SLEEPING IN THE GYM, OR: “The Process of Becoming a Basketball Program”

Posted on Jan 17, 2013

Christmas break ends tomorrow. The 1972-1973 Centaurs will be back on the court, playing Baptist Bible in Clark Summit, Pennsylvania, near Scranton. And with that “A history of the events of the Allentown College’s 1972-1973 B-ball season, as chronicled by, and with the personal memoirs + occasional philosophizing of the author, one Stephen J. McKee” recommences.

The season thus far: Senior co-captain Chris Cashman destroyed his ankle the first day of preseason. Senior co-captain Dennis Ramella is within inches of becoming the school’s first 1,000-point scorer. Bobby Stormes is playing maniacal basketball. Dave Glielmi is hinting at how good he really is. P.J. Brennan, freshman, can not NOT start much longer. John Cooper, center, continues to play Steve McKee onto the bench.

As for the games before the break, after winning the first and the second, we lost the next three — in 1) Heartbreaking; 2) Typical; and 3) Embarrassing fashion. Still twelve games on the schedule. A win would help, soon.

Meanwhile, as with every season, we came back to practice during the three weeks of break  — Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, usually — the school wonderfully deserted, the place to ourselves, a rare moment.

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, a certain irony in his voice. “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 from 9 p.m. on with nothing to do but, well, whatever we wanted to do. Something to eat, out to a movie, back for some cards, beer, some broomball on the court, as much goofing off as we could invent. It is hard to imagine that a school would allow that these days (or even could allow that these days). Harder still to imagine 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 being there then demanded. We’re sleeping in the gym? O.K. “And now this is the kind of stuff no one can take from us, ever.”

In an early CENTAUR SEASONS post – The Original Centaurs Original Gift — I talked about how for the guys on the school’s very first intercollegiate team, in 1968-1969: “There was as much about that first Centaur team that was pretending to be a college basketball team as actually being one. But here’s the thing: in pretending to be real they became real.”

Indeed, by the time I got to Center Valley, even just two years later, most of the pretending had been shed, the Centaurs now inhabiting the skin of a real (if mightily struggling) team. And it was great to be on the team, part of the program. But if you had twisted my arm, I’d have admitted that this whole coming-back-up-for-practice thing was maybe a lot more trouble than it was worth. Certainly given how brand-new the whole place was.

Steve, wait, you’re missing the point.

That more or less is what Jerry Wilkinson said when we recently talked about our Centaur Seasons. Wilk, with Tony Mazzeo, was co-captain of the 8-and-8, half-good Centaur team his senior year.

Given the team’s level of expertise (or not) and the level of expectations (or not), could we have gone home for Christmas break, Wilk asked, and then just come back in a month and picked up the season? Sure, he said. But there was more going on than just the hoops.

There was the school’s push for accreditation.

There was the Oblates educational mission, the Christian Humanism, the whole 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, his much-revered reputation wrapping him in a halo. He was … competitive. 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.

“This is me looking at it all now from the outside,” Wilk says. It’s not, he says, like he understood at the time.

“We blasted the concept” of staying in the gym, he admitted, never mind how much fun it was. “Most of us could have just driven up there and practiced and gone home, and we would have. But Coach Compardo was trying to do something, to show us the importance of the program.

“Everything that was going on up there, it was all done at an organized level. The whole liberal arts education concept, they spread it across the whole spectrum.  They were doing things as well as they could with the budget they had. It was not a slipshod operation. As professional an evolution as you could have had with the money they had available.”

My sophomore year we evolved past the sleeping-in-the-gym era. If only because, as Wilk put it, “ ‘Sleeping’ was a euphemism.” Jerry Fleming and Walt Pfiel, world-class instigators, made sure little of that happened, scaring the bejesus out of us at any darkened hour, it seemed. Ask Tony Mazzeo. And a cavernous gymnasium with a creaky ventilation system is a shadowy, spooky place to try to sleep anyway. By the end of a three-day practice sweep we were exhausted.

So 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.

Senior year we stayed at Brisson Seminary, up the hill. Jerry Weiss, a good friend, one of the few 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 – laity and clergy so intermingled — straight from the Vatican II “Open Windows” playbook. To make it happen, Jerry had to agree to be personally responsible, case anything happened. Nothing happened. Except: I remember eating breakfast the morning after the one away game we played 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. As silly as they might have seemed then. Another bit of the inadvertent education that a brand-new Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales sort of specialized in back then.

My junior year – this CENTAUR SEASONS diary 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.”

On January 17th, 2013 at 10:53 am, Turtle said:

As you’ve brought up so many times, just making it up on the fly. To paraphrase from the ND fight song, shake down the memories – riding back from Philly to practice over Christmas break in Pao’s Alfa Romeo; legs wrapped in a blanket cause there’s no heat. The team gets to sleep in Billera Hall – Maz has got the music going – “Cowboys to Girls’ by the Intruders, and on and on. Such good stuff, keep it coming Steve!

On January 17th, 2013 at 12:24 pm, Jim Greene said:

Steve … it’s great to read about the experiences you and your teammates had during that building a program as well as a team process in the 70’s at A.C. It’s nice to get the inside perspective and it’s great to hear that your teammates are doing so well beyond, and maybe because of, those experiences. The story of P.J. Brennan’s once and only year of college athletics and his decision to give it up for a lifetime of helping people through an impressive career in medicine is inspirational.

On January 17th, 2013 at 1:08 pm, Maryanne Weiss said:

As Jerry’s wife of 36 years, yes that is correct…he never made it to ordination!…I can tell you he still has “people” all over the world to whom he goes to make things happen. Just ask his four kids!

Again, Steve, thanks so much for the memories…even for those of us only tangentially connected to the early Centaur Seasons.


On January 18th, 2013 at 2:27 pm, Steve McKee: Centaur Season said:

[…] SLEEPING IN THE GYM, OR: “The Process of Becoming a Basketball Program” […]


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.