Rich wasn’t your average Joe
Passion for game drove former Harbor star to great success
By KARL PEARSON
It’s amazing what creates a passion in a person.
When he was growing up in Ashtabula, Joe Rich came to basketball last. But once he started playing the game in seventh grade, it became almost all-consuming.
Once he was introduced to basketball at Columbus Junior High by Frank Knudson, there was no stopping the son of Joseph Rich and the late Lois Ward. He learned all the skills it took to function in the guard’s body he occupied in those early years, then carried them forward to function as the key component of Andrew Isco’s Harbor teams of the mid-1980s when he sprouted into a 6-foot-5 forward’s body.
“I can remember going up to Brooker Field and practicing for hours,” the 42-year-old Rich said. “In the winter, I used to even shovel off the court so I could work on my game. I can remember my mother coming to get me when it got dark because I had been out there so long.”
Because he possessed all the attributes and the work ethic that allowed him to play nearly every spot on the court, Rich became one of the great players in Harbor and Ashtabula County history, standing to this day as the 15th-highest scorer in county history with 1,178 points.
With the closure of Harbor, Rich will forever be known as the holder of the scoring record for the high single game by a Mariner after his 46-point night against crosstown rival Ashtabula during the 1986-87 season, breaking the old school record set by John Coleman, a member of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. He also grabbed 23 rebounds in that game.
He reached his peak as a senior, helping the Mariners compiled a 20-4 record, win an undisputed Northeastern Conference championship and reach the Division II district championship game at Lakeland Community College before their ouster by Chagrin Falls.
In the process, he shared Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year honors with Grand Valley’s Jimmy Henson and Coaches’ All-NEC Player of the Year recognition with Conneaut’s Matt Zappitelli, who is still Ashtabula County’s boys career scoring leader and is a member of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame.
JOE RICH of Harbor shoots against standout Jefferson center Jeff Fink as Falcon Rich Hudson (10) crashes to the floor during a game in the old Falcon Gym.
Now, those achievements are being recognized by Rich’s own induction into the ACBF Hall of Fame on April 10 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center. He will be joining a lot of the Harbor standouts he idolized and even others he played with Fred Scruggs. That’s not to mention the notable players he played against and Isco, his high school coach.
“It’s a great honor and a great accomplishment,” he said at the home he resides in in the Harbor district. “It’s an elite group of men, some of them guys whose records I broke, some I had the chance to watch when I was growing up and guys I even used to play with and against in the summer time.
“It was amazing watching guys like John Coleman and Andy Juhola play. I still got the chance to play against Andy when we got together for some of the alumni games up at Lakeside. I played with Fred Scruggs. And I’m fascinated to see the guys from way back when that I’m joining. It means a lot to be joining Coach Isco, too.”
The only negative part of his induction at this juncture of his life is that the person that probably had as much to do with getting him there as anyone won’t actually be there to see it. Lois Ward passed away on March 13.
“My mom is the one who pushed me in sports,” Rich said.
In fact, Rich would have enjoyed having his mother around to see more of his accomplishments on the court. But she spent most of that time caring for his mentally challenged brother, Scott, who still resides in Ashtabula. She left the duties of providing his rooting section to his brothers James Meade, who still lives in Geneva, Brad Mather, who lives in Ashtabula, Greg Mather, who now resides in Damascus, Va., and his sister, Sue Smith, who also lives in Ashtabula.
The one occasion she did get to see him play, Rich’s final game at Harbor’s Fawcett Gymnasium, he put on a show, leading the Mariners past a St. John team that included Herald stalwarts Jim Chiacchiero, Dave Golen and Steve Hanek. Rich scored 32 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in that game.
“It was the only game Mom ever saw me play,” he said. “It meant a lot to me. It made me happy to have her there, and I think it made her happy, too.” “I’m sorry she’s not going to be there, but I think she’s actually going to have the best seat for it all.”
“I was the end of the family tree, but I ended up being the tallest,” Rich said with a smile.