CENTAUR REASONS: Why playing for A.C. was my chance of a lifetime

Posted on Sep 26, 2012

I didn’t play basketball in high school, to begin with. And from that one sentence can now flow all the rest of CENTAUR SEASONS.

I didn’t pay basketball in high school. I was on the freshman team at York Catholic High School, in south central Pennsylvania, but only because everyone who tried out made the team. I was maybe 17th man. My sophomore year I tried out again and got cut in round one. McKeeMcKeeMcKee. No “McKee” on the bulletin board list of guys to show up for the next practice.

That was that. I never tried out again.

If part of this CENTAUR SEASONS is about we Centaurs believing in this brand-new school sprouting from the cornfields, then another part is for me personally a lot about a nearly desperate need on my part to show (exactly whom, I was never quite sure) that I could have played basketball at YCHS.

We cannot however now just skip ahead three years from that McKee-free bulletin board my sophomore year at YCHS to the fall of 1970 when I showed up at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales, jumped on the Centaur and rode ir into history. No.

We must first leap ahead 35 years or so. I am back at York Catholic High, a “roastee” at a fund-raiser honoring the school’s retiring legend who had put 40-plus years into the place –  as principal, vice principal, disciplinarian, history teacher and, once upon a time, back in the 1960s … basketball coach. He had retired from the sidelines in 1970 after 10 very successful years and by all was still called “Coach.” The coach who cut me.

But it’s more complicated than that.

My father died in September of my senior year in high school. Coach, doubling then as both the hoops coach and school disciplinarian, took it upon himself to gather me up and all but carry me through to graduation.***

I am grateful to him to this day. We have stayed in touch; he attended my wedding in 1978. A few years before the fund-raiser I had written an essay recounting his kindnesses for the online edition of  The Wall Street Journal, where I worked, my bona fides now for being on the roasting panel.

During Coach’s rebuttals once we had each had at him – for his comical antics on the bench, his storied intensity, his famous hypochondria — he went down the line from roaster to roaster, throwing back the barbs and insults. Good laughs all around, raising money. When he got to me, however, he turned suddenly serious.

“I have nothing funny to say about Steve McKee,” he declared. And then, with trademark bluntness he said, “I failed Steve McKee.” Just like that.

He said that as the York Catholic High School “Fightin’ Irish” basketball coach he should never have allowed a six-foot-eight-inch kid to remain off the team. What had he been thinking?

Wait, sorry, should’ve mentioned this before: I am 6-foot-8-inches tall. Important, that. None of this happens and nothing gets written if I’m, say, 5-foot-11. I know that.

Coach continued, talking about how – though he’d been no help at all (turning that honesty on himself)  — I’d fashioned on my own a measure of success on the basketball court. First at Allentown College and then with a tryout overseas. (My attempt with a low-level team in France was a half-baked adventure, but still.)

I sat there and listened and took it all in. I had spent four years as an AC Centaur trying to prove the unprovable: that I could have, should have, would have played basketball at York Catholic High School, and for this very man, whom I loved and adored. Now here it was – comeuppance! — publicly declared.

But like I said, it’s complicated.

I found no vindication in what Coach said, no revenge. Truthfully. It was 35 years later, a long time ago, and suddenly I could see all  the distance between here and there, there and here. Besides, I have learned that the longer it has been since I didn’t play basketball at York Catholic, the better I would have been if only I had. The subject doesn’t come up very often anymore, but it never surprises when I’m back in York and someone says something. (Man, you shoulda played … ) I have also learned to keep my mouth shut when I hear it. Because, after all, really?

Which isn’t to say I didn’t grab every single word Coach said that night and use them together to weave for me the green-and-gold “YC” varsity basketball letter I never earned on the court.

But when I arrived at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in September 1970, 6-feet-8 and maybe 160 pipe-cleaner pounds, I was still decades away from hearing any of that.  There remained, right then, so much to prove, if only I could. I pushed through the doors of Billera Hall, recognized the equation and did the math: My basic skills (four grade-school years of C.Y.O. fundamentals at St. Joe’s elementary) plus Allentown’s fledgling status equaled, at least, opportunity.  I looked down the length of the Billera Hall basketball court, and felt the sinking emotions I had experienced when I hadn’t found MckeeMcKeeMcKee on that basketball list sophomore year.

And I realized: I could rid myself of that feeling right here, right now. In Billera Hall. At Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. As a Centaur.

For the next four years that yearning would drive every practice, every game, every possession, every shot. (And every ball that bounced off my hands, every point scored on me, every clumsy lane violation, every tangled-feet walking call.)

I didn’t play basketball in high school. And from that one sentence can now flow all the rest of CENTAUR SEASONS.

*** [[[[ The York Catholic High School basketball coach figures prominently in the beginning pages of “MY FATHER’S HEART: A Son’s Reckoning With the Legacy of Heart Disease,” the memoir I wrote about my father, who died at age 50 of a myocardial infarction when I was 16. I invite you here to take a 2-minute, 12-second video tour of YCHS that highlights the places at the school mentioned in “My Father’s Heart.”  ]]]]





On October 1st, 2012 at 7:01 am, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] CENTAUR REASONS: Why playing for A.C. was my chance of a lifetime […]


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.