Centaur Seasons: Revisiting Allentown basketball, 40 years later

Forty years ago we played on a half-good, half-bad basketball team for a brand-new college. Forty years later a lot has changed.

Centaur SeasonsBy Steve McKee

The problem is remembering what to call them. When I played we were the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales Centaurs. These days they’re the DeSales University Bulldogs.

Centaur-Centdog-Bultaur-Bulldogs. And the mascot and name aren’t the only things that changed a dozen years ago.

When I showed up at the school in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1970, the college had graduated two classes. There were five buildings, lots of cornfields, maybe 450 students. The barest of bones; a handful of majors. The entire place making itself up as it went along.

“It was the frontier days of the university,” says Jim Naccarato, a guard on the team two years ahead of me and an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales seminarian. “Everyone was taking a gamble. There was real risk. It was an adventure.”

The bet paid off. Today, DeSales University boasts dozens buildings, perhaps 1,700 undergrads, a full complement of majors, all the bells and whistles of a competitive college in the digital world.

As for the basketball teams. Well …

When I arrived the Centaurs’ two-year record was 8-28, with losses of 20, 21, 22 (twice), 26, 27, 37, 41, 42, 61 and … 70. “Nobody was doing anything but trying to win, play the best they could,” says Tom Junod, an under-sized center on those first two teams. “There was a lot of spirit among the people who were there. Everyone wanted the school to succeed. I don’t think any of us felt like we were wasting our time, and I don’t think any of us did. We wanted to win.”

In my four years the Centaur went another 29-44. If you’re scoring at home, for the first six years of the Centaur’s existence, that’s a combined 37-72.

“Wins meant so much to us,” says Dave Glielmi, my roommate junior year. “We used to count them like they were jelly beans when you were a kid.”

Meanwhile, this year’s DeSales Bulldogs are right now 21-6. Saturday they lost to Delaware Valley in the MAC Freedom Conference championship game. On Wednesday they open against Moravian  as the No. 2 seed in the ECAC South Region tournament.  Coach Scott Coval’s teams have won 20 or more games in nine of the last 11 seasons. There have been three appearances in the NCAA D-III postseason. These guys are good.

And here’s the bonus: The better the Bulldogs are now, the better we Centaurs can believe we were then. Don’t think we don’t.

This past September I began posting at “Centaur Seasons.” A “memory blog,” it’s about those early days of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales and the certain something that I believe came with attending a brand-new school that was right then as much a concept as it was a college. Included in Centaur Seasons are the entries from an actual diary I wrote during the 1972-73 season, my junior year, posted 40 years later in “real” time. But mainly Centaur Seasons is about the striving. The trying to win but too-often losing. The playing in front of a handful of fans. The being there at the beginning. The not knowing what our efforts might bring, but knowing whatever it was we’d be long gone by the time it happened.

“We knew we weren’t going to be the centerfold story in Sports Illustrated,” says Chris Cashman. “We had no real expectations.”

Cash, a year ahead of me, was the classic “last man cut” from his high school team. At Allentown as a 6-3 center-forward he played in every game his first three seasons. Then, senior year, on the first day of practice he ripped up his ankle — and with it the games-played streak.

“We were a Catholic start-up college fielding a start-up team,” he says. “It was what it was. But what was magical about it was that A) we loved to play basketball, B) we grew to kind of love each other, and C) we took ourselves seriously enough not to run out there and knowingly take the chance that we were going to embarrass ourselves – even though, sometimes, we did embarrass ourselves.”

Writing the Centaur Seasons blogs these past few month, I’ve had pleasant occasion to talk to many of my former teammates. It’s been great to reconnect, to hear the old stories. But I’ve also asked them to help me try to get my hands around the certain something that I believe made going to Allentown College when we did a particular, unique experience. If only I can find it.

Tony Mazzeo offered this about the college, immediately. A three-sport letterman, Maz won all the MVPs (soccer, hoops and baseball) and was named the Varsity Athlete of 1971-72 my sophomore year.  “If there had been an Allentown College in the 1930s, would we have cared about it the way we did?” he asked me when we talked. And then he answered: “No.” It’s the fact that there was no Allentown College until we got there, until we made it so, Maz says, that makes our being there so special.  “I am absolutely convinced of this,” he says.

