Long before he won the Pulitzer Prize, Stephen Dunn helped win basketball games.
His soft jump shots from the outside floated into the basket, often enough to earn him the locker-room nickname, “Radar.”
His game was soft, gentle. His poetry had the impact of a subtle elbow, making its point.
He found himself along the road from the Queens playground to the Hofstra College gym to the gatherings where he read his poems.
We watched him soar, higher in poetry than he ever did in basketball, but always one of us, a bunch of Hofstra jocks – student-athletes, actually – plus, one former student publicist who became a journalist.
The quiet bloke at our table at Foley’s, the great sports pub, was a big-timer, with the 2001 Pulitzer to prove it, not that he ever brought it up. Radar was always quiet, modest, observant, and accurate.
The last time I talked to him, months ago, he allowed as how he was now confined to a wheelchair from Parkinson’s Disease, and his voice was so badly shot that a good friend would have to read his latest work at some Zoom poetry gathering. Then it got worse, and Stephen Dunn died Thursday on his 82nd birthday.
Stephen was another advertisement for the Hofstra of the late ‘50s – when Hofstra was stretching from a suburban commuter college, making a pitch for city kids – Francis Coppola from Queens, Lainie Kazan from Brooklyn, Tony Major from Florida and Harlem, and Stephen Dunn from Forest Hills, Queens.
Stephen won a starting job as a sophomore, was the second highest scorer, but always quietly, hesitant to roar. He was a first-generation college kid, and did not know how it all worked.
But on one of our big-time road trips all the way to Allentown or Gettysburg, he was listening to two older teammates, Sam Toperoff and Dick Pulaski, talking about "Moby-Dick," talking with enthusiasm and insight and opinions.
Wow, Radar thought. He began to pay more attention in class, began to work at his writing. That was one epiphany.
The other epiphany was next season, matching up with a new player on the team, from a basketball family. “He could block my jump shot. He could steal the ball from me,” Stephen wrote in an essay, “Basketball and Poetry: The Two Richies.” (This lovely essay is in “Walking Light; Essays and Memoirs,” W.W. Norton and Co., 1993.)
“No one could free me from Richie Swartz. Richie Swartz turned me inward to where doubts are, and doubts, while good for the poet, are bad for the athlete.”
(The “good Richie” was another teammate, Richie Goldstein, who once fed Stephen for 45 points in a Press League game.)
When Stephen Dunn was a celebrated poet, he would often read from this essay, and when he was finished lauding Richie Swartz, Stephen would add: “You son of a bitch,” but lovingly.
Stephen was still a core player on the 1959-60 team that won 23 games and lost 1, and crushingly was not invited to any post-season tournament. Stephen surprised himself by playing a season in the Eastern League, crowding into a car with more celebrated former college players, for weekends in Williamsport and Sunbury, Scranton and Camden. He was a pro. Then circuitously, he became a poet.
Dunn’s life and career are best appreciated in the obituary by Neil Genzlinger, in The New York Times:
Stephen Dunn lived his final decades in an aerie outside Frostburg, Md., with his wife, Barbara Hurd, also a writer, specializing in nature.
They held occasional soirees, with friends from around the region, people who liked to write and read and listen and talk. And his legs gave out, and his voice gave out, and on Thursday, all of him gave out.
Happy Birthday, Radar. You can get off your feet, your jumper arching perfectly, into the basket.
This was always one of my favorite weeks, when I was working – the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament, when weird things could happen, and did.
I loved being in some arena, with eight – count ‘em, eight – teams still alive, still dreaming.
Teams I never heard of during the long season, teams with fresh nicknames and gaudy colors and wired coaches and peppy cheerleaders and sassy mascots. Sometimes we were seated near the college bands, with their own characters and sizes and shapes and hair styles. Sometimes they were more fun to watch than the game.
I have other events I love – any match in the World Cup of soccer, the U.S, Open of tennis in my home county, and just about any Mets game, because. Oops, almost forgot epic Stanley Cup finals of Islanders or Rangers, plus The Derby in Louisville, where we used to live.
I remember my pal Charlie Pierce always loved the Saturday of the Final Four, but I hold out for the opening day, for the unknowns, the upsets, the slippery slopes.
Take the first round in 1986. I was there, Perpetual contender Indiana was playing outsider Cleveland State. Before the game, Bobby Knight swaggered out to shake hands with his counterpart, Kevin Mackey, chubby little dude out of Boston. Some words were spoken, followed by cranky words and gestures from the terrible-tempered Knight.
''I said, 'Hey, take it easy on me, Big Guy,''' Mackey told reporters later. ''But, hey, he's no fool. I'll paraphrase his answer for you. He said: 'I'm not gonna give you any breaks out there.' ''
I’ll bet he paraphrased Bobby Knight.
