CENTAUR STORY: “It was like my whole life got taken away from me”

Posted on Dec 14, 2012

BY THE TIME BOBBY STORMES got to the end of his sophomore year in high school, he was living the dream.

Bobby Stormes grew up outside of New York City and went to Albertus Magnus High School. Now here he was, gearing up for his junior year – knowing he was on the basketball team’s varsity starting five. He and his buddies had all grown up together, played ball together. And now, this: “We were all going forward together, as far as I could see,” he says.

Turned out he just couldn’t see very far.

If you’ve been reading CENTAUR SEASONS, the name Bobby Stormes should sound familiar. Sophomore starter, leading scorer in the opener, with 22. Always banged up; held together by tape; refusing ever to sit. As the diary of  my 1972-1973 junior year unfolds here as a blog, I’ll pause occasionally to tell a “Centaur Story.” Today, Bobby Stormes.

The summer after his sophomore year in high school , Bobby’s dad, who worked for the Central Penn Railroad, got transferred to Philadelphia. Wham. “Everything changed, just like that,” Bobby says. “You packed up the car and you moved.”

From a class of 150 at Albertus, Bobby found himself at Cardinal O’Hara High School, in the Philadelphia Catholic League, with its 1,500 kids per grade. That fall, maybe 25 guys went out for the team. Why bother? Everybody already knew who was going to make it.  Bobby tried out anyway, this unknown sophomore. He sprained his ankle the first day, played through it, got cut in the final round. He was consigned to Rec Ball

“It was like my whole life got taken away from me,” he says.

[ANOTHER REC BALL CENTAUR.]

So when Bobby went to a high school show-and-tell by Fr. Bob Devine, the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales recruiter, and this former three-year basketball letterman at the University of  Notre Dame said there was an opportunity to maybe play some college ball at this brand-new school, Bobby Stormes paid attention.

“I told my dad, ‘Let’s take a drive up.’ ”

Once there, he says, there was never a doubt. “I walked into the gym, Billera Hall, and said, ‘I’m going here.’ ”

I hated playing against Bobby, in practice, in pick-up games down at Billera. Sometimes I didn’t much like playing with him, either, even in real games. He knew what buttons to push, how to get under the skin, antagonize. He could make it personal, make it about him, his opponent, whatever he needed.

This is sometimes said about a player, as if to explain him: He played like a man possessed. For Bobby this rang particularly true. A 6-2 lefty, he was rail thin, all angles and points running off in different directions. Off court he could laugh at himself for the way he played, taking the edge off. He was fun, a good guy, loyal teammate. Not that any of this ever dulled his game.

It was like an inner force would take him over.

“You hear athletes say, ‘It’s all about winning,’ ” he says. “For me, personally, it could have been just to have a good practice, to run one good play in a game. Those little steps, those building blocks kept building up my confidence in myself.”

Bobby didn’t play out of control. He played as if there was something controlling him that … he couldn’t control. He could be everywhere at once, doing whatever was required. In those moments it was as if the whole rest of his world disappeared. All that mattered was the game.

You could love playing with him then.

“It became an identity for me, to play ball,” Bobby says. “The basketball is still my identity.”

He played hurt, all the time. He blew out a knee his freshman year, screwed up his hip as a sophomore, broke his nose as a junior and wore one of the hideous plastic masks. We had no trainer, so Bobby always got to practice before the rest of us so he could tape himself together. There was never a question, he says, never a question, never: He was going to play.

His senior year, ’74-’75, Bobby led the team in rebounds, steals, blocks and field-goal percentage. Forty years later and the steals mark, 3.6 per game, continues to rank him No. 1, all-time. The rebound record, 13 per, is No. 2.  Bobby also shares the all-time single-game rebound mark, with 22, which he did twice. And with a rather incredible nine steals against Philly Pharmacy, a quality opponent, he he still holds the record for most steals in a single game.**

[THE NIGHT A.C. BEAT PHARMACY.]

“There’s a master plan here somewhere,’ Bobby told me of his going to Allentown College, of playing for the Centaurs. “I was drawn there. You were drawn there. It was about who we were and who we wanted to be.”

For me, it’s the steals that say it all about Bobby. When he was on the court he wanted to take it all away from you, everything. Your ball, your game, your will, your heart. As if by taking it from you he made it his.

Maybe it was in those moments of taking that he got back those lost years when he moved from NYC to Philly. And maybe I liked playing with Bobby the least of my teammates because I saw in him too much of me. Bobby wanted back his Albert Magnus years. I wanted to show somebody – anybody! — that I should’ve played at York Catholic High School.  I never matched Bobby’s intensity (never could), but we both rode the Centaur in our attempt to prove the unprovable, conclusions always maddeningly elusive.

Though sometimes, as Bobby tells it, there could be glimmers of attestation. One of the guys Bobby had played Rec Ball with in Philly had gone onto Lehigh University, over the mountain from Allentown College. He must have read one of the three-inch write-ups we got in the local paper, Bobby says.

“He comes to one of our games, and it was like this big reunion on the floor after. That happened two or three times, guys from the old neighborhood showing up. It was a neat thing. I was the small-time kid making it big in college basketball. It was a good feeling. I let it be what it was. And it was big time. At least it was to me.”

That seemed a good place to end our phone call, but no, Bobby said, wait.  He told me that after I’d called him a couple of days before asking to talk about our Centaur seasons, that he’d written down something so he wouldn’t forget it. I heard a piece of paper unfold.

“Allentown College,” Bobby said, reading, “gave me the opportunity to be who I always dreamed I could be.”

[[** Bobby’s senior-year stats fall just outside the seven-years of CENTAUR SEASONS. So what: Given his numbers, Bobby’s senior year is the best Centaur performance of those way-back days. Heck, given how some of them still stand up, forty years later, his senior year remains one of the best in school history. Period.]]

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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.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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