Joe Thomson, meanwhile, suggested this about Centaur Basketball. “In a crazy way, in the purest sense of the word, it was just playing the game for the love of the game,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of externals. We weren’t getting money, we weren’t on scholarship. We didn’t have to worry about who was getting all-conference. We just played. We didn’t like the losing, but when we did we just got ready for the next game. To me it was pure sport. We were just a bunch of guys playing ball.”

Joe was a pass-first junior point guard when I was a senior. I looked to him to get me the ball, which he did, consistently. As a result I, me, Steve McKee, and my 6-foot-8-inches and 165 pounds of pipecleaner body that had not played basketball in high school, became the hoops star I had long wanted to be. Even if just for one year. Even if just at brand-new Allentown College of St. So-On and So-Forth.

Joe told me about a visit to Center Valley a couple of years ago. “I went back and saw how beautiful the campus is,” he said. “There’s a soccer field right in the middle of the place now! I got choked up. We had not even a quarter of all this. I looked around – the beautiful facilities, the townhouses up on the hill, everyghing going on — and thought, Man, this is a real college now. But you know, what? We had a real college too.”

Which is why I think this is telling: Not one of my teammates I’ve talked to has said they wished they were going to DeSales U now, playing for the Bulldogs at a packed Billera Hall, taking a run at conference titles, postseason play, league honors, all that.  No, thanks, we’re fine.

“If we go back to a game now,” says Dave Gleilmi, a 6-2 forward and arguably the best player of the Centaur Season era, “the place is called DeSales University and we’re watching a team called the Bulldogs – that is obviously A LOT better than we used to be. But then we get together after and we have a few drinks and now we’re the Centaurs again, we’re Allentown College. And nobody’s saying, ‘Geez, I wish we were DeSales University.’ That wouldn’t be right. We were who we should have been, and we always will be.”

The Centaur-Centdog-Bultaur-Bulldogs? They are who they should always be. As Jerry Wilkinson —  with Tony Mazzeo the co-captain of a half-good 8-8 Centaur team their senior year — wrote me in an email after some of us got together for a Bulldog game: “I do hope these kids today feel anywhere near the joy that we do that we played way back when.”

Joy. Yes, that’s the right word. Feel it forever, Bulldogs, forever.

This essay is drawn from the CENTAUR SEASONS posts Steve McKee has written since September. Most of the links here are to specific CENTAUR SEASONS  entries.  Steve worked for 14 years at The Wall Street Journal, where he was the first writer of the popular online sports blog, “The Daily Fix.” He is the author of three books, including “COACH,” an oral history of the sideline profession.

Happy new season!

Last night eager Americans celebrated the beginning of a new Division III basketball season by dropping a ball covered with electric lights, eating lots of finger foods and celebrating with Dick Clark. Okay, maybe I’m slightly off on my holiday celebrations. We actually toss the ball up to start play, there are no lights on it and Dick Clark is not involved (though Dickinson and Clark may be).

And we actually started the basketball season on Saturday, November 15th, well before the calendar flipped over to 2009. But if you were busy with the holidays, college football or putting snow chains on the car, maybe you’re just getting into the 2008 – 2009 season. If that’s the case, here are nine story lines to follow – one for each region with a bonus – for men’s Division III hoops in 2009.

No. 1 – Northeast: Is Amherst overrated or underrated?

The Lord Jeffs finished second in the nation last year, are one year removed from a national championship and are undefeated this season. And yet there’s a chance they won’t get a single number 1 vote in the next Top 25 poll. That’s because the Lord Jeffs only returned one starter (Brian Baskauskas) from last year’s squad. Amherst hasn’t lost yet, but did have close calls against Emmanuel (2-7) and Skidmore (5-3). Despite the history of success, questions about the Lord Jeffs may linger. With Brandeis and Williams unranked, Amherst only has one opponent currently receiving Top 25 votes, Middlebury, and they won’t play each other until the regular season finale.

No. 2 – East: How long can Ithaca stay unbeaten?