Then, Cleveland State, seeded 14th in the region, promptly beat Indiana, seeded third, 83-79, and Knight, who liked to lecture reporters, said any fool knew that Cleveland State was loaded, with a guard named Mouse McFadden, New York City guy, who had somehow wound up at Cleveland State with an outlaw/outsider tag.
I have to tell you, it was fun. And the fun continued to the next day when Cleveland State showed up early for its off-day media conference and witnessed the players from Navy – particularly David Robinson, close to his ultimate 7-foot-1 height, in spit-shine shoes and uniform and polysyllabic vocabulary and braces. Mouse and his mates were clearly impressed by Robinson's polished interview.
Ten years later, double upsets on the first day: defending champion UCLA sleepwalked against Princeton, which cut them up with crisp interior passing, and I re-named the school “The University of Catatonia at Los Angeles.”
The same first round, tiny Earl Boykins, looking like somebody’s sixth-grade kid brother, helped Eastern Michigan stun haughty Duke, 75-60. In the closing minutes, Boykins dawdled with the ball, staring into the stands while dribbling. It was his night.
In the next round, little Boykins (admitting he might not even be his listed 5-foot-7) was beaten by Connecticut, whose coach, Jim Calhoun, raved that Eastern Michigan reminded him of his first coaching stop, with Northeastern in Boston -- outsiders, bootstrappers, who never gave up.
You didn’t have to be at the game. In 1991, I turned on the television and watched Richmond, seeded 15th, coached by Dick Tarrant, city guy out of Fordham, play a brainy, resolute game to knock off Syracuse, 73-69 – the first time a 15th seed had defeated a second seed.
The last barrier fell in 2018 when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, defeated Virginia, 74-54. For a list of major upsets, see this.
Last year, there were no upsets, no nothing. My alma mater, Hofstra, reached the finals of its conference tournament against Northeastern and Coach Joe Mihalich called a timeout and delivered an impassioned speech about playing the best five minutes of their lives – which they did, with baskets and stops and rebounds, and celebrated the victory for the next 24 hours….until the NCAA called off the tournament because some people in the country had figured out there was a pandemic going on. I later told Mihalich – a lifer, who made some of my old jock friends feel welcome -- that this was a great five minutes of coaching that he would always remember. Now Mihalich has missed this season for health reasons, and Hofstra fell short. Joe, you know what my Brooklyn Dodger fans used to say: “Wait til next year.”
I pay almost no attention to college sports these days, but I have memories. At this time of year, when fellow Irish-Americans celebrate, I know it’s time for the NCAAs. This year’s entire tournament is being held in Indianapolis, a traditional center of basketball in this country. The players will keep the game going until the world gets back to some semblance of normal, when we can pay more attention to stomping coaches and high-flying players and acrobatic cheerleaders and crowded stands – and wide-eyed student lunatics in the pep band blaring saxophones. Plus, upset time.
* * *
My 1986 column on Cleveland State:
My followup column on Mouse McFadden and how he got to Cleveland State:
My 1996 column on Earl Boykins:
When Indiana gave its heart to underdogs Princeton and Eastern Michigan.
The above quotation came from Ronny Thompson, a Georgetown basketball player back in the day, describing the leadership style of his coach, that is to say, his father.
John Thompson, Jr., the long-time basketball coach at Georgetown University, died Sunday night at 78.
He did things his way, defying any definition imposed by others. If you praised some aspect of his leadership or coaching, he bristled, blustered, maybe even dropped an epithet.
I got a first-hand view of his bombast in 1984, days before Georgetown won the national Division I basketball championship.
I had called the president of Georgetown, Father Tim Healy, to assess the impact of Thompson on his players, almost all of whom were Black.
''This is a man from the Washington area who is taking kids who don't have two coins to rub together and is literally teaching some of them how to use a knife and fork,” Father Healy said in my column before the Final Four.
“He knows just what he's doing, “ Father Healy continued. “And we at Georgetown support him in what he's doing.''
At the press conference before the Final Four in Seattle, Big John went off, loud and clear.
I distinctly remember him denying that he ever taught anybody to eat properly and I distinctly remember him saying: “I ain’t no Jesus Christ.”
He did not mention Fr. Healy or The New York Times (or me) but it was clear he had read the column and was not amused.
John Thompson surely had a powerful role in the lives of many of his players. Of the players who stayed with the program, the graduation rate was said to be 97 percent.
Some left early, to be sure, but while they were there, they all had to play relentlessly, without any frills to their game. Thompson once said a certain player would be all right as soon as he dropped “the old Boogaloo” from his game – meaning, fancy moves, fancy passes. He expected people to know what he meant by “the old Boogaloo.” No definitions.
