Puckett deserves Hall of Fame recognition

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Puckett deserves Hall of Fame recognition

The Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame is one of the most distinguished organizations of its kind, overflowing with tradition and pride. But it built its reputation on football, so basketball has taken a backseat over the decades.

An examination of the Catholic League's Hall of Fame roster reveals fewer than 25 former basketball stars, including two NBA players of note, Mount Carmel's Lloyd Walton and St. Francis de Sales' Eric Anderson.

Others are Art Hicks, Sam Puckett, Tom Kleinschmidt, Melvin McCounts, Kevin Boyle, Jim Stack, Steve Krafcisin, Steve Puidokas, Ken Redfield, Donald Whiteside, Jeff Carpenter, Greg Carney, Jack Stephens, Mark Zubor, George Janky, Frank Ehmann, George Bon Salle, Ron Feiereisel and Joe Bertrand.

Interestingly, LaRue Martin of De La Salle, who was the No. 1 choice in the 1972 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, ahead of future Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving, hasn't been selected. The 6-11 center played at Loyola and once created a lot of buzz by outplaying UCLA's Bill Walton in a college game, but never caught on in the NBA and retired after the 1975-76 season.

Longtime city basketball observer Shelly Stark rates Stephens, the former Mount Carmel football and basketball star, as one of the five best players he has seen since 1950--along with Public Leaguers Sweet Charlie Brown, Clarence Wordlaw, Paxton Lumpkin, Abe Booker and Jamie Brandon, as well as Catholic Leaguers Greg Carney, Tony Parker, Art Hicks and Sam Puckett.

But, largely because the Catholic League didn't join the Illinois High School Association and didn't begin to participate in the state football and basketball playoffs until 1974-75, many of the Catholic League's great athletes and coaches have been overlooked when the subject turns to Hall of Famers.

When the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame and Museum in Pinckneyville announced its first class last November, only one Catholic Leaguer was among the 60 male inductees--St. Elizabeth's Art Hicks.

The second class was announced recently and not a single Catholic Leaguer was selected among the 20 inductees. Interestingly, the class to be inducted into the Catholic League Hall of Fame on Thursday, May 3 includes one basketball player, Norb "Gooch" Lewinski, who played at Mount Carmel and joined Stephens and Joe Bertrand at Notre Dame.

Sam Puckett is a personal favorite. He is a member of the Catholic League's Hall of Fame, but few high school basketball fans outside Chicago have ever heard of him. He was a legend in the city. Only 5-foot-9, he put Hales Franciscan on the map, locally and nationally, and scored more than 2,600 points from 1967 to 1970.

He led Hales to three consecutive National Catholic championships and to the Catholic League title in 1970 and to second place in 1968. His 1970 team lost to Public League champion Harlan 72-66 for the all-city crown.

How good was Puckett? When future Hall of Fame basketball player Isiah Thomas enrolled at St. Joseph High School in Westchester, he was asked what uniform number he wanted to wear.

"No. 11," Thomas said, "because Sam Puckett wore No. 11, and Sam Puckett was the best player I ever saw."

He was a Parade All-American. He scored 49 points, breaking Austin Carr's record, to win the National Catholic championship in 1970. He is widely regarded as the best under 6-foot player in state history.

Curiously, he was recruited to Hales Franciscan as a 5-foot-7, 110-pound quarterback with Ricky Brooks, who later played football at Iowa. He chose Hales Franciscan over St. Philip and Fenwick because they offered full scholarships--lunch, bus fare, books, tuition--and it was a new school that was trying to establish an identity.

He was recruited by Notre Dame, but also received fliers from dozens of colleges and coaches who expressed interest in him. However he never visited any other campuses besides Notre Dame, even though Cazzie Russell wanted him to visit Michigan. Maybe they were turned off by his size or his 17 ACT score.

He was accepted at Notre Dame and was never told he didn't qualify. He attended classes before the season began, then was informed that he couldn't play. After the winter break, he transferred to Jacksonville to play with Artis Gilmore. But he didn't think it was the place for him and he returned to Chicago, then went to play at an NAIA school in Hawaii for two years, then the University of Hawaii as a senior. He never pursued a chance to play in the NBA. At 24, his basketball career was over.

But he won't be forgotten. He grew up in an era when Cazzie Russell was the biggest name in town, then George Wilson before him. In the mid-1960s, Eugene Ford and Rich Bradshaw were headliners.

"Your reputation depended on who chose you to play, how you performed," Puckett said. "At that time, you made your name before you played for a school. People knew you. I played at Marillac and Gladstone and Garfield Park. And I played in Maywood against Jim Brewer.

"We knew where to go to put your name on the map. I made my rounds. I had to have skills. I had to handle the ball. I got the ball to the open man. I kept everyone involved. There were playground legends and team players, guys who got wrote about and guys who didn't get wrote about."

Everybody knew how to spell Sam Puckett's name.

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

For the past two seasons, David Accam was a bright spot on bad Chicago Fire teams.

This season, with more talent on the roster, Accam has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league.

He had a hat trick and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win against Orlando. That gives him 10 goals and six assists on the season. Only two other players in Major League Soccer have 16 combined goals and assists, New York City FC's David Villa and teammate Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goal-scorer in the league).

“I thought I could do anything on the pitch today,” Accam said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself and entertain the fans and also help the team win. That’s what we did today, especially after my first goal. I just thought I could get more goals and also help the team win.”

Accam’s big game comes after he sat out the previous two games, which were both played on turf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, but coach Veljko Paunovic said, “he didn’t recover from the physical issues that he had in the previous game.”

The rest seemed to do Accam some good, but his success in the game (as well as his recent run of eight goals and four assists in his last eight matches) coincides with questions about his future. He was recently rumored to be the target of a Turkish club.

In the past, Accam has spoken about his ambition to play at the highest levels. Typically, that means Europe. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said last month that he expects offers to come in for the 26-year-old because he is a good player in his prime ages.

So is Accam playing like someone trying to earn a new contract? That could be either impressing potential suitors in Europe or boosting his negotiation position with the Fire. Rodriguez has talked about contract negotiations with Accam before, and said those will not resume again until after the season.

“I wanted to be in a team where I would develop as a person and also win trophies, whether here or somewhere (else) I don’t know,” Accam said. “For me, I’m doing really well here and every year if I keep playing well there will be always interest. I know there is a lot of interest because I’m doing well. For me it’s always extra motivation to keep doing well. You don’t know where I will end up, whether here or somewhere else. I’ll just keep playing.”

Accam’s play earned him another call-up to the Ghanaian national team. He will join the team on Sunday for a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The Black Stars will take on Mexico in Houston on June 28 and the U.S. in East Hartford, Conn., on July 1 as the two North American countries prepare for the Gold Cup.

“That’s where I want to be,” Accam said. “I want to be playing for the national team so it’s extra motivation for me to perform well and also to go to the national team.”

Accam has been one of the most productive players in MLS this year, based on goals and assists, and is young enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams. For now, the Fire have him as a key part of the best season the club has had in years.

“I think that he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates that he is surrounded with,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We just have to work to give David opportunities… Then we expect that performances like that will come even more.”

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