CLASSIC REDUX: Sleeping on cots in the gym, or: “The Process of Becoming a Basketball Program”

Posted on Jan 02, 2014

Christmas break! Every Centaur Season we came back for practice during our three weeks off  — Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, usually — the school deserted, the place to ourselves, a rare moment.


Welcome (again) to a CENTAUR SEASONS “Classic Redux.” From October 15  through Thanksgiving CENTAUR SEASONS re-posted shortened versions of last year’s efforts. This post (read the original) seemed better timed now.  Check back soon for a brand-new post here at CENTAUR SEASONS II.

* * * * *  NOW, BACK TO ‘SLEEPING ON COTS IN THE GYM …’  * * * * *  

My freshman year we slept in a classroom in the back of Billera Hall, each of us given a cot, a pillow and a scratchy woolen blanket.

“I’ll admit that the notion of driving back for practice through a snowstorm over the Christmas holidays and staying on cots in the gym was an experience I had never had before,” Chris Cashman says. “But it was all just part of the lore that we kind of defined for ourselves as what was important to the process of becoming a basketball program.”

Eight, ten college guys left to their own devices, all night. Hard to imagine a school allowing that these days. Harder still imagining students signing up for it.

“I think we just thought, Well, this is what we have to do,” says Tony Mazzeo of the make-do attitude. “And now this is the kind of stuff no one can take from us, ever.”

As for me, had you twisted my arm I might’ve admitted that the whole coming-back-for-practice thing was more trouble than it was worth. Given how brand-new the place was.

Steve, you’re missing the point.

That, more or less, is what Jerry Wilkinson told me when we talked. Wilk, with Tony Maz, was co-captain of the 8-and-8, half-good Centaur team his senior year. There was more going on than just the hoops, Wilk said.

There was the school’s push for accreditation.

There was the Oblates educational mission, the Christian Humanism, the liberal-arts thing.

There was also the notion of competition. John Compardo, the athletic director, had been a hugely successful high school coach in the Lehigh Valley. Of course he’d want his college teams to be as good as they could be. However good that might have been.

So if sleeping on a cot under a wool blanket in a drafty Billera Hall moved the ball down the court on any of the above issues, then sleeping on those cots we were.

“They were doing things as well as they could with the budget they had,” Wilk said.  “It was not a slipshod operation.”

My sophomore year we stayed at a teammate’s apartment and got fed (on the sly) by Brother Marty, a friend of Coach Jack Sabota’s, over at Wills Hall, the priests’ residence.

And senior year we stayed at Brisson Seminary, up the hill. Jerry Weiss, one of the sems to come down and mix it up with the rest of us, wangled the invite. It may not seem like it now, but it was a radical idea then. Jerry had to agree to be personally responsible, case anything happened. Nothing happened. Except: I remember eating breakfast the morning after the away game during the break and telling a bunch of guys I’d otherwise never had got to know all about last night’s win. And: most of those guys, who otherwise never would have, became regulars at the rest of our home games that season. That’s not nothing, come to think.

They were a time out of time, those Christmas-break practices.

My junior year a bunch of us stayed at teammate Jerry Fleming’s apartment. “We’d practice till nine at night,” remembers P.J. Brennan, a freshman that season, his only year with the team, “then go back and drink some beer and watch TV and play Risk until three, four in the morning. Sleep till noon. Not a care in the world. It was a unique experience.”

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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.