In Thompson’s time, Georgetown had an academic advisor, Mary Fenlon, a former nun, on the bench. Fenlon, who passed in late 2019, was said to be witty and sociable, but in public she was as inscrutable as Thompson.
His model player was Ronnie Highsmith, an Army vet who was four years older than the stars and would lend physicality on the court and discipline off the court.
The players succeeded, under Thompson's model of discipline and education.
As it happens, I am currently catching up with the biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” by David W. Blight, published in 2018. (I believe that I went through grade school through college without ever hearing a mention of Douglass.)
The book tells how Douglass, the escaped slave, educated himself to become a writer and speechmaker and caustic critic of Abraham Lincoln when he saw fit. His larger-than-life persona pushed America toward the Emancipation Proclamation.
America has gained from black critics and activists. Early in my career, I ran into powerful figures like Harry Edwards, the academic, and Jim Brown, the football player, and Bill Russell, the basketball winner (for whom Thompson was an understudy for two years.)
Nowadays, athletes like LeBron James and Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery are setting a tone, just as John Thompson did once as a protest. My friend and colleague, Harvey Araton, AKA The Rebbe of Roundball, has a knowing column on Thompson, the activist, in the Tuesday NY Times.
Like Frederick Douglass, John Thompson did not talk about his feelings, his inner reactions. He had a posture and he stuck to it.
Ronny Thompson’s evaluation of his father was perfect.
* * *
My column quoting Father Healy:
Gus Alfieri still writes his own stuff – a rare accomplishment for any coach.
Alfieri won a championship as a college point guard and he coached a state high-school champion and he has, quite admirably, made himself into an author.
Alfieri’s latest book, just in time for the season, is “The Heart of a Champion: A Basketball Coach’s Memoir of a Championship Team” – about the 1973-74 season when he took St. Anthony’s from South Huntington, Long Island, to the new (and technically unofficial) state championship.
But the book could be about many coaches and many teams that jelled in that one magical year.
Alfieri was a hard grader as a coach and he remains one as a writer. He describes moving into coaching on Long Island, which was just beginning to produce basketball talent in the early 1960’s:
Larry Brown of Long Beach and Art Heyman of Oceanside, two strange birds from neighboring towns, took their personal animosity to North Carolina and Duke, respectively.
But they were seen as anomalies. When Alfieri, a Brooklyn boy, began coaching out on Long Island, Lou Carnesecca, who had replaced Alfieri’s beloved Joe Lapchick at St. John’s, wondered out loud if they were still using a square ball out there. (I had the same smug feeling, as a Queens boy, when I worked at Newsday in the same period.)
Alfieri describes a golden age way out there on the Island – Julius Erving and Mitch Kupchak and all the future coaches like Rick Pitino and Jim Valvano.
He also recalls a coach or two he thought was weak and he remembers taking over at St. Anthony’s and feeling that some of his upperclassmen were holding back, possessive of their starting positions.
Probably a few former players, well into middle age, will not be amused at Alfieri’s memories. But he built his own system, as coaches do, and he turned St. Anthony’s into a powerhouse.
His role model, as always, is Joe Lapchick, the courtly and angular coach of the Knicks and St. John’s, who advised his players to “walk with kings.” That first book clearly a labor of love, glows with the presence of Lapchick, and this new book retains much of the old coach.
As he coaches big games, Alfieri often refers to what Lapchick might do. In a tense locker room at the final game, a player asks to speak. Alfieri likes control, but his inner Lapchick guides him to let the senior address his teammates.
Alfieri is a hard worker. For his Lapchick book, he found a former teammate who had been guilty of dumping games and, after many decades, he asked him “why?”
In this new book, he does his homework and recreates the key plays in the rally over the very loaded Lutheran High.
(There is also good stuff about the machinations in creating the tournament, by the wily administrator Jim Garvey.)
But Alfieri’s work does not end with that championship and a subsequent state title. After coaching, he became a teacher, earned a doctorate, ran a basketball camp, and every November he organizes a charity luncheon, giving high-character awards to deserving coaches.
I always love the stories by the female coaches, who built their own traditions with minimal budgets and maximum heart.
This year’s award luncheon is Nov. 18 at the Wyndham New Yorker, across from Madison Square Garden. For information: http://www.characteraward.com/
Gus Alfieri will be speaking about his book at the wonderful Book Revue in Huntington, Long Island, on Oct. 18 at 7 PM. For information: http://bookrevue.com/GusAlfieri.htm
My previous piece about Alfieri and his Lapchick book: http://www.georgevecsey.com/home/honoring-gus-alfieri-player-coach-writer
For further information: www.gusalfieri.com.
Gus Alfieri writes his own stuff. This is no small accomplishment for any athlete, any coach, any public figure, who decides to put out a book.
