An All-Star Centaur Shines at a Carnival of Opportunities

Posted on May 14, 2013

My junior year at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales — forty years years ago this year — we Centaurs ended our season at 6-and-11. A brutal campaign by any measure, it boasted, so to speak, a nine-game losing streak and defeats by … 212721515529366 and 18 points.

(Click a number, any number, to read about each. Time for just one? “I CRIED FOR 15-20 MINUTES” tells all you need to know.)

The saving grace is that we went 4-and-2 over the last six games. Our coach, Jack Saboda, somehow convinced us at 2-and-9 to put the ghastly opprobrium of the first eleven games behind us – forget it, fellas —  and look only forward, our season begun anew. And so we did.  It was one of Jack’s best mentoring moments in the three years I played for him. His guidance allowed us to end the season on an improbable up note – 4-and-2! — feeling good about ourselves and looking forward already to next season.

That next season coming, of course, will be my senior year, 1973-’74, my last chance to get it right, to be a player, to prove – though to whom I was never sure (myself, most likely) – that all 6-feet-8-inches of me should have played basketball in high school. Last chance.

There was however one more basketball game played that ’72-’73 year at Billera Hall, and it must be mentioned. With spring upon us a team of Lehigh Valley college all-stars – featuring our own Centaur, Dennis Ramella, the school’s first 1,000-point scorer, and Jack Saboda as coach – squared off against the Big 5 All-Stars, up from Philadelphia, in the first-ever Lehigh Valley Collegiate Classic to Benefit Multiple Sclerosis.

The Philly draw was Tom Ingelsby, a recent second-round NBA draft pick of the Atlanta Hawks, the Villanova star who’d played against UCLA in the 1971 championship game, and the high school best friend of Centaur senior co-captain  Chris Cashman, who’d been the manager of the Philly Catholic prep team on which Tom had starred.

For added glamour, the Big 5 contingent was to be coached by one of our Oblates, Bob Devine, himself a Philly school-boy hoops legend and a three-year ironman for a Top 10 Notre Dame team.

But before we get to the game, a word about our sponsor.  Because the All-Star tilt was, in truth, a fairly small part of a much wider campus extravaganza: the Allentown College Multiple Sclerosis Carnival in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.

Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales  — and I’ve said this before – was a make-it-up-as-you-go-along place back then, right then. Brand new, out there somewhere in the middle of some cornfields. A couple of buildings. That’s it. In the absence of everything else a college is supposed to have, the only resource the school really had was its students, and so we were tapped into constantly to find the next idea.

What-d’-ya-wanna-do?

I dunno, what–d’-YA-wann-do?

I KNOW! — let’s do a carnival!

That, more or less, or at least kinda-sorta, is how the MS Carnival happened, as remembered by John Cooper (the guy who played me onto the bench this junior-year season now ended, although that’s another story).

Says Coop: “I still remember sitting in Zeke’s room, and he was talking about how he wanted to do something and he’s saying, ‘What do you think about having a carnival on campus?’ I said, ‘I can get us rides and amusements.’ Zeke says, ‘What’re you talking about?’ I said, “I’ve been doing this stuff since I was a kid; my dad used to run the carnival for the Catholic War Veterans and stuff. He knows the carnies.’ Zeke says, ‘You think we can do that, a carnival?’ “I said, ‘Sure!’ ”

It was more complicated than that. But it was also just that simple.

“It was the Center Valley phenomenon” that made the MS carnival (and pretty much everything else) happen at the school back then, says Bob Zeccardi, the “Zeke” in Coop’s remembrance. Our ability to make something out of the nothing was unique to time and place.

“I saw a group of people come together to make things happen in a way that I think defies logic,” Zeke wrote me in an email about “our tenure” in Center Valley — or, as he calls the place, “Never-Never-Land.”

And so, all but pulled from that Center Valley soil appeared a carnival with rides and betting booths and food stands and dunk tank and all-star basketball game and Todd Rundgren concert one year, everything squeezed into less than a week, virtually everyone at the college involved somehow.

