WHERE’S THE CENTAUR (part 2): Finding Little Allentown College in the Big Basketball Picture

Posted on Oct 03, 2012

In Friday’s “WHERE’S THE CENTAUR? (part 1)” we looked at the Centaurs’ first three seasons – ’67-’68, ’68-’69 & ’69-’70 – and where the half-man/half-beast fit into the bigger college basketball picture of the day, dominated as it was by the UCLA Bruin. Today we’ll take a quick look at the Centaurs’ next four seasons – ’70-’71, ’71-’72, ’72-’73 & ’73-’74, which not coincidentally happen to be my four years on the team, which not coincidentally happen to be dominated again by that same Bruin. The only difference (well, not the only difference) is that whereas the Centaur was competing in seasons No. 4, 5, 6 & 7, the Bruin was in seasons No. 52, 53, 54 & 55.

But wait: It’s the same difference. Coach Wooden famously believed that basketball taught lessons of life, for life. My hope is CENTAUR SEASONS demonstrates that. It matters not the classroom size. We Centaurs weren’t big time. Heck, we were barely even small time. But basketball was our teacher, and we were its pupils.

WHO GOT IT DONE IN ’71?

Senior Joe Scheiber becomes the Centaurs’ first four-year basketball letterman. “I’ve come to appreciate the growing pains that it took, the stick-to-it-tive-ness,” Joe says. “We made our own peanut-and-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to take on the bus to away games. Today’s college athletes would never do that — stick it out for years like that, trying to get a program off the ground.”

Austin Carr of Notre Dame sticks 46 to beat UCLA, the Bruins’ only loss on their way to a seventh NCAA title and fifth straight, beating a game Villanova team, 68-62, in the Astrodome. As consolation prize the Wildcats’ Howard Porter is named the tournament MOP.

Seven wins, most ever.

Captain Schieber, who as a sophomore had led the team in assists, garners little playing time in this, his last campaign.  So what, says Joe.  “It was a matter of realizing that at the end of the school year you had done something you really wanted to do.”  Besides, it only goes to show that he helped the program improve, evolve, grow. A life lesson, he says. “I’ve always gone back to sticking it out with the basketball team, enjoying all four years, even the tough times.”

WHERE WERE YOU IN ’72?

With a new ccoach in Jack Sabota of the ’69 Centaur team and the fire-and-ice leadership of seniors Tony Mazzeo and Jerry Wilkinson, the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales Centaurs are no longer just half bad, they are also half good: at 8-8, a non-losing season.

“That was unheard of,” says Wilk, the upright, disciplined Wilk. “That was the year we surpassed expectations, which was … cool — let’s put it that way. Remember how much time we spent doing this? We practiced every night. We practiced on weekends. We came back during Christmas vacations and slept on cots in the gym. It feels like it happened yesterday. The hours we spent … I mean, how can we forget it?”

Also not forgotten: the debut of UCLA’s Walton Gang, the sixth-straight NCAA title, the eighth in nine years, yadda, yadda yadda.  Of this season little else needs recalling. Except: Team USA wins, then wins again, then loses to the Soviets in the chaotic, thrice-repeated final seconds of the 1972 Olympic gold medal game.  And Immaculata College wins the first official women’s college basketball championship, eventually becoming the basis for “The Mighty Macs,” a nifty little 2011 movie you haven’t seen, but should.

CORRECTION! This screamer of a headline inludes an 80-37 win over the Alumni. You take your wins where you can, even when you can’t!

 

As for the Centaurs’ non-losing 8-8 season, for a dozen more years that .500 slate would be matched once but never bested. However small, it was a big, big step. “No one gave us any credit,” says Maz, the hard-nosed, demonstrative Maz.  “No coach had recruited us. We were all just thrown together. There was nothing, but now there was something. We started by playing community colleges and by my senior year we were playing regular college teams.” And going 8-8. “It was a good feeling. A good, good feeling.”

WHAT DID WE SEE IN ’73?

Sorry, some bait and switch. This season will be the subject of my CENTAUR SEASONS “memory blog,” starting November 30. So apologies if you don’t see much here.

What this season did see was Bill Walton (and Keith Wilkes, Greg Lee, Larry Farmer, Larry Hollyfield, et al.) in something close to perfection. Another 30-0 season, another national championship, and, with every game starting with a win over Notre Dame, another all-time consecutive-wins record. Even more perfection: UCLA beats Memphis State in the title game, and Walton goes 21 for 22 and finishes with 44 points. Geez, loo-wheez! (Providence fans, meanwhile, still see Marvin Barnes getting hurt in the semifinal against Memphis State; and they will always see Ernie DiGregorio passing the ball.)

As for the Centaurs, senior guard Dennis Ramella — Allentown’s first real, legit player — shoots his way into  the record book:

As for this Centaur season itself:

Indeed, it is this ’72-’73 campaign of all these Centaur Seasons that most sorely tests John Wooden’s adage of basketball as teacher, it was that far from perfect. Or maybe the opposite is true – maybe this most imperfect of seasons served as our most important, most valuable classroom.

So believes senior co-captain Chris Cashman: “The experience we got playing at Allentown College in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, is no less important to us than are the experiences that Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Tom Inglsby got at their big-time programs.”

Cash went to high school and was best friends with Tom Inglsby, who played at Villanova and started against UCLA in that ’71 Astrodome final. Cash’s relationship to and with the big time provides its own clarity: “Maybe it was even more important to us,” Cash says, adamantly,  “because we did it just for the joy of the game rather than any expectation of recognition.”

WHAT WAS THE SCORE IN ’74?

My senior year. I fight my way out of the paper bag of ineptitude and put together an honest-to-Naismith basketball season. There will be plenty of time to talk about that later.

Meanwhile, the high-flying David Thompson of the North Carolina State Wolfpack bring Walton and UCLA down to earth, winning a two-over-time NCAA semifinal, 80-77, on their way to a national championship.

“You hear Bill Walton talk about how he’ll always regret that he didn’t win a national championship all three years. Well, what about the two he won?  What about the friendships he made? What about the opportunity to play for one of the great coaches of all times? And yet all he can talk about is the time he didn’t win? That’s sad.”

The speaker is Joe Thomson, a pass-first, pass-second junior point guard my senior year. Forty year later and Joe’s 6.7 assists per game his senior year is still the second-best single-season mark. The truth: without Joe getting me the ball I’d  still be flailing around inside that paper bag.

“You have to go beyond the scoreboard,” Joe declares.  “And I think that’s what we got at Allentown. There weren’t a lot of externals.  In the purest sense, it was playing the game for the love of it. We weren’t getting money. We weren’t on scholarship. We didn’t have to worry about someone getting rid of us. We were just a bunch of guys playin’ ball.”

And none of it, Joe says, was by accident. “I don’t believe in luck,’ he says. “I believe we were the right people to have there at the right time to build that program.”

BASKETBALL VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: Bill Walton … … UCLA vs North Carolina State … … Ernie DiGregorio passes the ball … … “The Mighty Macs” trailer  …  … USA vs. USSR, gold-medal game … …

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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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