January 27, 2010

by Pete Spiewak '10

After leading his team to a Philadelphia Catholic League championship, Matt Guokas, Jr. had more than a few options when it came to where he would play basketball at the next level. He may have decided to take his game elsewhere briefly, but Guokas knew where he truly belonged: the City of Brotherly Love.

At first, Guokas fell for the allure of a state school in the Sunshine State, choosing to attend the University of Miami after graduating from St. Joseph's Prep. But it didn't take long for the Philadelphia native to have a change of heart, and after spending one season in Miami, Guokas chose to come back home. With one phone call to Hawk Hill from Guokas' father, Matt Guokas, Sr., Dr. Jack Ramsay's squad went from good to great, adding the young Guokas via transfer.

Guokas knew he wanted to play in the Big 5, and his choice to come to Saint Joseph's was a rather simple one, considering his family ties to the school. His father, a Saint Joseph's Athletics Hall of Famer, helped St. Joe's basketball become a national force in the 1930's. Under Bill Ferguson, Guokas, Sr., a consensus All-American in 1938, was a member of the "Mighty Mites" -- six players named for their lack of size -- whose smothering defense carried Saint Joseph's to a 54-17 record from 1934-38. Al Guokas, Guokas, Sr.'s brother, played under Ramsay in the 1940's.

Ramsay welcomed Guokas, Jr. with open arms. For a year, Guokas, who had to sit out one season because he was a transfer, practiced with the Saint Joseph's freshman team, which happened to have a future Hawk legend of its own in Clifford Anderson. Together, Guokas and Anderson would quietly develop chemistry outside of the national spotlight. That season, the varsity Hawks would go 18-10 and reach the NIT, but few knew that Saint Joseph's was about to become a national power once again, with Guokas and Anderson both being able to play varsity in the 1964-65 season.

Going into his sophomore campaign, his first with the Hawks, Guokas not only felt comfortable because he was playing alongside Anderson, but also because he was sharing the court with former high school teammates Tom Duff and Billy McFadden. In fact, most of his new teammates were well aware of his talent, given the fact that many Hawks played high school ball locally. The team's starting five included Anderson (Edison High), Marty Ford (West Catholic), Billy Oakes (Bishop Neumann), and Guokas and Duff from St. Joe's Prep -- each from within a six-mile radius of Hawk Hill.

It would take little time for Guokas and the Hawks to grab the nation's attention. Saint Joseph's won its first 10 games -- four of which came against teams ranked in the top 20. That run included wins over #4 Davidson, #7 St. John's, #7 Illinois, and #12 Wichita State, all of which occurred in December of 1964.

The Hawks would reach as high as #3 in the polls that season thanks to the success they had against a challenging non-conference schedule.

Guokas, the team's third-leading scorer with 13.3 points per game, was a reliable scorer for St. Joe's, but that is not what he is remembered best for. The 6-foot-5 guard was a playmaker who used his great vision to set up his teammates to score. Over the course of his illustrious two-year career at St. Joe's, Guokas averaged over five assists per game. He was not a prototypical point guard, however. He was a great passer -- one of the nation's best -- but was not a true ballhandler. So, utilizing his strengths, Ramsay put Guokas in positions where he could catch the ball and make a play off of the pass, instead of having him dribble the ball and look for a teammate. Many times, Guokas would be placed in the high post, and would feed teammates Anderson and Duff underneath the hoop.

Guokas had a great feel for his teammates and he used his passing ability and basketball smarts to become one of the best players in the country, eventually earning All-American honors in his senior season. When he had the ball in his hands, good things would happen for the Hawks. Always confident in his guard, Ramsay once referred to the unselfish Guokas as "almost mistake-proof." The biggest concern around Guokas was whether or not his teammates would catch his passes that would seemingly come out of nowhere--he would sometimes surprise his teammates just as much as he would defenders with his unpredictable, but precise, passes.

After getting wins over the four ranked teams in December of his sophomore season, Guokas would lead Saint Joseph's to a phenomenal season--the Hawks only lost once in the on their way to a 25-1 regular season record during the 1964-65 season. St. Joe's would win its opening round game against the University of Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Providence College, the team who delivered the Hawks their only regular season loss, in the regional semifinal and North Carolina State in the regional third-place game to give St. Joe's a 26-3 record at season's end.

After an outstanding sophomore season, Guokas and the Hawks would not catch anybody by surprise in the 1965-66 season when Saint Joseph's was chosen as the pre-season number-one team in the nation by Sports Illustrated that year.

With a target on their backs, the Hawks took a small step back from the previous year, going 22-4 in the regular season. However, they built momentum towards the end of the campaign, winning the final nine games of the season, including a win over #8 Providence in the regular season finale. Oddly enough, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the Hawks were once again matched up with the Friars. And the Hawks made sure to return the favor and eliminated Providence, just as the Friars had done in the prior season to the Hawks. But, in the next round, #2 Duke would bounce Saint Joseph's, 76-74. The Hawks beat Davidson the next day in the regional third-place game.

Incidentally, one of the most memorable moments in Hawk history happened during that season. In a tied game against Villanova, backup guard Steve Donches picked up a loose ball and drained a baseline jumper as time expired to give Saint Joseph's the 71-69 win over the Wildcats.

What most fans don't know about that game is that it was Guokas' gutsy performance that allowed the Hawks to be in that position late the game and avoid the upset to unranked Villanova. Feeling weak and nauseous, Guokas was struggling to get up and down the court. During a dead ball stoppage about five minutes into the game, Guokas was bent over at the foul line, looking ill, when Ramsay sent backup Steve Chapman to the scorer's table. Boldly, Guokas refused to come out, and Ramsay compromised, allowing the guard to stay in the game "for a few more minutes."

As the Donches shot went in to win the game, Guokas was still on the court. He played all 40 minutes.

Following that season, Guokas decided to forego his senior year on Hawk Hill and entered the NBA Draft, where he was selected ninth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, where he would continue to be successful.

Guokas and his father are one of three father/son pairings to have both won the NBA championship. The Guokases share that honor with Rick and Brent Barry and Bill and Luke Walton. During his one season at Miami, Guokas, Jr., was actually Rick Barry's roommate.

Former Hawks and Lakers head coach Jack McKinney, the man responsible for controversially putting the 6-foot-6 Magic Johnson at point guard, says his decision to do that was influenced by watching Guokas play for Saint Joseph's. And rightfully so, as Guokas' 5.7 assists per game over his career on Hawk Hill is still a school record, since tied by Jameer Nelson.

Today, Guokas is the television color analyst for the Orlando Magic, ironically working for the same organization off the court that Nelson leads on the court. Hawk fans of all generations know how Nelson took the team on a historic ride to a perfect regular season in 2003-04, but it was players like Guokas, long before Nelson was even born, who built the foundation of an outstanding basketball tradition at Saint Joseph's.

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