BY EDGAR KEARNEY
Memories of bygone escapades and exploits were awash when legendary basketball guru Julius Prezelski celebrated his 91st birthday with some of his closest friends.
It was a gathering that fueled smiles and laughter as the venerable mentor held court at The Ambers in the Grand Hotel in Carbondale on a bitterly cold Dec. 13.
A blanket of snow, a wet sometimes slick road and an overcast threatening more snow didn’t thwart the revelers from their travels, near and far, to honor their beloved teacher and friend. One, John McGoldrick, came from as far as Great Bend, Kansas.
“Next year,” one proposed, “we’re going to have your birthday in June.”
It was 1951 when the World War II Navy veteran embarked on a career that would span 42 years — 34 of them at Forest City — and amass honors galore, foremost being enshrinement in the scholastic record books for coaching his teams to a record-setting 747 victories.
Growing up in Forest City, his first love was football and he played it in high school, along with basketball and baseball.
“I started off playing halfback with Forest City High School, but then was switched to end for my last two years,” he smiled, “and that was good because at end I got more playing time.”
Lock Haven was his next stop, after high school, and there he starred on the gridiron, court and diamond while earning his degree that set him on the road to his dream of a coaching career.
And that’s when fate intervened.
Fresh out of college, he landed a coaching job in Oil City at the other end of the state. But before he packed his bags, he and his soon-to-be wife, Mary Markel, went to the movies at the Ritz in Carbondale and there met an acquaintance who told him of a coaching job at Waymart. The rest is history.
From 1951 until 1953 he coached both the boys and girls teams at Waymart, the baseball team and also was athletic director. Then he accepted a bigger challenge, at Mountain View, where he reprised his roles as AD, basketball and baseball coach and added track and field.
Two years at Mountain View would be his last stop before coming home to coach the Forest City Foresters where he spent the rest of his career and earned enshrinement in both the local and state sports halls of fame.
Among his former players at the celebration were Bob Matos and Walter Bullet who played during the late ’50s and early ’60s when the Foresters compiled records of 21-7 and 21-3 during two seasons and lost two of the games by a total of seven points.
“Coach did it all,” said Matos, whose career had him on Wall Street 40 years before coming back home to retire. “We supplied the enthusiasm. He supplied everything else.”
Matos also remembered how Julius maintained a stoic demeanor when confronting whatever life brought, good, bad or otherwise.
To that Julius remarked, “hey, I’m just trying to make it work.” Which he apparently did judging by his marriage of 49 years with Mary until her death in 1996 and their raising of four children, Julius in Maryland, Paul in the Philadelphia area, Denise in Maryland and Janice in Georgia.
One memory of Matos and Bullet that still brings a laugh to Julius is of a game at Susquehanna the season that team was powered by two players well over six foot each. Matos is close to six and Bullet a little under. Julius remembers hearing how the Susquehanna coach was bragging days before the game how his team would run Forest City off the floor. The exact opposite happened. Matos and Bullet, who each became a Scranton Times Athlete of the Week in different seasons, “ate those big guys up,” Julius recalls, a twinkle in his eyes.
Eventually Julius’ record number of victories was surpassed by a coach whose career spanned several years longer, a friend jokingly exhorted, “hey, let’s get back out there and take back that record.”
To which Julius replied, “I’m not chasing records anymore. I’m chasing life.”
Although the gym at the present Forest City Regional High School, built in 1963 has already been named after him, Prezelski’s impact on the Forest City program now is displayed more prominently.
At an alumni game several years ago, two decals were revealed on opposite ends of the gym floor that read “Julius P. Prezelski Gymnasium,” accompanied by “757” — the number of victories to which he led the Foresters before his retirement in 1993.
“The first thing I think about is the lives he impacted as a coach and an educator,” Forest City boys basketball coach Billy Jones once told sportswriter Tom Robinson. “We’re all here to win, but in the grand scheme of things, we’re here to teach kids life lessons. There’s probably not a player that he’s coached that doesn’t think of him at least once a day.”
Prezelski soon will yield the No. 1 spot as area’s leading boys basketball coach to Ken Bianchi of Abington Heights. Julius is 757-290 for 42 years. 44-11 for two years at Waymart; 53-14 for four years at Milford; 29-11 for two years at Mountain View, and 631-254 for 34 years at Forest City.
Ranking at the top of his standout players are his sons, Julius and Paul. Paul racked up 2,113 points playing for his dad, while Julius, the oldest son, followed him into coaching.
Years after his retirement, Prezelski believes the real measure of his success was not the numbers - 19 seasons with 20 wins, 12 league championships, 13 district titles. Instead, the evidence of his mark on Forest City was in the boys he coached.
“I think probably the biggest, most outstanding thing was I had a lot of nice kids, and I could work with them,” Prezelski said. “They stuck with me.
“I was fortunate. I played for a period of time when the kids were really with me 100 percent.”