Posted on Nov 27, 2012

Sophomore year. New season. New coach. New promise. New purpose.

We only had five guys, fellas …  He pressed us the whole way, fellas … Subbed five at a time, fellas … AND HE STILL ONLY BEAT US BY ONE, FELLAS!

Preseason started on October 15. From the start that’s what our new coach, Jack Sabota, screamed at us. Every day, practice in, practice out.

That, and this too: And he beat us by 70, fellas … Pressed us the whole way, fellas … Subbed five at a time, fellas. BEAT US BY 70! BEAT US BY 70! BEAT US BY 70!

Jack Sabota, new coach, was talking, of course, about the coach of York College of Pennsylvania.

Let’s review. Two years before I got to Allentown, in the Centaurs’ first intercollegiate season, York College of Pennsylvania beat Allentown twice, once by one point, once by 70. In both games the York College coach subbed in three teams of five in an unrelenting wave and pressed all 40 minutes of each.

In that one-point loss, at home, the Centaurs suited only five guys, Jack Sabota included, and that five went the whole way. “I was never so tired in my life,” Jack told me when we talked recently.

Sabota also made the trip to York for that 70-point crushing. Still the largest margin of defeat in school history, even if the official record book says different. (A double-edged insult, if ever there was one.) “I don’t know what he did against other teams,” Jack said of the York coach. “All I know is against us he never backed off.”

And the memory stuck.

About a week before his first York game as a coach, my sophomore year, Sabota called us together. “I don’t care what we do the rest of this season,” he told us. “If we don’t beat York, the year’s a flop.”

Welcome to “The First Rivalry, Part 2.” [Read “Part 1” here.]

How can I put this? Jack Sabota hated York College. In case that hasn’t been made clear. “That coach has no class, fellas,” Sabota said in that pregame talk.  Or, as Jack said recently, “He was an ornery old bastard.”

As luck, fate, divine providence, karma, or these days you’d say as the TV schedulers would have it, when Jack Sabota took over, the first game he would ever coach was to be against … of course … York College.

“The first thing I did when I accepted this job,” he told us in that huddle, “was check the schedule to see when we played York College. When I saw it was our first game, I thought it would never get here soon enough.”

Him and us both.

Preseason we ran, in a way we hadn’t the year before. And we listened to Coach. Only had five … pressed the whole way … seventy points, fellas, SEVENTY points.

Finally came the game. November 30, 1971, a Tuesday night.

We had a good crowd that night, first game of the season. Though a couple of our usuals didn’t show. (And we had few to begin with.) That night ABC-TV did some counterprogramming with the world premier of “Brian’s Song,” starring Billy Dee Williams and James Caan.

I luuuv Brian Piccolo. (Sports fans of a certain age, I’ll pause here to allow you to gather yourselves.)

Dennis Ramella and Tony Mazzeo started at guards, Jerry Wilkinson and Chris Cashman at forward, me at center. At half time we were down seven, 41-34. In the second half we outscored them by 14, 41-27, and won, 75-68.

With nine second left I was fouled and went to the line. I grew up in York, Pennsylvania. I hadn’t played basketball in high school there. I thought I maybe should have, and I was, quite frankly, attempting to use this brand-new Allentown College program as my way to prove it. I think I made the front end of the one-and-one, my smile so big my face hurt. I finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds. This’ll show em!

In the stands, our 100-or-so fans shouted, “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” Minus the voices, of course, who had stayed back in the dorms to watch “Brian’s Song.” Too bad, they only missed the biggest win in school history. It works like that when a school is all of seven years old, the basketball team all of four. Everything is history, happening right now. Why wouldn’t you want to be there? When the final buzzer sounded, the fans stormed the floor and tried to carry us off the court.

The only twinge of regret? The York College coach/tormentor/bastard of the past three seasons had retired. He was, though, still the athletic director. Meaning when we played them again down at their place late in the season he was in the house.

This time we got off to an awful start, down quickly 22-12. But from there it was all us. We took the lead with 4:30 left in the first half and in the second led by as many as 12, on the way to an 11-point win, 78-67.  And it wasn’t that close. Senior Jerry Wilkinson had 19 points. As a freshman four years before he’d scored a single point in that 70-point humiliation.

As for me, when the game was over I made sure to find York’s former coach and shake his hand. As I write this, it doesn’t sound like the classiest of moves, but, well, that’s what I did. Once done with him I ran the length of the court to the locker room, bathed in the adulation of about 30 of my mother’s friends who had come to the game. I’d had 11 points this time, and 15 rebounds. Tell me again, Why hadn’t I played basketball in high school?

(Then the entire team came over to my house for some of mom’s home-made lasagna. Years later, years later, my wife, Noreen and I joined with some friends whose daughter on the University of Rochester lacrosse team was back on her Albany home turf playing a local team. Her parents brought the entire UR team back to their house, too. And suddenly the York College game washed all over me.  I was stunned by how transported back I was. How I remembered everything about it. How aware I was of the necessary full circle of things. How I found myself hoping our friends’ daughter and her teammates would someday remember their night as clearly as I remembered mine – even if I hadn’t thought about it for years.)

But I want this to end with Coach Sabota. It may have been the York coach who provided we Centaurs with our first rivalry. But he was more just a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, this cartoonish thing we took shots at, than something real.  It was Jack Sabota who grabbed hold of the rivalry and brought it to life – heck, made it into life itself. Precisely what was needed.

“When we finally beat them, it felt awfully good,” Jack said, in a grand bit of understatement.

And when beat them we finally did that season, York immediately dropped us from its schedule. Jack had been right all along: The guy had no class.

On November 27th, 2012 at 2:53 pm, Wilk said:


No doubt about it, the first York game was the best win we had that year. Not the most important perhaps but the best. There are two things I remember most about the game. Our college mates ran onto the floor to congratulate us, even some of the coeds and when we ran our play #1, it worked. In a tip of the hat to Jake Sabota, it was the first time in four years I remember running a play. If you do not recall that one it was actually run through you and Dennis made a layup. Unusual for Dennis to be that close to the basket. The second York game was complete vindication as we hammered them and they had a player thrown out for fighting and Maz was not even involved. Finally, your Mom was the perfect team mother, York Division.

On November 29th, 2012 at 7:23 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] CENTAUR REASON (part 3): THE FIRST RIVALRY (part 2) […]

On December 1st, 2012 at 3:04 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] CENTAUR REASON (part 3): THE FIRST RIVALRY (part 2)     […]

On December 2nd, 2012 at 2:49 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] upset by them and I doubt if he really wanted them stopped. He said he wasn’t going to, but he pulled out a victory cigar a la Red Auerbach, his idol, w/25 seconds to go. After, he said he wouldn’t have but for the […]


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.