Francis “Stretch” Meehan
Born: April 18, 1898
Died: February 5, 1968
Francis P. Meehan was born April 17, 1898 in Newark. Taller than boys many years older, he quickly earned the nickname “Stretch.” Basketball was less than two decades old when Stretch began playing. He was unstoppable in schoolyard games and continued to dominate contests in high school at Seton Hall Prep. Stretch didn’t have much of a scoring touch and didn't run the floor particularly well, but he was so strong in the pivot and under the offensive boards that he was constantly fouled by frustrated defenders. He made frequent trips to the free throw line, where he was a better-than-average shooter. Stretch was also adept at running the offense through the pivot—one of the developments that helped speed up the rough-and-tumble game. He was so large that he could screen two defenders simultaneously and hand the ball off to a cutting teammate.
Stretch was a superb student and easily passed the entrance exam for Seton Hall. He played four varsity seasons for the Pirates basketball team, which went 40–7 during that span. Frank Hill coached Stretch, further refining his game.
Stretch had been the tallest man in the college game at Seton Hall, and continued this claim to fame as a pro. Actually, he started playing professionally during his final varsity season—under the name Hurley—in both the Penn State League and Connecticut State League. It wasn’t unusual for college stars to pick up a few bucks playing where they wouldn’t be recognized. However, it was unusual for college-educated men to continue in pro basketball after graduation.
Stretch was a notable exception. He was a member of three different Eastern League finalists in the three years after leaving Seton Hall—and played for a good many more. For example, in 1919–20 he suited up for the Scranton Miners (who came within a point of winning the Eastern League title) and the Germantown Geraniums. He also played a handful of games for barnstorming clubs in Newark, Jersey City and Stamford, CT—often receiving $50 or more per game.
In 1920–21, he teamed with Nat Holman and Elmer Ripley to lead Germantown to the Eastern League championship. The trio also suited up for the Scranton Miners that season and, joined by Dutch Dehnert, they took the Pennsylvania State League title.
The following season, Stretch was the star of the Trenton Royal Bengals, who faced the New York Celtics in the finals. Stretch completely outplayed Horse Haggerty of the Celts, but New York took the series.
In the days when each basket was followed by a center tap, Stretch was a valuable commodity. Rare was the time when he did not get his hand on the ball before a shorter center. Opponents devised plays to intercept his taps, but Stretch and his teammates had plays of their own to avoid this. If a defender guess wrong, the result might be a 2-on-1 break or an uncontested layup. Referees whistled a lot of jump balls at this time and teams were allowed to designate a player, which made Stretch doubly valuable. If two players grabbed the ball under the basket, the jump ball was held on that spot. Stretch became quite good at tapping the ball directly into the basket.
Stretch played for a number of league and independent clubs in his home state during the 1920s, including the Paterson Legionaires and a team that played home games in Orange. The pace of basketball began to pick up during this era, especially with the coming of the American Basketball League. Stretch played for the ABL Philadelphia SPHAs in 1926–27 with Tom Barlow the team's only non-Jewish players) and was one of the league’s top draws. However, age and injuries were already wearing him down—he missed so many games that season that the SPGHAs had to sign another big man.
Stretch played his final pro season in 1929–30 during the death throes of the ABL, moving from the Celtics to the Syracuse All-Americans to the Paterson Whirlwinds.
Throughout his pro career, Stretch was a drawing card. He was impossible to miss with his towering height and dapper mustache. As he moved on to a second career, he was aided by both his intellect and notoriety. Stretch had used his basketball income to pay for law school. He graduated with a degree from Fordham in 1923 and had established a practice successful enough to survive the Great Depression. He became involved in Newark city politics during the 1940s and was named President of the Board of Education in 1946.
Stretch stayed in touch with his old basketball buddies, many of whom went into coaching. He especially looked forward to the dinners they arranged in Manhattan, particularly at Whyte’s on West 57th Street. They were all members of the Old-Time Basketball Players Association.
In the winter of 1968, Stretch was riding the bus to work when he suffered a heart attack. He passed away at the age of 69