CENTAUR REASONS (part 3): To Everything Their Seasons

Posted on Nov 02, 2012

The less said about my freshman year the better. At least about me and basketball.

Who was I kidding? Not me. I made the team – became a Centaur – because the top of my haircut was six feet eight inches north of the hardwood on the Billera Hall court. End of story.

Six-feet-eight-inches tall, maybe 165 pounds. Yikes. And as the guys on the team quickly pointed out, for hands I had metal crash can lids. That clanking noise you hear is Steve losing another ball out of bounds.

Though wait. For just a second, give me my due. I did have four years of CYO and it counted for something. Mr. Bauler on the fifth-sixth-grade team at St. Joe’s in York; Jack Angelo on the seventh-eighth. I knew how to position my feet on defense, how to keep myself between my man and the basket. I could shoot a layup. Left-foot-dribble. Right-foot-left-foot. Right-foot-up. Ball off the backboard. In. I can still hear Mr. Bauler shouting the cadence, over and over.

OK. Due is done. I am six-foot-eight-inches tall. Have I mentioned that?  If I was any good, I mean any good, would I have been playing at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales? And I mean that to disparage not the Centaurs, but all eighty inches of ME. I was 17 going on 18 and, yes, timid and shy and scared was I every time I took the court.

I hadn’t played basketball at York Catholic High School in some measure because I was terrified of running my pale-pale, pipe-cleaner person out there in front of people in green-and-gold underwear. (Me in the underwear, not them; though maybe if I had pictured it that way … ) When I got to Allentown and recognized the opportunity of this four-year-old program, I knew I had to get over it, put on the red-and-blue uniform and get out there. If I didn’t grab at this – at least try – I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

Yes. At little Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, it was for me that big of a deal.

I was enormously proud of myself when I ran out there with the Centaurs for my first college game, against Eastern Baptist, on November 30, 1970. It was the first four-year-college game I had ever seen in person.  And I got to see most of it from the bench, which was OK-fine by me. When I did get in I ran around hoping the ball didn’t come my way, and, when it did, I ran around some more hoping I could 1) catch it and 2) get rid of it before I dribbled it off my foot.

We went 7-and-13 freshman year. A record for most wins. Joe Schieber, the only senior on the team, became the school’s first four-year basketball letterman. Good for him. And we got pummeled by York College twice – by 26 and 23 — extending that embarrassment to three years and six games.

But from out of nowhere we also beat Strayer College, up from Washington D.C. A big deal. With no way to anticipate it, against Strayer everything clicked, giving us a glimpse of who we Centaurs were, maybe could be, if not always, at least right then. A wonderful sight.

At every juncture where an Allentown College team would normally have folded and settled for the moral victory, against Strayer our resolve inexplicably stiffened. Down five early, by halftime we led by one. We pulled ahead for good in the second with nine straight from the foul line. Confidence, a new concept, dripped off us. For once the scoring was balanced, with Dennis Ramella (29), me (17), Jerry Wilkinson (13) and Chris Cashman (11) in double figures. The crowd, such as it ever was, understood the moment – this shouldn’t be, but it is! — and rushed the floor at the final buzzer.

Quite a day of college basketball it had been. Johnny Neumann of Ole Miss went for 63 against LSU to set the season’s scoring record. UCLA beat UC Santa Barbara, 74-61. And Allentown College manhandled Strayer, 89-72.

Our record was now 5-and-7; a dozen games in, and we could still make something of the season. Didn’t happen, of course. We went 2-and-6 the rest of the way. But that night — like with UCLA, which would go on to win another 87 straight games — who knew?

Our locker room after was a holiday of hoops and hollers, hearty hugs and half-believing handshakes. Then suddenly in the doorway stood the Strayer coach. He wanted to offer congratulations, he said, as if he too understood the meaning of our moment. When he spoke, the room was silent. Though perhaps stunned is a better word. The opposing coach had COME TO US.  This, too, was a big deal.

My seventeen points equaled the final-score differential.  But like with the team and the rest of its season, the rest of my way that year I never scored more than six.  Indeed, these 17 would remain my game high until January of my senior season.

And yet.

I showered quickly and grabbed a ride to a thrown-together party (because who knew beforehand that one would be required?). John Esposito, a senior, jumped in the backseat with me. The talk of course was all about the game. And then Esse turned and asked me if I had played basketball in high school. No, I said. Essie nodded — not surprised, apparently. But then he said, “You’ll be doing it all by your senior year.”

The idea thrilled, of course, and clearly it stayed with me.

I can’t say the Strayer game itself was the exact turning point for me — 17 points, with confidence! — but somewhere in that freshman year I came to see myself for the first time ever as a basketball player. I liked what I saw.  Even more, I came to see how much I needed to be a player. And I liked how that felt.

I needed my six feet eight inches not to be the reason I was out there on the court. I needed to be good because I was good. And since I was this tall, I realized that meant I needed to be the star. Only by being the star could I transcend my height, make it somehow not matter. Even as I knew it always would.

My freshman season this need took me over, and it would drive me for the next four years. I never cared that Allentown College was a nowhere school with a nowhere program. In fact, quite the opposite. I embraced it. I loved it. I am grateful for it. To everything their seasons. Here were mine.

You’ll be doing it all by your senior year. I needed that to come true.

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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.