One never knows when your past will become current conversation. Case in point: While waiting early Sunday afternoon for a tour of the Highbridge Water Tower in upper Manhattan to begin, Gilda and I struck up a conversation with another attendee, a slightly younger retired New York City fireman.
We got to talking about our respective high schools. Kevin attended Power Memorial Academy in Manhattan; Gilda, Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn; myself, Yeshivah of Flatbush, also in Brooklyn. From that trio of educational edifices I related a story that united a Catholic high school, a public high school and a Jewish high school into a once in a lifetime experience.
During Gilda’s and my high school years (1962-67), Erasmus and Power Memorial dominated their respective school basketball leagues. Power Memorial’s dominance could be traced to one player, Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who graduated in 1965. During his years on the Panther varsity, Power Memorial three-peated as the 1963-64-65 New York City Catholic school basketball champions.
All of his games drew frenzied crowds. Everyone wanted to watch the near seven-footer play. Power Memorial had a hard time finding quality scrimmage opponents, an even harder time finding neutral courts that wouldn’t turn every game into a media event or a riot scene. To be sure, Madison Square Garden for a short span stopped hosting high school games after a melee broke out following a game (not involving Power Memorial) in 1964.
Enter Bernie Kirsner, coach of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Falcons, but more importantly, for this story at least, also coach of the Erasmus Hall High School Dutchmen, a basketball powerhouse in its own right, New York City public school champions in 1965 and second in 1966.
Kirsner had a keen eye for talent. It was he who cut short my basketball career, not even granting me a spot on Flatbush’s junior varsity squad. He saw right away I couldn’t dribble and drive to the basket. In all truthfulness, my jump shot wasn’t too dependable back then, either (current friends would no doubt say it ain’t too accurate these day, as well—better for me to say it than let them have the satisfaction).
A few months into 1965 Kirsner arranged for Power Memorial to play Erasmus on a neutral court—the gym of the recently opened new building of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School on Avenue J. Date, time and location of the game were kept secret so that students of both schools could not attend.
So secret, in fact, that Flatbush students also were not aware of the momentous game to take place in their building until players—really tall players—from both teams started filtering into the school.
The afternoon of the game only Flatbush students could gain entry into the gym. My classmates even shared the locker room with Alcindor as he dressed for the game. They said he was “really big,” in more ways than one, if you get what I mean. They said the game was great fun to watch, really competitive.
They said a lot more, but as you might have noticed by now, I keep deferring to what my friends said rather than giving my own version of the event. That’s because I wasn’t there—I cut school that day. Wasn’t sick. Just cut school. Who knew I would choose to cut school the one day I could have watched Lew Alcindor up close and for free?
Years later, Gilda and I watched the now Abdul-Jabbar play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. After the game we saw him walking on Seventh Avenue. Gilda remarked how tall he was (7’2”), that she could probably walk through his legs without hitting her head. Recalling what my friends said some 10 years earlier, I suggested that probably couldn’t happen.
You might also have noticed I didn’t relate to Kevin, nor to you the reader, who won the scrimmage. I simply did not remember as I was not there in person. There’s no Internet file of the game to search—secrecy apparently still prevails—but I did query several of my school mates who sat in the bleacher seats. They reported it was a close game ultimately won by Power Memorial.
The Internet did come to the rescue in my need to let Kevin know the winner. I hadn’t asked for his email or phone number. Actually, I didn’t even ask his name. He had said he was a retired fireman who lived in Valley Stream and that he was in the Power Memorial alumni association that remained active despite the school closing down in 1984.
With that information I sent an explanatory note to the president of the alumni association Sunday afternoon asking for help in identifying my tour pal. By 8 pm Kevin was identified and in the loop.
Back to the Tour: The Highbridge Water Tower was a critical part of the clean water supply system that enabled Manhattan to increase its population in the last third of the 19th century. Built in 1866-1872, the near 200-foot tower is located off Amsterdam Avenue and 174th Street.
Below the tower is the High Bridge, New York City’s oldest bridge. The High Bridge was part of the Old Croton Aqueduct system. Water would flow under the paved walkway linking The Bronx to Manhattan. The majestic arches support the bridge over the Harlem River (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Bridge_(New_York_City).
For several years Gilda and I have explored parts of the Old Croton Aqueduct, taking guided informational miles-long walks above the buried pipeline in both Westchester County and New York City. We highly recommend these free excursions organized by the Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (https://aqueduct.org/about-friends).