Alfieri won championships as a player and a coach; now he is being honored with the Lapchick Character Award on Thursday in New York. After writing a biography of his mentor, Joe Lapchick, the coach of the Knicks and St. John’s University, Alfieri helped originate the Lapchick Character Award Foundation to honor coaches who demonstrate the good side of sports.
In a world of award ceremonies, this annual November luncheon is special. It comes up Thursday at 11:30 AM at the Wyndham New Yorker, catty-corner to Madison Square Garden, hours before the 2K Classic, benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project Coaches for Cancer doubleheader.
This is probably the most equitable awards event in any sport. No women are being honored this year but since the first luncheon in 2008 the Lapchick Award has gone to pioneers of women’s basketball -- Pat Summitt of Tennessee and Kay Yow of North Carolina State among others. In 2012 I loved hearing Cathy Rush, who won three national titles with tiny Immaculata in the 1970’s, telling stories about the low budgets, the buses and dicey flight connections, the recruiting.
Bootstrappers have great tales to tell. One of the best was Clarence (Big House) Gaines from Winston-Salem State, who died in 2005. His protégé, Earl Monroe will talk about him on Thursday. Another recipient will be John Kresse, who played for Lou Carnesecca at St. John’s and led the College of Charleston into Division I and the NCAA tournament.
Alfieri will be honored by his associates in the Lapchick Foundation, a no-brainer, considering this award was his idea. He is the epitome of the student-athlete that all sports schools like to envision. He played for Lapchick, helped win the National Invitation Tournament in his senior year – and kept going, right through a Ph. D. and a long run as coach of St. Anthony’s in Huntington Station, N.Y.
Later, Alfieri wrote “Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball,” published in 2006. Like any responsible author, Alfieri included the complex parts but also pointed out how Lapchick came to warn younger players about gambling after being burned by two teammates of Alfieri, and how Lapchick was a pioneer in race relations as a player, hugging his African-American opponent before every barnstorming game.
Alfieri is completing his next book, “Once in a Lifetime: A Basketball Coach’s Memoir of a Championship Team,” about his St. Anthony’s team that dominated New York State in the 1970’s.
For information: http://www.characteraward.com/
Somebody asked me what I think of the schism in the N.C.A.A. and I replied, “Not much.”
Frankly, big-time college sports lost me years ago. I had to cover it, moralize about it, until I stopped writing a regular column for the Times.
At that point, I didn’t have to write, or watch, or think. So much else to do in life.
From what I read of Thursday’s developments, the breakup of the N.C.A.A. is the logical extension of what I have been witnessing for decades.
I saw major universities bolt from traditional, regional rivalries in established conferences to pursue more television money. It’s all about the networks – and why should they care? If they have programming, that is their mission.
Education was supposed to be the mission of colleges, even the ones that are spinning off into a dog-in-the-manger Big Five. But I have never heard a valid argument linking education and big-time sports. The closest presidents and other apologists could come up with was that it got wealthy boosters on campus in September.
Possibly, some athletes in the new elite group will get paid more, have better health care, as they prepare for a professional career that few of them will achieve. I can assure you that the demands will be higher, also. What do you mean you have an afternoon lab? Go lift weights.
I don’t know what will happen to the leftovers in Division I. I saw my alma mater, Hofstra University, give up football a few years ago because of seven-digit losses every year. I ache for my friends who played football – and got educations – decades ago; their hearts were broken. Nowadays, students wouldn’t walk from their dorms to watch a second-tier football program. They’d rather watch Alabama or USC. on the tube.
Maybe more schools will be encouraged to give up football, to back off rogue basketball programs. The way I see it, the University of Chicago and New York University are doing fine since they took a big step back from professionalism.
My athlete friends got educations while playing sports at Hofstra back in the late 50’s and 60’s. I am in touch with some – a few teachers and entrepreneurs, a poet, a writer, a dentist, a few television executives, a major-league ball player.
They had teachers who would flunk them if they didn’t do the work. I don’t believe that is the remotely the case at big-time schools. I am always stunned when I hear that somebody got a degree while playing football or basketball, and I am impressed when an athlete shows signs of having opened his eyes and ears on a college campus. It’s been heading that way for decades.
The N.C.A.A. has been found out – not as universally sordid as FIFA, the world soccer body, but hypocritical on a domestic level. I was creeped out listening to the newest president, Mark Emmert, on his visit to the Times a few years ago: he was obviously a front man for networks and boosters.
One nice thing about retirement is that I can ignore college football and basketball. My sports more or less rotate from baseball in the warm months to soccer in the winter. More than enough. It is nice not to care. That's what I think.
Big-time college football brought that decision down on itself. The National Labor Relations Board decided Wednesday that Northwestern football players could be seen as employees, not just student-athletes.
The football and basketball powers have been exploiting athletes forever, certainly since schools learned how to make money off players’ names and images – providing huge salaries for coaches and administrators. The players allegedly get an education -- that is, if they can fight off the coaches’ demands that they lift weights and attend practices.
