While unicorns and perimeter-shooting big men run rampant in today’s NBA, former Gorton great Bernard Toone was one of the first of his kind.
There was no three-point line back in his heyday, but there was no mistaking or underestimating his shooting range, combined with his ability to dribble, defend and score.
“He was way before his time as a big man,” said Lowes Moore, who had some battles with Toone as a Mount Vernon player. “Being 6-8, 6-9, handling the ball, shooting the jump shot. Guys that size, you see them as power forwards and center, but he was a wing. When he was young, he got all that guard work, then he had a growth spurt. He was already like a grown man, playing with the boys.”
Gymnasiums were filled to the rafters whenever he and his talented Gorton teams took the court, with everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of the All-American standout.
“The JV played first, and if you didn’t get in at halftime of the JV game, the gym would shut down,” said Morris Crute, longtime friend and 1974 Gorton High School graduate. “If you came just for the varsity, you couldn’t get in. People would be yelling out the door, hollering, ‘What’s the score? Who’s winning?’ Even the parking lot would be full of people.”
Even decades and years later, those images and memories still persist in those that got to see him play. Toone died at the age of 65, following a battle with cancer. Family, friends, former teammates and fans paid their respects at a memorial service on Friday in Yonkers.
“You look at the whole Westchester County, even up to today, and you judge centers and power forwards, Bernard has got to be in the top three,” Crute said. “All the way up until today, 70s until now, can’t even find a kid now that’s as good as him. Just think, he was playing with Dr. J.”
He was one of the highly sought-after recruits in the country, coming out of high school. Toone graduated from Gorton in 1975 and played for hall of fame coach Al McGuire at Marquette in college. He played an instrumental role in Marquette’s 1977 national championship run. Toone was featured in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called, “Untucked,” which came out in 2014.
He averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game during his senior season at Marquette and also earned All-American honors in college.
“There was this succession of great basketball players back then,” said Dr. Jim Bostic, who also was an All-American and 1971 graduate of Gorton High School. “Bernard came and added a dimension that nobody had seen before, because no one had ever seen a person his size de él do the things with the basketball that he did. He was beloved in our community, and we’ll remember him as one of the greats of all time.”
Toon: Bernard Toone, member of 1975 NCAA championship team at Marquette, dies at 65
After finishing college, he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the NBA Draft in 1979. He played alongside NBA great Julius Erving, who took Toone under his tutelage. The Sixers reached the NBA Finals in his rookie season, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Afterwards, Toone took his talents overseas, playing in Italy, Venezuela and Germany for several years.
“There was this little teenager in Tuckahoe looking up to him as he played ball in Yonkers,” said Rev. Frank Coleman, referring to the way he idolized Toone growing up. “We even sat and listened to the championship game on the radio in our living room, anxious and excited every time they called Bernard’s name. We didn’t care if it was a turnover, or a missed shot, when they called his name, we got excited.We followed him to Marquette and went crazy for Marquette, when they won the national championship.
“When he was drafted and played for the 76ers, I was watching the whole time. Then, they told me he was now playing overseas. You want to talk about somebody being mad at the 76ers? But, I was so happy to know he was still using his talents and sharing and playing basketball.”
After his playing days, Toone returned to Yonkers, but always seemed to be the same person he always was.
“He was just a gentle giant,” said his cousin and former teammate Sonny Winstead, who graduated from Gorton in 1973. “I don’t even think he was aware of who he was. He didn’t walk around like he was that Dude. Ball was what he did, but he did it so naturally that he dealt with it naturally. When he fell off years later and got older, he was the same person then. Before the fame, during the fame and after it, he always stayed constantly the same person.”
While he might not have acknowledged his status as a star, those that fondly remember him regard him as a Yonkers legend and one of the greatest basketball players to emerge from the local area.
“The Toone family, they were part of the fabric of Yonkers,” said Symra Brandon, a former longtime neighbor of the Toones, who now works as the Director of Community Affairs for state senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “Bernard was a mentor, people looked up to him. I remember his mom, I remember his dad, and they were all proud. We were all proud, and Yonkers was proud. He was a hero to many, just the idea that we had somebody reach that potential.”
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Toone is survived by his former wife Carol Giddins Toone, and his three daughters, Lacrecia Toone, Je’Nette and Je’Nelle Watkins. He also leaves behind his grandchildren, Derrick Williams, Christopher Watkins, Jasmine Watkins, Mya Watkins Tapia, Kailee Wall Watkins, Brooklyn O’Conner, DaRell, and two great-grandchildren, Amiah Williams and Kalynn Hill. He also had two siblings, a brother, Christopher Toone and a sister, Kim Toone Saidykhan, as well as nephews Quentin Toone, Justice Williams, Tyler and R’Mani Saidykhan, and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
“I would like people to remember him as a basketball player, for being a mentor and being a coach for the youth,” Je’Nelle Watkins said. “He was fun, he was crazy. He was full of life. He always laughed, and you couldn’t be around him for long without smiling, laughing or him cracking a joke or making me laugh. He was full of life, and he just tried to help all those around him.
Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay.