Big Gene

“Are you Ackerman?” Gene Guarilia asked after working his way through a crowd in the back yard of Thomas R. Kelly’s home in Duryea, surprisingly in search of me.
I did not have to ask who he was. He was head coach of the first-ever Pittston Area basketball team, but more than that, he was the guy with the four NBA championship rings.
It was the night of my high school graduation, June something, 1967, and we were at Mr. Kelly’s (he was our principal) for a party. His daughter, Janet, was our classmate.
“That was a heck of a speech,” Mr. Guarilia said to me, “and I just wanted to congratulate you.”
I was one of the speakers earlier that night at the ceremony at Masonic Temple in Scranton. We were the first Pittston Area graduating class and we didn’t have an auditorium big enough to hold the crowd. There were 367 of us. We attend school in three different buildings — Pittston, Duryea and Hughestown — and had never been together as a group until graduation practice, held at the old Jenkins Township High School. A good number of us did not know each other let alone the teachers from those other schools.
As I think back, my speech was some nice, safe, Patriotic message which ended with, “From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” It was just the kind of speech you’d expect from a “goodie two shows,” which I was.
But Mr. Guarilia liked it and it was generous of him to go out of his way to tell me so.
While he had my attention, he asked where I was going to college and when I said Wilkes, he snapped, “Wilkes? Why aren’t you going to Stanford?”
One reason was that, valedictorian or not, I didn’t even know what Stanford was. No one in my family had gone to college and the only options ever presented to me, either by my mom or dad or anyone at school, were King’s or Wilkes, both about 8 miles away from home. I chose Wilkes because it was co-ed. King’s was all male at the time.
Mr. Guarilia meant no offense to me or to Wilkes, I’m sure, but his reaction, I’ve come to realize, was one of a guy who had been around. Just a small town boy like me, his basketball prowess had led him from his little hometown of Duryea, Pa., first to George Washington University in the nation’s capital and later to Boston where he played four seasons with the famed Celtics and earned those four rings.
If anyone should doubt the basketball chops of Gene Guarilia, by the way, I always remind them he was one of only 90 men playing in the NBA back then. There were just 9 teams with 10 players on each team.
Because he had “seen the world” so to speak, or at least the nation, Gene Guarilia thought big. That’s where his Stanford remark came from. I didn’t know anything about thinking big.
Neither Gene Guarilia nor I would have dreamt it that night in Duryea, but just a year later I was interviewing him on a regular basis and writing about his Pittston Area teams as sports editor of the local paper, the Sunday Dispatch. I was offered the job that summer, before I even set foot on the Wilkes campus. I held it right through my college career and beyond.
Getting to know Gene is one of the highlights of my life. He was always completely ands bluntly honest, incapable of pussy-footing around a reporter’s question. I loved his candor. Still do.
Watching him coach was a thrill. I recall him teaching one of his guards how to use his body to protect the basketball. Gene took the ball and started to dribble. “Try to take it off me,” he challenged the player. The high school kid was fast and talented and Gene was 50 pounds overweight by then, but there was no way that kid was going to get the ball. That’s what a former Celtic looks like, I thought, even at Gene’s age.
The best picture I ever got of Gene Guarilia, though, was through the eyes of former Pittston Area football coach Bob Barbieri. Gene may not know it, but he has no bigger fan than Coach Bob.
Bob and Gene were at George Washington at the same time. Bob often talks about being at the university in late summer for pre-season football practice and seeing his old friend Gene Guarilia arrive on campus. Gene would be fresh from working out all summer, a good 235 pounds of sheer muscle packed on his 6’7 frame. “Then,” Bob will go on, “I’d see Gene halfway through the basketball season. He’d be down to about 215. That’s how much weight he’d run off.”
Bob Barbieri says without hesitation Gene Guarilia is the most gifted athlete he’s ever seen. “Everything came easy for him,” Bob has often told me. “He would go up on a diving board and look like an Olympian.” Whether it was ping pong, or darts, or anything, Gene would excel, even if he never played the game before.
Bob also says Gene Guarilia is the most charming person he’s ever met. “Everyone at GW loved him,” Bob always says. “He could do no wrong, even if he tried.”
I was unable to attend the recent dedication of the Pittston Area basketball court in Gene Guarilia’s honor and I’m sorry I missed it. It is an honor well deserved.
Gene Guarilia is an unforgettable human being. His name on the court will be an everlasting reminder of that for all who have never had the pleasure of meeting him.
For the record, the Gene Guarilia court is located in the Thomas R. Kelly Gymnasium. That’s the same Mr. Kelly in whose yard Gene and I first met. It’s also the guy who coached Gene Guarilia in high school. Such connections are what makes living here great.

Ed Ackerman