I'm kind of sorry I don't cover coal mining any more. I'd love to hear the reaction of some miners about the plight of the college boys -- probably a heady mix of chewing tobacco and invective. But still, it's a job.
How the schools would pay the athletes is another issue. Would there be a sliding scale? Would star players be able to negotiate? I have always maintained that big-time college football (and basketball) has no connection to education. Might as well hold rock shows to support school presidents.
The players learn: trust nobody. A perfect example is the mess involving Steve Masiello, who put together the Manhattan team that reached the national tournament this month. Masiello a protégé of Rick Pitino, demanded a lot from his players, but college sports are a one-way deal. This week Masiello tried to skip to South Florida. That happens all the time, with hot-shot coaches moving on for more money, leaving the players behind.
It turns out that Masiello does not have a degree from the University of Kentucky, as he claimed. Now South Florida will not take him, and it is unclear if Manhattan will have him back.
My first reaction was that Manhattan could claim some form of family loyalty toward the prodigal coach and let him come back, waiving its own rules requiring a degree. But his claim of a degree could surely be construed as a lie, contempt for the school that gave him a chance. What is the lesson in that?
Much of big-time college sports are based on a lie – coaches recruit players, schools cut corners, athletic departments put one over on the public in order to entertain the public. In other words, life itself.
Since I stopped writing a sports column regularly at the end of 2011, I find I have a visceral distaste for big-time football and basketball. I know how these spectacles are put together.
Since I have not been paying much attention, I rely on the observations of others. This is what Doug Logan wrote about the Masiello case, in his weekly essay.
SHIN SPLINTS 2014
BY DOUG LOGAN
Coach, what the hell were you thinking?
A week ago Steve Masiello, 39, was on top of the world. The men’s basketball coach for the Manhattan College [located in the Bronx, not Manhattan] Jaspers had just taken his gutty team of New York City playground veterans to the second round of the NCAA tournament. His opponent was the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals, coached by his mentor, Rick Pitino.
The bonds between Masiello and Pitino are longstanding. Pitino was the head coach of the New York Knicks in the late ‘80’s. He had this hard-nosed, city-raised kid, Masiello, as one of his ball boys. Later, Pitino recruited him to play for his 1996-2000 University of Kentucky Wildcats. After his college career as a player, Masiello learned the coaching profession at the knee of his guru, serving a stint as an assistant coach at Louisville.
Their coaching styles are identical: a swarming defense, fast-breaking offense, and helter-skelter energy up and down the court. The tournament game was very entertaining. At times Masiello knew exactly what Louisville was going to do: he was actually calling out their plays from the sidelines. Manhattan had a three point lead with three minutes to go but could not overcome the Cardinals’ experience. They gave up two critical three point shots by Luke Hancock and lost 71-64.
It is not unusual for coaches to leverage a positive tournament outcome into a bigger job. As a matter of fact, Manhattan has served as a crucible for coaches to go on to more lucrative positions. Fran Fraschilla took a Jasper team to the NCAA tournament and was rewarded with offers, first from St. John’s then from New Mexico. More recently, Bobby Gonzalez parlayed his success at Manhattan by accepting a better position at Seton Hall. Masiello was no different. He had a 60-39 record at Manhattan over three seasons. Last weekend the rumors had him accepting the vacancy at the University of South Florida [USF] in Tampa. The five year deal to coach the Bulls was all but announced, with a salary reported to be in the $1M per year range; a big raise.
Then, the inexplicable happened. It was reported that USF had rescinded their offer. The reason seems to be that Masiello had declared that he had a college degree from the University of Kentucky and that appears not to be true. Manhattan has subsequently announced that they have suspended their erstwhile coach pending an investigation into his educational credentials. He may have lied to them, too.
Sports imitates life, but in a more dramatic fashion. From hero to goat in six days. Top of the mountain to the depths of the valley in less than a week.
The philosophers all tell us that if we don’t study the mistakes of the past we are destined to make them in the future. All Masiello had to do was to take to heart the tragedy of George O’Leary. In December of 2001, O’Leary was forced to resign as head football coach at Notre Dame, arguably the most prestigious coaching position in the country. This after a mere five days on the job! It was revealed that O’Leary, former coach at Georgia Tech, lied on his application for the Notre Dame job by stating he had a Master’s Degree in education from NYU [where I now teach]. O’Leary was publicly humiliated and was forced to labor in obscurity as an NFL assistant. He has experienced redemption, of sorts, but his current job as head coach of University of Central Florida [UCF] pales, in comparison, to his prior potential glories.
