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Steve Banko: Long-ago hoops game still vivid in my mind

I’m at the stage of my life where the obituaries have become the first thing I read every morning. I saw the death notice of one of my all-time heroes last month. It was a great salutary piece, detailing a lot of the accomplishments and records that Kevin Milligan set as a fine basketball player.

I doubt that many people outside of the hearing-impaired community knew much about Kevin. But if you haunted the basketball courts at Mulroy Playground in South Buffalo, you knew Kevin because he probably made you look bad trying to guard him.

Kevin not only played in the best basketball game I ever saw, he won the game with a last-second shot that would make Steph Curry proud. The game wasn’t played in Memorial Auditorium or Clark Gym. It was contested on the uneven asphalt of Mulroy, which its denizens proudly referred to as “the Gardens.” To us, it was every bit as hallowed as the parquet of Boston Garden.

If you were a young guy, as I was at the time, you got to play on the court all day but in the evening we sat on the sidelines to see the big boys play – guys like Billy Roberts, Louie McManus, Duke Forsythe, Tony Bevilacqua, Whitey Martin and Mike Frawley.

Watching them play was a clinic for kids like me; the way they passed and cut and played together and knew instinctively what the other guy was going to do. But watching was as close as you got to the court, unless you were a savant like Bib Duke, who could play with the big guys even though he was a little guy.

George Herrmann, for whom the playground is now renamed, was the center of the Mulroy universe. He was equal parts coach, mentor, surrogate dad and counselor. One evening, he got together with his counterpart at Emerson Playground, Andy Anderson, who would amass an impressive record coaching at Nichols. They agreed to a game at Mulroy featuring the best from both areas.

Andy brought the Rojek brothers, who starred at Canisius College; Ed Wlodarczy, another Golden Griff; and St. Francis High alums Eddie Maj and Leroy Majtyka.

I’ve seen a lot of basketball, as a player, coach and referee, but no game is more memorable to me than the Mulroy Classic. It was an education, listening to the coaches detail strategy during the timeouts. It was another lesson in that education to watch Kevin’s younger brother Jerry sign instructions to Kevin.

I don’t think either team led by more than four points the whole way. The sidelines filled as the game went on and the cheering attracted more onlookers. By the time the second half started, spectators were four deep all around the court. It was fitting that the game ended regulation in a tie and we all settled in for overtime.

I could have sat there all night, but as darkness fell, visibility was becoming a problem. The timekeeper that night was a Mulroy-ite, one Biff Sperduti. He was counting down the seconds left in the overtime when McManus got a rebound and whipped a pass to Kevin, who was two dribbles over half court. He elevated and shot, and the chain nets rattled with a winning sound – a sound Kevin never heard.

But he was the hero that day. I hope now he gets to play on smoother courts than we had at “the Gardens,” but I know he’ll never have as much fun as he did at Mulroy.