great basketball for Widener, becoming the program’s first two-time All-American in 1977 and 1978. He scored 616 points as a senior and finished his playing days with 1,889 career points. Widener played in four NCAA tournaments during his career. In 1978, he led Widener to the NCAA Division III Finals, where they lost to North Park, 69-57.
“I remember that year,” James said. “We had a chance to win the football championship and the basketball championship. Unfortunately, we lost in the finals. We would have been the first team to do that.”
Small-college basketball had a number of great players during the 1970s. James remembers playing on an all-star comprised of small-college standouts who were coached by Hall of Famer John Chaney when he was the head coach at Cheyney State.
“They put a team together and went down to Mexico to play,” said James, who was a 10th-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1978. “It was a mixture of Division II and II players. Coach Chaney was our coach. Clemon Johnson (former 76ers forward) played in that team.”
James currently is retired and lives in Southern California. He spent 23 years in law enforcement in Pasadena.
“I’m looking forward to coming back,” he said. “I’ll have a chance to see some people I haven’t seen in a while.”