Did Masiello think he could get away with it? Probably. The psyche of some of these coaches is such that they feel that all they have to do is deliver wins and that everything else is irrelevant. And, the market place appears to validate this hubris. Less than two years ago, Bruce Pearl was fired as head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. Pearl was caught lying, repeatedly, to NCAA officials who were investigating recruitment infractions. Last week Pearl was hired by Auburn University.
Sometimes all you have to do is to use the “eye test” to make judgments about character. Masiello is a pugnacious, in-your-face screamer. He paces the sidelines, berating his players, howling at the referees and playing the bully. He is loud, boastful and boorish. One can easily foresee him acting in a deceitful way if it will help him to win.
There are many ways one can overcome the lack of a specific credential in a job search. Usually that requires transparency, honesty and a bit of humility. But deceit, of this type, is, and should be, disqualifying. The role of coach, in my view, is not only to facilitate successful outcomes in athletic contests, but also to prepare young men and young women for the game of life.
Coach, you falsely claimed a degree in Communications. You might think about going back to finish and take a course or two in ethics.
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
--Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen
It’s mid-March, the weather is miserable, and the Big East is in the Garden.
This was the best basketball conference that ever was, because it was Big and because it was East – players and fans, bundled up, road salt on their shoes, with a case of the sniffles, playing in the most noted basketball arena in the land.
Ewing of Georgetown. Mullin of St. John’s. Pinckney of Villanova. They all went to the Final Four one year.
We know the names of the defectors who joined football conferences, putting their students out of reasonable driving range for road games, teaching the great lesson of college sports, which is screw loyalty, screw history. Go for the money.
Somehow the Big East stays alive with 10 teams, some of which I could not name -- 10 colleges that cannot afford legions of football players on their campus.
All I know is that St. John’s and Georgetown and Villanova and Providence and Seton Hall are still around.
I smiled at the photo in the Times of Val Ackerman, the new president of the newly-configured league, sitting in an empty league office. It was her statement: The league of Looie’s garish sweaters and Big John’s style statement is still intact.
They are a walking advertisement for that elusive blend of sports and education – starting with a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Stephen Dunn, all 12 a credit to themselves and the school.
My guys from Hofstra College, circa 1959-60, knew the academic apparatus of that modest commuter school would flunk them right off the team if their grades slipped.
The basketball team from that year, which won 23 games and lost only one, is being honored Saturday by induction into the Athletics Hall of Fame. There is a dinner at 4 P.M. followed by a lacrosse game against sixth-ranked North Carolina.
That team was coached by Butch van Breda Kolff, the former Knick, who would later coach Bill Bradley at Princeton and bench Wilt Chamberlain in a championship loss with the Lakers. They still hear Butch’s piercing whistle in their nightmares.
I was a student publicist on a workship. Saw them up close, kept track of their assists and rebounds, sometimes did the public address, called the results into the papers, and listened to Butch and his assistant Paul Lynner tell great stories at diners, very late at night. That was an education, too.
I’ve written a lot about that team over the years:
The shot by Bob Larsen of Wagner for the only loss of the season. We caught up with Larsen last year in New York:
There was a reunion in 2000, when the players and school got to thank Butch one more time:
But the main thing was, the players went to class – even after late bus rides back from Pennsylvania. They knew the team had been decimated a few years earlier because players were not getting the grades.
This was a small, serious place, where first-generation college students were getting an education. The president was John Cranford Adams, a Shakespearean scholar whose dream was not the basketball team being invited to the National Invitation Tournament but building a permanent home for the Globe Theatre – now the John Cranford Adams Playhouse, a wonderful place. Francis Ford Coppola produced original plays in that building. He was our classmate. Lainie Kazan sang in the musicals. She was also a classmate.
(Did I mention that our football team was 9-0 in 1959? Alas, our aging classmates do not feel part of that any more, since Hofstra abruptly terminated the program in 2009.)
Most of the basketball players are coming back on Saturday, some of them with rebuilt hips and knees after all the torque they put on their bodies. (One of them has a reinforced aorta from a recent operation; others are survivors of this and that; thank goodness for modern medicine.) Stevie Balber, the bow-legged point guard from Brooklyn, who gave everybody nicknames, has passed on.
In 2000, I wrote, “They took their educations and went about being responsible adults.” I mentioned Adam Gadzinski an accountant; Bob Stowers a teacher; Ted Jackson a parole hearing officer; Stan Einbender an endodontist; Curt Block for many years a vice president for media relations at NBC; Richie Swartz a furniture salesman; Bob Lauster a salesman for I.B.M.; Richard Goldstein, operating the family shoe accessory business; Stevie Balber the chairman of a direct-mail company; John McGowan an engineer; Stephen Dunn, poet and teacher; and Brant Alyea who played 361 games in the majors.
