Over the years, descriptions of Bill Cronauer were pretty consistent.
He had “a Xerox machine for a mind, at least when it comes to reciting the height, rebounding average and eye color of the small forward for Howdy Doody High,” the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1981.
He was “a loose jangle of perpetual motion,” Sports Illustrated reported in 1984. “A young-looking 41 with brown hair that flops straight down on all sides of his head…”
He “has lugged his 6-foot-4 frame around the country seeking, then rating, the top high school players in the nation,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1995. “He talks to coaches and cronies deep into the night, hours on end about such things as if a kid from Poughkeepsie can drive to his left.”
But maybe Dick Vitale said it best in a phone call last week.
“He was a basketball fanatic,” said the famed analyst and former coach. “He could tell you every player, their strengths, weaknesses. I respected the heck out of his knowledge.”
Mr. Cronauer went from the sports desk at the St. Petersburg Times to running a trusted scouting service to hosting invite-only camps with some of professional basketball’s future greats. He wasn’t himself a player. He didn’t coach young stars.
But he knew how to find them and give them the shot he believed they deserved.
Mr. Cronauer suffered from multiple health issues including kidney failure and dementia. He died July 22. He was 77 and lived in Pinellas Park.
An untapped opportunity
At 6-foot-four, Mr. Cronauer could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with basketball’s towering players, but he was not there reliving his glory days.
Despite his height, Mr. Cronauer didn’t play basketball as a kid in Wellsville, N.Y. He played Little League and tennis. Basketball caught him later in life.
At the Times, Mr. Cronauer worked the night shift on the sports desk as the slot man, writing headlines, drawing pages and orchestrating the nightly chaos into order on ink and paper. He was friendly and no-nonsense, with a great sense of humor, said former colleague, friend and Times contributor Roy Peter Clark. And while managing the gush of stories and breaking news, Mr. Cronauer became a whirlwind, said Dave Scheiber, who also worked the desk then.
“As soon as the deadline hit, the switch flipped back to his normal, jovial self.”
In the late 60s, a friend asked Mr. Cronauer to go to a tournament in Mississippi to check out some players. “Soon I realized most coaches weren’t aware of the Black talent out there,” he told the Times in 1995. He also realized there weren’t many scouting services and started his own.
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His breaks and time off became consumed with basketball, said former colleague Roger Fischer.
As Mr. Cronauer traveled to high school tournaments to watch players, his wife, Vicki, would help him type up a monthly report, which he’d mail to a growing group of subscribers.
“His job was to inform college coaches what was going on, what players he’d seen,” said friend Peter Watchmaker. “At that point in time, he knew virtually all of the coaches.”
And he knew talent when he saw it. At a tournament in the mid-1970s, Mr. Cronauer was evaluating one player when the skills of an underclassman caught his attention.
“The kid was an Everett (Mich.) High guard named … Earvin Johnson,” the Times wrote in 1995.
“But it wasn’t like I discovered the kid,” Cronauer said. “I mean, soon after, everyone in the country knew about Magic. It didn’t take a genius or an expert to figure out how good Magic Johnson was. The important part is tapping that unknown talent.”
Mr. Cronauer soon started working on another idea that he hoped would help that untapped talent thrive.
In 1977, Mr. Cronauer turned his insider expertise into a new business with B/C All Stars Basketball Camp. He worked with co-director Bill Bolton to run several one-week camps that year, Sports Illustrated reported. It soon grew into a rival of Howard Garfinkel’s Five-Star camp.
Mr. Cronauer was making $100,000 off his scouting service by the mid-80s, according to Sports Illustrated. He often snuck kids who couldn’t afford the $300 to $400 camp in through the back door, literally, and he gave scholarships to talented players who needed them, said David Jones, who coached high school boys’ basketball for 42 years.
“He was responsible for more kids getting scholarships, for more kids getting exposed to college coaches,” said Stan Hardin, a camp coach who later ran its operations. “He had a vision that was 20 years ahead of himself.”
When she was little, Lisa Salem would lay on the floor of her dad’s home office, pretending to sleep. She was really listening to her dad’s calls.
“Every other word would be a cuss word.”
After she told him what she’d heard, Mr. Cronauer found a small wooden box and promised to pay his daughter a quarter per forbidden word. One night, she says, she made $20 out of one call.
He signed her up for basketball when she was 4 or 5.
In high school, her dad convinced her to try out for an Amateur Athletic Union team, and she loved it. She played through college, and got used to her teammates’ teasing when she asked coaches and players if they knew her dad.
He never missed a game.
High school basketball has changed since a lanky man in short shorts started tracking every player he could. But Mr. Cronauer believed that success was about more than just luck and talent.
He’s still right about that.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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