Former Memorial hoop great Gilloon now teaches kids in his hometown

Editor’s Note: Beginning this week, we’re going to institute a new feature, giving periodic updates on some of the Hudson County sports legends of the past. We begin the feature with perhaps the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Memorial High School, Jackie Gilloon.

In the early 1970s, if you wanted to see the flashiest basketball players around, you had to do one of two things. You could either turn on the television to Channel 9 and watch "Pistol" Pete Maravich light up the Knicks every now and then, or head to the Memorial High School gym and witness the wizardry of Jackie Gilloon.

The NBA had Maravich, with his floppy socks and his behind-the-back passes. Hudson County had Gilloon, who was almost an absolute carbon copy of "Pistol Pete," complete with dazzling passes and dribbling exhibitions. Gilloon was the local version of the highlight reel long before videotape was even invented.

Opposing gyms didn’t just watch Gilloon perform his basketball magic. They would "ooh" and "aah," in amazement, like they were watching the trapeze artist at the circus. And yes, Gilloon’s acrobatics were certainly death-defying, because they had never been seen in local circles before – and probably never were again.

Gilloon did model himself somewhat after the late Maravich, who died of a heart attack at age 40 in 1987. Gilloon was "Pistol Pete" reincarnate, down to the long, flamboyant hairstyle and the floppy wool socks.

"He was one of the first guys I saw play," said Gilloon, 44, last week. "He even sort of looked like me. I spent a lot of time in the playground, trying to be like ‘Pistol Pete,’ doing the same moves, throwing the passes behind the back. Only I was by myself, so I threw the passes into the fence. Actually, the dribbling came first, then the passing. I would spend 10 to 12 hours a day in the courtyard. I played a lot."

The tireless efforts on his own paid off, because by the time Gilloon arrived at Memorial in 1971, he was ready to make his mark as the finest all-around basketball player the school ever produced.

In 1972, Gilloon led the Tigers to the HCIAA North Hudson championship, but the Tigers lost a triple overtime decision in the county title game to Dickinson. In 1973, Gilloon’s junior year, the Tigers captured the HCIAA championship, defeating Ferris in the final – a game that featured a player taking a punch at Gilloon in frustration in the closing minutes. It marked the last time that Memorial won the county championship.

In 1974, Gilloon’s final year, the Tigers made it three straight trips to the HCIAA title game, but this time, they lost to Lincoln by two points. Gilloon scored 36 points in the title game.

"The rivalries were always so good in Hudson County," Gilloon recalled. "All of the county games were always so close. I used to love going into all the gyms and getting the feedback from the crowd. Getting recognized by my peers meant a lot to me. The crowds were always so great."

Gilloon graduated from Memorial as the school’s all-time leading scorer, with 1,340 points. He averaged 25 points per game as a senior and earned All-County honors three times and All-State honors twice. He was also named as a Parade All-American his senior season.

After Gilloon was the object of desire by several major college basketball programs, he decided to go to the University of South Carolina.

"It was a New York thing," Gilloon said on his decision to go to South Carolina. "There was a New York connection, with guys like Mike Dunleavy (the current coach of the Portland Trailblazers), Alex English (NBA Hall of Famer) and Tom Boswell (who played for the Boston Celtics). Bobby Cremins (the former Georgia Tech coach) is the one who recruited me. I never had been out of West New York, but I loved the way that Cremins treated me. He was a big influence on me going there."

Gilloon said that his career at South Carolina didn’t exactly turn out as planned.

"We never went to the NCAA Tournament, and that bothered me a little," Gilloon said. "We missed out on a lot of recruits and that hurt. I tried to get (current assistant coach and former Hudson Catholic great) Mike O’Koren to come, but he went to North Carolina instead. If I had to do it over again, I would still go, but we were up and down. We won the games we should have won and lost the games we could have won."

Gilloon had a fine career at South Carolina, playing for the legendary coach Frank McGuire. He ended his stay in Columbia as one of the Gamecocks’ all-time scorers, with 1,125 points and was No. 1 on the South Carolina assists list.

"People back home got to watch me on television every so often on Saturday afternoon, but it’s no way near to the way it is now," Gilloon said. "My senior year, we had a team that overachieved and did well. That’s what I’m proud of the most."