I cannot wait to stand at the fringe of these guys I admire so much, and hear the stories – often about Butch. I love Brant’s stories about being managed by Ted Williams and Dick Williams. The players recall how Stowers could do a standing leap from the floor of the gym to the stage at one end of the court; how Swartz could lull you into submission in practice and then flick the ball away with his long arms; how Einbender – the 6-4 captain and leading rebounder -- blew a dunk in the closing minute of his final game and walked straight to the bench, to save Butch the trouble of hauling him off the court for showboating.
They could also talk about the modest commuter college that was doing things right. Their lives reflect that.
* * *
In a totally different time, Hofstra appointed a new coach, Joe Mihalich, on Wednesday. Mihalich, the coach at Niagara for 15 years, replaces Mo Cassara after a turbulent season. Mo put his heart into the school. I wish both of them well.
* * *
Stephen Dunn wrote a lovely essay about his education from Butch and Hofstra, on a site called sbnation.com but the link does not seem to be working without signing up for the site.
WHAT THE CAPTAIN SAID:
(I went to school nine straight years with Stan Einbender, from JHS 157 to Jamaica to Hofstra. We are closer than ever. I enjoyed his remarks on Saturday when Hofstra honored the team, and I enjoy his second thoughts on Sunday. I saw him chatting with a member of the great 81-82 women's team that had such spirit at the dinner. That was one thing we did not enjoy in our time -- visible female athletes. How much richer sports are today with competitors like the women from 81-82. Here are Stanley's remarks GV)
AT THE DINNER:
Speech for ’59-’60 Team
First I would like to thank the committee that gave us this great honor, President Rabinowitz and Athletic director Jeff Hathaway who both seem committed to restoring Hofstra Basketball to the standard that we set. I listened to the news conference on my computer on Wednesday to introduce Coach Michalic and was encouraged that this was a good first step to reaching that standard.
I was the only senior on the team, and I assume that was the reason I was asked to say a few words. I know that some of the other players might be more articulate, such as Steve “Radar” Dunn, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, or even my longtime friend George Vessey who was not a member of the team, but has written many articles about our team in the NY Times. I was eager to take up this task because of the fond memories I hold for this team and our accomplishments, and my gratitude to Hofstra University for giving me the opportunity to compete and get a great education which led to my career as a dentist for 40 yrs.
It is very apropos that we be inducted into the Hofstra Athletic Hall of Fame as a team, because we were the best example of a team. There was no superstar on our team. I believe we had at least five players that averaged double figures. Under the guidance of Coach Butch VanBreda Koff and Ass’t Coach Paul Lynner, we were not interested in who shot or who scored, but only leaving all we had on the court and winning. As our 23-1 record showed, we did a pretty good job.
A successful basketball coach is depends on his recruiting and being able to get his role players to accept their job. Butch had an easy time with the ’59-’60 Team, because we were all role players.
Some players today do not realize what a privilege it is to compete in any inter-scholastic sport, especially at a great school like Hofstra University where we could also receive a great education.
In closing, I would like to mention a conversation I had with Coach Van Breda koff. After leaving Hofstra for the second time, he would return for certain basketball functions. It was very annoying that we seemed to age and loose some hair, and the Coach seemed to stay the same with that boisterous voice. The last time I saw him he looked quite frail. He was suffering from the Parkinson’s Disease that took his life, but he was alert enough say to me, “Stanley, these players today are better athletes, but you guys were better basketball players”. That meant a lot to me then and I am sure it does to all the members of the ’59-’60 Team. It still means a lot to I stand here now.
EINBENDER'S THOUGHTS ON SUNDAY
Last night, I, along with my teammates from the ’59-60 Hofstra basketball team, received the long awaited recognition by being inducted as a team into the Hofstra University Athletic Hall of Fame. Our record of 23-1 stands as the best record ever established by a Hofstra men’s basketball team. As expected, the University put on a great show with lengthy introductions, a great meal, and most important, the recognition of our accomplishments. I was given the honor of speaking for our team, which gave me a chance to thank Hofstra for the great memories that I still hold. The best part of the evening was the ability to renew old friendships with my teammates, many who I have not seen for over 50 years. When I am not looking in the mirror, I still see myself as that smiling person holding the basketball in the ’59-’60 team picture. After seeing my teammates from that team, I realize that our time as basketball players has passed, but at least we definitely had our time. I hope these renewed friendships will continue and we can all keep seeing ourselves as we were in that picture. I believe that those memories will help us to survive in fleeting years that remain.
ESPN.com is reporting that seven Catholic basketball powers are talking about leaving the Big East. It’s a little late for that, since the Big East left them years ago, opting for football bowl money and damaging the heritage of the conference.
There’s nothing left – a bunch of strangers in a cuckoo conference, sending softball players and soccer players on long plane rides for conference matches, spending fortunes to justify incoming fortunes from the football television pool.
