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Former basketball star recounts championship glory

Community ProfileFormer basketball star recounts championship glory

John Dignan established himself as a basketball standout throughout the 1960s and 1970s with success on various Brantford-based programs, as well as, with the McMaster men’s basketball team.  

Dignan, who had a chance to play on the much-revered CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) Brantford basketball program, explained its early beginnings.  

“In its first year [the Brantford Boys CYO Basketball Association] had about 30 players and then it grew from there going back from the mid-50s. It was started by Paul Mitchell and Rev. Harvey Roach to teach young kids to play the sport of basketball. So that’s how it started back in those early years,” explained Dignan. “Brantford always has success in basketball because of the CYO program…and the program always brought up stars over the years; players that went on to good university careers.”

Dignan then went to St. John’s College in Brantford and then to McMaster University where he joined a respected basketball program already achieving early success.

“I played there for the Marauders under Coach Bill Fowler. We had a lot of local players from the Hamilton St. Catharine’s, and Brantford areas [and by my second year] we got to the Canadian finals, which were hosted at McMaster. We ended up losing to UBC (the University of British Columbia) in the final game, but it’s the furthest the program has ever gotten,” Dignan continued. “There were three players in that team that got selected to the All-Canadian team from that tournament including Paul Mazza, and Jim Noble and myself. All three of us all got inducted to the McMaster Hall of Fame in the years following that [and for me that] was the crowning glory of my basketball career.”

Seated from left to right are John Dignan, Paul Mazza, and Jim Noble of the McMaster Marauders during the Championship Game in 1970. Dignan would go on to score 40 points. All three players would be selected as all-stars. Photo courtesy John Dignan Archives.

After graduating from McMaster, where he studied both physical education and psychology, Dignan went on to continue playing basketball, and being a part of several winning teams.

“I played senior basketball in Hamilton for a couple of years [as] Brantford didn’t have a senior team at that point. We had quite an outstanding senior team in Hamilton; and had a former ABA (American Basketball Association) player in Bob Croft [and] a few of the Hamilton Tiger Cats were on our team as well,” said Dignan. “We ended up then getting a team going in Brantford with the Saints and we competed with teams from Woodstock, Hamilton, Sarnia, and London. We had a fair amount of success, winning the provincial championship with the group of Brantford players, which I was part of in 1974.”

Dignan and the Brantford Saints continued their success and in 1976 won a second provincial championship crown.  

“That was the same group of players [which were] all local players…[many] of us played university basketball [and] some of us were high school stars at the time. [We] had a nice combination of good shooters and effective guards…and we went on to win another championship,” said Dignan.

John Dignan played point guard for the McMaster Men’s team from the late 1960s to early 1970s. He was named the MVP in the 1969 Ontario-Quebec playoffs. He would go on to coach and referee for close to 15 years. Photo courtesy John Dignan Archives.

Along with basketball, Dignan also played rugby with the legendary Harlequins program in Brantford.

“I was part of the original team that toured Wales in 1969 with players like Dave Clark and Bob McGeein. That was my first major trip with the Harlequins. Then I played for a number of years there, having success winning a few provincial titles,” Dignan said.

While Dignan thrived on the court and the field as a player, he also translated that experience as both a referee and coach.

“During my last few years at university, I started refereeing basketball including university and high school games. Ron Foxcroft, who invented the Fox 40 Pealess Whistle, was one of my mentors as a referee. I refereed a fair amount and I also did a lot of coaching with the CYO program,” recalled Dignan. “The way the program worked back then is once you got through playing you, ended up coming back to coach and mentor younger players. I did a lot of that [and for a] number of years I coached and ran the boys and girls CYO programs for a while and we had quite a few successful teams. My last coaching stint was when I helped out at Assumption College and coached their junior team in the early 1980s.”

John Dignan (from a screen grab of the Celebrating 60 Years of CYO Basketball video) talks about his experience being in the CYO basketball program. Photo courtesy Brantford Boys CYO Basketball/Screen Grab Celebrating 60 years of CYO Basketball video.

With close to 15 years under his belt as a referee and coach, Dignan decided to step away from it as injuries were catching up to him, however, he continued to maintain success in his full-time career as a sales professional, including some time with IBM.

“I’ve been in sales most of my entire life, so when you’re involved in sports, you develop the team chemistry and relationships [and] that has always helped me,” he said. “No matter what sport you play, it helps you to develop friendships that lead to success later on in terms of sales ability and building relationships.”

For his athletic success, Dignan was enshrined in the McMaster Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991 and into the Brantford and Area Sports Hall of Recognition in 2013 as part of the 1976 Brantford Saints Ontario Intermediate A Basketball Provincial Championship team.  

“It’s quite an honor when you look at the history of McMaster in particular [and the] Brantford Hall of Fame with some of the great athletes that we’ve had here. I knew a lot of them [and] it really hits home,” Dignan continued. “It’s nice to be rewarded for the work and dedication you put in…I still have a lot of people come up to me who have gone through the McMaster Hall of Fame and have seen my name there. It’s nice to be remembered in that sense [and it’s a] real honor to be with that group of people.” 

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