In 1978, Gilloon was drafted in the seventh round of the NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets, but never felt like he had a chance to make the team.

"I was so upset that I was drafted so low," Gilloon said. "On draft day, I was fighting back tears. I had an agent who told me that I would go early, but seventh-round picks don’t make the NBA. I went to rookie camp and Larry Brown (the current coach of the Philadelphia 76ers) sat me down and told me that I was better than he thought I would be. But they had a veteran team, with David Thompson, George McGinnis, Dan Issel, Alex English, so they didn’t keep a single rookie. I got cut."

Gilloon went back to South Carolina and had a couple of jobs there, before John Roche, a former South Carolina standout who also played in the ABA, called Gilloon and told him about an opportunity to play professional basketball in Argentina.

"In the pro league in Argentina, there wasn’t a limit on the number of Americans who could play, like in other leagues," Gilloon said. "I figured I wasn’t doing anything, so I’d go. I didn’t make much money, nothing to speak of. Most of the players received little money, like $3,000. But I was playing basketball."

It didn’t take long for the Argentine fans to appreciate Gilloon’s style of play.

"They are very passionate about the sport there," Gilloon said. "It’s not the same as playing for a team in the United States. In Argentina, you play for certain athletic clubs. I played two years for a Jewish club called Det-Am, which meant ‘House of Peace and Love.’ Then I was sold and played two years for a club called Independiente."

At the time, Gilloon was drawing comparisons to a 16-year-old soccer player, who was just beginning to set the world on fire. His name? Diego Maradona.

"Maradona was the best soccer player in Argentina and he was still just a kid," Gilloon recalled. "But he was very fancy with the ball, very flashy. When I got on the floor, the fans would yell, ‘Maradona, Maradona.’ And I understood. I thought it was the ultimate compliment."

In 1982, Gilloon received some tragic news from home.

"My father passed away, so I came home," Gilloon said. "I kept in shape, working out with Danny Callandrillo (the former North Bergen High School and Seton Hall star). He kept challenging me. I had one tryout with the Albany Patroons [of the CBA], but it was so bad that I walked out in the middle of it. I figured that was it."

Added Gilloon, "I was 28, 29 years old. I figured maybe it was time to move on."

So ended Gilloon’s brilliant basketball career.

Soon after, Gilloon got a job on Wall Street as a stockbroker, but he wasn’t as successful in the stock market as he was on the hardwood.

"I bombed," Gilloon said. "I failed miserably."

Gilloon remained on the floor of the Stock Exchange for six years before deciding that he wasn’t cut out for it. Someone recommended that he look into the possibility of becoming a teacher.

"I had a degree in psychology, so I just had to take the alternate route to get certified," Gilloon said. "I was a substitute teacher for a while, then I got hired permanently."

That was seven years ago. Gilloon has been a teacher in the West New York Board of Education since 1994 and has been at Public School No. 2 for the last five years, teaching seventh grade alternative students.

"I never thought I could be a teacher, because when I was a kid, I hated going to school," Gilloon said. "But it is fulfilling, helping these kids. I’m really glad I’m in it. I try to help the kids with life experiences as well, because it’s tough for them. The kids I teach have all sorts of problems and it gets frustrating for them. I just try to help."

Gilloon said that he has enjoyed not being in the spotlight for so long, being just your average elementary school teacher.

"I had my share of negative and positive attention in my life," Gilloon said. "I don’t need any more. And I’m not a glutton for money. I had a nice career and I have a nice life."

Gilloon was asked if his students realize just how good of a player he was.

"I try to incorporate it to them every so often, but I don’t dwell on it anymore," Gilloon said. "I don’t think of it on an everyday basis."

However, there are the times when someone comes along and remembers those days. When disco was just becoming king, when bellbottoms and platform shoes were the latest fads, when "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "Chico and the Man" ruled the television airwaves.

And when Jackie Gilloon electrified Hudson County basketball like no one ever did before.

"Every once in a while, I bump into someone that gives me a compliment about the way I played," said Gilloon. "That makes me feel good, that people remember." It’s very doubtful that anyone who saw Jackie Gilloon play will forget how great he truly was.


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