It’s all gone wrong. The presidents of the seven schools should take a deep breath and get out. The original partners slipped out the door years ago, leaving a bunch of strangers lounging around the premises with more strangers on the way. Have a little pride. Get out.
The survivors cannot leave out of sheer nostalgia. Eddie Pinckney and Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin are not coming back to play in one of the most amazing Final Fours ever – 1985. In less than a decade, they created one of the great basketball conferences ever, but then television football loot made everybody crazy.
They need a new model. They could call it the Northeast Quadrant Catholic Basketball We-Know-Who-We-Are Conference. Stick to the business of offering a focused education on essentially urban campuses.
Big-time hoops are still a risky business for St. John’s, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Providence, Villanova, DePaul and Marquette, but at least they can get back to a more clear self-image and not get over their heads in football, with its gigantic rosters, bowl shenanigans, concussion legacies and recruiting frenzies.
Know thyself. The Ivy League has been stable forever. New York University gave up the big time, all for the better. City College educates New Yorkers rather than entertain gamblers and strangers. Nobody’s ever persuaded me what big-time sports have to do with education, anyway.
Big-time basketball is still something of a dance with, you should pardon the expression, the devil. But the football arrangement was blatantly Faustian.
If the survivors turn out the lights on the Big East as they go out the door, it doesn’t matter. The party’s over.
The ESPN story: http://espn.go.com/new-york/college-sports/story/_/id/8742607/seven-catholic-schools-leaning-leaving-big-east-sources-say
I once met somebody who worked for a company that designed airplane parts. She said the most dangerous day of the year was the Monday before the college basketball tournament, because everybody in the firm – for that matter, most Americans with access to a computer – was busy filling out brackets.
It was bad enough that the company computers ran slow, she said – everybody ducking low in their cubicles, looking for upsets.
What made it worse, she said, was that she suspected the intricate calculations were affected by the preoccupation with the madness. Mistakes were being made on slow computers, she feared. And what if they affected the curve of a wing, the snugness of a rivet?
It was like the old automotive truism about not buying a car built on Monday. And for that matter, don’t buy a car built on Friday. Now we had to worry about airplanes planned on the Monday of madness?
I have no way of knowing how right she was. (She was not a sports fan, I got that point pretty clearly.)
However, I was reminded of that conversation on Monday when I filed what I thought was a fairly lucid critique of the HBO film about the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign.
The hits for that posting were 300 percent below my normal cadre of staunch loyalists.
Where was everybody? Picking Syracuse to go all the way before Fab Melo was dropped for academic deficiencies?
Maybe nothing will be normal for the next three weeks. Sunspots? Global warming? No, the N.C.A.A. tournament.
I’m watching Napoli-Chelsea on Wednesday, not filing.
Just hope that woman from the aviation company was exaggerating.
Nothing against Louisville and Cincinnati, which were due to play in the finals of the Big East Conference on Saturday -- but this is not the same conference and it’s not the same event that emerged from the damp and cold in the early ‘80’s.
This is the first time that at least one original member of the Big East was not in the final. Not that the final game means much – both teams are always going to the N.C.A.A. tournament anyway.
But continuity should count for something. Not that the Big East could continue to be Patrick Ewing against Chris Mullin. Players move on. But a conference needs some critical mass of charter schools to retain its identity. Now it’s over. The need for big-time football members killed a great regional basketball conference.
For sure, nothing against Louisville and Cincinnati. Once upon a time they were the locus of my family life. We lived in Louisville in the early ‘70’s and drove up to Cincinnati for deli from Izzy Kadetz (I’m old enough to remember the real Izzy, scowling from behind the counter) and major-league baseball – and then it was back across the Ohio, and the sweet rolling countryside of northern Kentucky to the pleasant life of our temporary home in Louisville. I remember the excitement when Louisville played Cincinnati in some all-over-the-place conference whose name I forget. But I mean no offense when I say, these two finalists do not fit the heritage of the Big East.
That was a conference based on head colds – people in grungy raincoats with the liners still inside, emerging from the drifts of New England, the lake-effect snows of upstate New York, the Amtrak-Turnpike jumble of the Middle Atlantic states.
If you had the sniffles, you belonged in the Big East. What a wonderful concept.
But Boston College split, and the Big East violated its roots and admitted Miami and Virginia Tech, and they vanished for the allure of King Football.
Pitt and Syracuse and West Virginia are now here in body but not in soul. Temple is joining? Makes sense, but too late. You shoulda been here a decade ago.
Houston and Memphis pop up on a basketball schedule two years from now. I could have sworn I saw T.C.U. mentioned in connection with the Big East. T.C.U?
The members hop around like mock characters on the games on my grandchildren’s electronic devices.
Might as well call it something else.
The Virtual Conference.
The Big East was fun while it lasted.