CENTAUR STORY: “Basketball Had Been My Art Form”

Posted on Jan 15, 2013

By the time I was a junior, this CENTAUR SEASONS diary year, it was plainly evident what kind of high school players Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales needed to attract if the Centaurs were to get to the next level.

Type No. 1 was Dave Glielmi (pronounced GELL-me; announcers at away games always mangled it). Dave was easily Allentown’s best player those first six, seven years of the basketball program: A kid from the Philadelphia Catholic League – 6-2, a solid 190 – a player on  a successful program who had mixed it up with bigger-time talents.

Type No. 2 was P.J. Brennan, the necessary compliment to Dave, less-heralded but just as important.

CLICK HERE FOR ANOTHER ‘CENTAUR STORY’

P.J. Brennan grew up in Pottsville, in the Pennsylvania coal region, the town made famous (and infamous) as “Gibbsville” by novelist and native son John O’Hara.

P.J. wasn’t big (5-8, maybe), nor was he particular strong. But he had played four years of high school at Nativity BVM, and before that another six of CYO. He was one of those classically trained kids: all fundamentals, well-schooled, wonderfully coachable. He could defend and he could shoot.

Oh my, could he shoot! Never met a shot he didn’t like, as they say, and he continued to like them once at AC, even as a lowly freshman. “I never thought twice about taking the shot,” P.J. says. (Really?) And yet somehow he wasn’t a gunner.

That he wound up at the Cornfield College in the fall of 1972, my junior year, was perfectly natural, maybe even pre-ordained. He’d been hearing about the place since he was a kid sitting in a pew at Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church. Before the new college in the valley could be built, the money had to be raised — making the diocesan campaign a regular plea from the pulpit. As a high school senior he also received a diocesan scholarship, which surely helped.

That he made the basketball team was probably just as natural, though P.J. says he certainly didn’t think so at the time.

Unlike Dave Glielmi — who went to St. Joe’s Prep and played with Mo Howard, who would go to Maryland, and, in the Philadelphia City Championship Game, against Andre McCarter, who would win an NCAA championship at UCLA — for P.J. Brennan the basketball at Billera Hall was the best he had ever seen. Serving to ratify, as if it needed to be, that basketball-playing kids from Nativity BVM didn’t take their game to the next level.

So who was P.J. to think he could?

“I knew it was going to be a stretch,” he says. “I actually had a strategy for making the team. I decided I’d prove myself as a defensive player and let the offense come, not worry about the shots dropping. ” Counterintuitive (have I mentioned that P.J. could shoot?) but brilliant (of course it was).

He made the team.

“I still remember when Coach posted the list outside the cafeteria,” he says. “It was late at night and I was so excited I made the team I ran to the phone and called my parents. It was a big deal.

And soon enough the polite, self-effacing kid was starting.

P.J. played only one Centaur season, his freshman year, the year of this ’72-‘73 diary. He wanted to be a doctor, it was a killer major, and the on-court time was taking its toll. We Baby Boomers were in full, demanding number: “It was a very competitive time to try to get into medical school,” P.J. says, serious about it even now.

So he stopped playing.

Not to make this about me, but.  I took the news badly, selfishly, immaturely. He told me in the library. I remember I looked at him and stormed away. P.J. was a good friend and I knew immediately his absence would diminish my senior year, my season, me. And the team would miss his points; he would have been good for 15, 17 a game, easy, with the occasional 30-plus burst. We needed everyone of those baskets, and we never really found them.

For P.J. it was the right decision. An Allentown College still wet behind the ears had no track record for getting students into med school. Indeed, it was students like P.J. who were themselves being asked to lay the track. Not an unexciting honor of going to a brand new school, but not exactly a benefit either.

Fast forward. Today Dr. Brennan is Chief Medical Officer for the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Take that, me.

But when we talked, I still had to ask. Couldn’t he have played and got into med school anyway? You know: kept playing ball.

Well, he said, a few years after he quit, when he realized his skills had eroded and he’d never again play the way he once had, he got to thinking he could have, or maybe should have.

Leaving the game, he said, had been terribly, terribly wrenching. “I felt the immediate loss of something that was very important to me.” But no, he said no. “I honestly don’t think it would have worked out.”

So Patrick Joseph Brennan, M.D., cherishes a single hoops season at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales that was likely more than a Pennsylvania coal-crackin’ kid had any right to expect.

“As I grew older and did more things with my life, I began to see that basketball had been my art form,” he says. “The best thing I ever did in my life, that I feel I was the most accomplished at, was play basketball. It was the one thing in my life that I understood best. There was just something about me and basketball that was a very natural thing.”

We all bought windbreakers at the end of that ’72-’73 season, P.J.’s only Centaur season. Cheap navy blue things with white lettering.

Last time we talked, P.J. said he still has his.

IN THIS CENTAUR SEASONS POST, P.J. TALKS ABOUT ONE PARTICULAR COMPLIMENT HE RECEIVED ABOUT HIS GAME, AND WHY HE TREASURED HEARING IT.

P.J. ROOMED WITH TOM SHIRLEY, A FOUR-YEAR CENTAUR. TODAY TOM IS THE WOMEN’S BASKETBALL COACH AT PHILADELPHIA UNIVERSITY. THE TEAM IS CURRENTLY 8-6 AND TOM HAS MOVED INTO  5TH PLACE ALL-TIME AMONG WINNINGEST DIVISION II WOMEN’S COACHES.  IN THIS CENTAUR SEASONS POST, TOM TALKS ABOUT WHAT HE — AN END-OF-THE-BENCHER —  LEARNED WHILE PLAYING AT ALLENTOWN THAT HE HAS IN COMMON WITH UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN, THE SUBJECT OF AN EXCLUSIVE CENTAUR SEASONS INTERVIEW.

On January 17th, 2013 at 7:04 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] CENTAUR STORY: “Basketball Had Been My Art Form” […]



 
     

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.

×