First Day: Madness, No; Desire, Yes

Posted on Oct 15, 2012

What I remember best is the all-day dread.

From the time I rolled out of bed (whenever), sat through class, hung out in the lounge, pretended to study in the library, ran into teammates and exchanged grim, doomed looks, and hurried through an early dinner in the cafeteria – I knew it was out there waiting, inevitable and unavoidable.

The first day of basketball practice. Today.

Of course, these days it’s nothing as mundane as that.

It’s Midnight Madness, bay-bee!

It’s Kentucky raising last season’s championship banner with this season’s new starting five …

It’s Michigan State’s men’s coach arriving as Iron Man and the women’s coach as Wonder Woman.

It’s St. John’s fans welcoming its coach back after his cancer scare.

It’s ESPN’s Andy Katz asking if Midnight Madness even matters any more. (He says no.)

It’s Eammon Brennan of ESPN saying yes. 

For us it was just the first day of basketball practice. Though I should hardly say just …

Allentown being Allentown, the Centaurs being the Centaurs, the first day of practice was its own microcosm of what this nascent little school was all about and trying to become. We students were the college’s only resource. Because really, what else was there? This meant the basketball team – like everything else going on  — was only going to be as good as we students believed we could make it.

The Centaur program was still at a place where a lot of guys (yeah, like me) thought maybe they had a chance here at Allentown to play some college ball, be a varsity guy. So on Day One a ton of guys usually showed up.

“The first day of practice my freshman year there had to be thirty guys who tried out,” says E.J. Brookes, who played one year before becoming the manager. “I got to talking with some of them and they said, “Oh, yeah, everybody comes to the first day and then they don’t show up the next. I remember all kinds of guys coming out for just that first practice. And some of them were good. They just didn’t want to play. They didn’t want the hassle of it.”

Every year there were a couple three guys who likely would have made the team if only they’d stuck it out. I can think of a couple more who never tried out at all who would have played for sure, two who maybe would have started, another who might have been a difference maker.

“Some would argue,” says Chris Cashman, a four-year Centaur stalwart, “that there were better players playing intramurals than on the team. For one reason or the other, people didn’t take it seriously, or they couldn’t afford the time.”

We practiced five nights a week and Saturday mornings. Played 16 to 20 games a season, at least one during exam week. Came up during Christmas break. Got back from eight, 10 away games past midnight. All for a tiny little no-name, no-where college.

“That was part of the deal, and the challenge, as well,” Jerry Wilkinson says. In everything the college was trying to be, it was only going to be what we students could make it become. “That’s what it always came back to,” Wilk says. “Whatever had to be done, we had to do it.”  The very thing that made being at the school right then, right there, so unique, so special, so completely ours.

“Not everyone wanted to play basketball,” Wilk says. “There was no impetus to play.”

Unless, Wilk says, “Unless you had the desire.”

Wilk got to Allentown as a second-semester freshman during the 1968-69 year, the first intercollegiate season. Shootin’ around one day down at Billera, John Compardo – Coach Compardo, the school’s still-revered first athletic director – told Wilk to go out for the team.

“I said, ‘Coach, I didn’t play basketball in high school,’ ” Wilk says. “ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ Coach said. ‘Just go out for the team.’ ”

Wilk is solidly built, but only about 5-foot-11. Clearly, though, Coach Compardo liked what he saw of Wilk’s lefty jumper: picture perfect, with that dramatic pause at the top. And Wilk could get off the ground.

“All I was hoping to do was make the team because it was the best basketball being played on campus, and that’s what I wanted to be doing,” Wilk says. “I think that’s the way most of us thought. We were just happy to be able to play the game, to play it as hard as we could.  I really enjoyed playing the game with my teammates — at a level I never suspected I would ever play.” Senior year, a forward giving up to many inches underneath, Wilk led the team in rebounding.

Chris Cashman had been the classic last man cut at O’Hara, one of those gigundo high schools with a top-notch program in the Philadelphia Catholic League. He stayed with the team as manager, took it all in, absorbed everything. His best friend was Tom Inglesby, star of the team, who would go onto glory at Villanova.

“Tommy saw [the game] rightly as not only a vehicle to a free education but as an avenue to a career in basketball,” Cash says. “I could only judge the experience that I thought I would get against the way I knew a successful high school program was run. That’s what I brought to Allentown. I viewed it as an opportunity to do something I hadn’t been successful at on a high school level.” Freshman year Cash was the team leader in rebounds and field-goal percentage.

For others, Allentown represented a big leap.

“It was college,” says P.J. Brennan. P.J. had played high school ball in the Pennsylvania coal country, a 2,000-point guy. The competition at Billera, he says, was still an eye opener. “It was better basketball than I had ever played,” he says. “I knew making the team was going to be a stretch, and it was, but I did.” As a freshman – his only season – P.J. led the team in free-throw percentage and ended the year a starting guard.

I have already told my story. And I could go on and on with other teammates who made the decision to stick with it, hang in, not quit. Help make the Centaur be what it could become. Instead I’ll let Tony Mazzeo speak for them all (and me).

Maz was a senior co-captain with Wilk, fiery and volatile. He played soccer, basketball and baseball. He was a very good soccer player. Basketball, by his own admission, not so much.

“I didn’t have the moves. I didn’t have the smoothness. I didn’t have the shooting. So what could I do? I could hustle. I could dive. I could steal the ball. I scored some points, but my strong point was determination.”

As a freshman he had played on the first collegiate team, the one that went 3 and 14. “We still had a full team show up for practice every day,” he says. “I think we all felt that we had found that place where this was finally, you know, ‘my chance.’ To us this was North Carolina. That’s the way it was. This was the level we could make, and we were going to make the most of it.

“I was totally impressed with myself when I made the team my freshman year,” he says. “Totally impressed.”

 

On October 15th, 2012 at 6:41 pm, tim reilly 1979 class said:

steve-here s my story-came from north catholic where we were 16-0 tremendous team-i was the 3rd guard-played 3 nice yrs at ac graduated in 3.5 yrs not easy for a solid c student/no joke-on graduation day doctor dow/history prof who attended all our games with his son said to me”mr.reilly i know you are a econ major,I do not know your plans but if you do in business what you did on the basketball court you will be fine”- guess what,that is what I did and now entering my 33rd yr in insurance business and the reason you see my name thru out the campus on donor list-


On October 17th, 2012 at 11:57 am, Walt Pfeil said:

Steve:

Enjoying your blog. Bringing back lots of great memories.

Walt



 
     

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.

×