“What made the place so great was our ingenuity, our creativity, our spontaneity,” Zeke told me. And it was unique to where we were, and why we were there, the place just getting started.

“It all comes back to the same thing: We were given this opportunity. There was an environment created that allowed us to do things that I don’t think happen at a lot of other places. I look back on some of the crazy stuff we asked people to do. In the environment I work in today? People’d say, ‘What are you, Bob, NUTS?’ But I never experienced that there. From the people above us or our friends around us.”

And now, back to the Lehigh Valley Collegiate Classic to Benefit MS.

It was a foregone conclusion, of course, that the Big 5 All-Stars would win. They had Inglesby, after all. And Craig Littlepage, the star from the University of Pennsylvania — Ivy League Penn still being a ranked power. Plus some other guys who had to be good because, well, we’d seen them play on television. The Lehigh Valley All-Stars had players no one had ever heard of — and they comprised the home team in the white jerseys.

So of course the Lehighs came out like gangbusters and took immediately control of the game. At one point in the first half Jack Saboda had them up by seven, 45-38. At the half they still led, 58-56.

And showing the way was the Centaur Dennis Ramella. Of course.

Dennis had 14 points in the first half. I see him hitting deep over a surprised Ingelsby. I see him at the basket, in traffic, getting ball on backboard and through the rim. I hear Billera buzz ever time he bounced the ball.

“[T]he crowd favorite was Denny Ramella, Allentlown College’s only representative on the Lehigh Valley squad,” the Morning Call wrote the next day.

It gets better.

“Although the smallest player on the floor at 5-7, he proved himself more than capable of being with the ‘big guys’ as he hit with great success from long range and scored a couple of times because of quickness and great moves.”

Dennis finished with 18 points. Had the Lehigh team held on to win – the Big 5ers of course won inevitably, 123-107 – Dennis (and not the inevitable Inglesby and his 26 points) would’ve been the MVP. And exactly how spectacular would that have been?

So what that he wasn’t.

I was genuinely, unselfishly thrilled for Dennis that night. (A new experience for me, unselfishness.) The spotlight was all his and it was wonderful to see him in it.  Allentown College had granted him one more of those opportunities unique to the school that Zeke recalled, and Dennis had grabbed hold and made it work.

Nearly a thousand people had come out, an insane number at Billera. In front of the largest crowd of his college career and against the best competition – TV-certified big guys — Dennis had come through, shown them all. Shown us.

He made our 6-and-9 season seem just a little less awful.

And he made the next season coming seem laden with opportunity.

 

On May 14th, 2013 at 2:04 pm, EJ Brookes said:

Steve – Good remembering that all star game. I actually was acting as manager for one of the teams. But what I remember was my surprise that one of the “other guys” who played was a friend from grade school and high school. Bill Banks went to school with me and Jim Kilcur through Dougherty. He went on to Textile which brought him to the game. He then went to play in Sweden. He later became head scout for the LA Clippers then an agent for European players. He still lives in Sweden and keeps in touch via social media


On May 15th, 2013 at 4:18 pm, Dennis Ramella said:

Steve – thanks for the good memories because I honestly don’t remember much about the game. Maybe its old age; who knows. One thing I do rememember is being in awe of the players, not just for the game, but for practice as well. I also remember wondering what I had gotten myself into. The Little 5 had guys from Lehigh, Lafayette, Muhlenberg and Moravian, and I felt a responsibilty to gain some little measure of respect for our program. The game may have been for fun, but it meant a lot to us. Everyone wanted to prove they could play against the big boys from Philadelphia. Like I said, I don’t remember much about the game, except how neat it was to share the court with such great talent while raising money for MS. It was a wonderful experience doing something I loved to help others and I want to thank all the guys who took the time to plan not only the game, but the carnival as well. Thanks again for the memories.



 
     

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

×