Utley Humbled At Selection To St.John's All-Century Team
After thirty plus years of finishing his collegiate and professional basketball career, Mel Utley had moved on to the next stage of his life.
Currently a substitute teacher, at PS 197, Utley has continued to be a mentor and be a friend to the young students of Rockaway. And it isn't far from where some of the students live at the Redfern Houses, where he grew up.
But when the postal service delivered a letter in early May to Utley's house, the contests of the information would bring back all of the basketball memories he has cherished like a rushing tidal wave.
The former star at Far Rockaway High School was selected as one of 50 past players to be honored for his excellence at St. John's University. The dinner, called "100 Years of Basketball Banquet" will honor past Red Storm legends with a dinner this Tuesday night at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.
The dinner celebrates the 100 years of basketball at St. John's, which is the seventh winningest program in the NCAA.
"I was very surprised because they sent me a letter they were going to have something on the tenth that was 1,000 a plate. I knew couldn't afford that," Utley said with a smile.
"I was shocked. I had no idea they would do something like that. It's an honor."
Utley, a quick and aggressive player, was at the school from 1972 to 1975 under coaches Frank Mulzoff and the legendary Lou Carnesecca.
He scored 1,243 career points and was just the latest Rockaway resident to attend the school and be named on the top 50 list, which also includes Al and Dick McGuire, along with former New York Knicks and Far Rockaway High School stand out John Warren.
To be named on the list of the all-century team, and be honored along with greats such as Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and others is a hunbling moment for Utley.
He's proud of the moment because Utley never took his talent for granted. Growing up in Redfern in the 1960's, Utley would play by himself in the back of the buildings.
His love of the game grew, especially with his older brother Kelly, who would attend Shore University, urging him on to play. Mel would take on older opponents on the floor because he wanted to get better. When he eventually grew to 6'4, and joined the Seahorses in high school, Utley was efficient on both offense and defense to be selected to the al-city team and other honors in 1971.
That raised his stock which attracted the likes of St. John's University and Marquette University. The latter was coached by Al McGuire, the feisty player, who with his brother Dick, dominated the Beach 108 Street courts.
Utley was impressed with McGuire and his demeanor, but it was family, especially since his mother was raising him alone, which kept him close to home and head to St. John's.
He doesn't regret the choice heading to what was then called the Redmen. Utley made the NCAA Tournament and two NIT appearances in the three years he played.
Utley keeps a big scrapbook of the newspaper clips of his days at St. John's. His greatest memory was hoisting the Madison Square Garden Holiday festival trophy in December 1972 as St. John's beat South Carolina, coached by Hall of Famer Frank McGuire and the University of Michigan.
But his professional dreams were dashed in 1975 when he was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft by Cleveland.
It was not only one selection away from being drafted by his hometown Knicks but unfortunately Utley was the last cut from the Cavaliers roster prior to the start of the 1975-76 season.
I wanted to go the Knicks or at least to tryout but they wouldn't release my rights," Utley said,
Utley would continue to play professionally in other leagues for the next few years but he had to make a decision.
"After a few years, my mother said I wasn't making a lot of money and I had to get a job."
Utley chose to mentor kids, which he did for 14 years running a group home that dealt with kids from the court system.It was a calling that allowed him to use his wisdom and guide youngsters who ranged from gifted to trouble and try to give them a chance to have a better life.
"I always treated people they way I wanted to be treated," Utley said. "You have to be humble and not have an ego. I'm from the streets. I'm from Redfern. I've dealt with a lot of kids who had problems. I was one when I was a kid. I was hardheaded."
Utley, a current Bayswater native, graduated from PS 197 as a youngster. So teaching at the school has made his life come full-circle. Raising his own family and continuing to help this extended family as a teacher has continued to make him proud.
"I know I can relate to those kids and some of them who have grown up come up to me and says I touched their lives. It still amazes me. It makes you feel good."