At No. 17 Ithaca has achieved its highest ranking in the eight-plus years of our Top 25. The Bombers weren’t completely off the radar to start the season. Empire 8 coaches tabbed them as the conference’s preseason favorite. They’ve already won at Rochester and on the long, snowy road trip to St. Lawrence. Around the Nation talked with Coach Mullins and Company about Ithaca’s best start since 1941. Could the Bombers duplicate conference foe St. John Fisher’s 2005 accomplishment with an undefeated regular season?

No. 3 – Atlantic: Will more than one NJAC team make the NCAA tournament?

The NJAC hasn’t put more than one team in the tournament since Montclair State and Ramapo made the field in 2003. New Jersey City and Ramapo made the tournament in 2005 but the Gothic Knights were in Pool B. Conference play usually leaves even the better NJAC teams with a couple loses, but those teams also haven’t rolled up the impressive regional winning percentage needed to secure an at-large bid. This year No. 14 Richard Stockton and William Paterson have one regional loss each and only play each other once in the regular season.

No. 4 – Mid-Atlantic: Will No. 25 DeSales finally make the NCAA tournament?

Year after year the Bulldogs have been tantalizing close to making the NCAA tournament only to miss it in heart-breaking fashion. Last year they had 19 wins but lost to King’s in the MAC-Freedom championship. They had 20 wins but lost to King’s in the title game in 2005. They missed the tournament with 22 wins in 2004 and were conference runners-up again in 2003. This year’s edition is led by Darnell Braswell (16.5 ppg) and Brian Hunter, a transfer from Division I Lehigh. DeSales is undefeated with nine wins to start the year. But last year Elizabethtown started 10-0, mashed DeSales in a January match up and didn’t even make its conference tournament.

No. 5 – South: Which slow-starting preseason favorite will have the biggest turnaround?

If this question asked for the “fastest” turnaround, Randolph-Macon would have already won that honor. The preseason favorite in the ODAC started 1-3 before ripping off six straight victories, including the 75-63 win over No. 13 Ursinus. Two of the Tigers’ three loses are out of region but they still have plenty of competition among teams needing a turn around. Preseason No. 10 Mary-Hardin Baylor lost its first three games but got a nice win over No. 6 UW-Whitewater to move back to .500. You can even throw Maryville (Tenn.) in the mix as the Scots are 4-6 after last night’s loss at No. 18 Centre. All those loses are in region and the Scots are battling with several teams they don’t play, like Chapman and the Landmark members, to secure a bid through Pool B.

No. 6 – Great Lakes: Will we really have a post-season in which Wooster, Wittenberg, Hope and Calvin aren’t featured prominently?

A combination of youth, injuries and a relative drop off in Wittenberg’s success have left these four teams just 20-19 to start the year. Hope is still a question mark since the Flying Dutchmen have only played two Division III opponents (loses to Wheaton (Ill.) and Carthage). It’s not unreasonable to think that even these storied teams need to reload. But it would be strange not to see at least one of them advance far into the tournament. At least one has reached the regional finals every year since 2002. They have combined for 17 appearances in the last 6 tournaments.

No. 7 – Midwest: How many CCIW teams will make the NCAA tournament?

The CCIW has three teams in the Top 10 (Wheaton, Elmhurst and Augustana), four in the Top 20 (add Illinois Wesleyan) and a fifth that is unranked but undefeated (Millikin). Those five teams have four regional loses combined but soon head into grueling (for them) and entertaining (for us) conference play. The rest of the CCIW is a combined 13 games over .500 so there are no assured victories. Since only four teams make the CCIW tournament, there will be a lot on the line every game.

No. 8 – West: Who is more likely to secure home court advantage on the road to Salem – UW-Platteville, St. Thomas or Buena Vista?

This question isn’t about winning the conference or making the playoffs. It’s about rolling up enough wins and having the logistical advantage that factor into host site selections. I’m assuming geography and budget restrictions keep the NWC champion out of this conversation. UW-Platteville has the toughest hill to climb given the WIAC’s history of bruising play. Buena Vista has a regional loss but will be the prohibitive favorite to win the IIAC. Ditto for St. Thomas in the MIAC, minus the regional loss. And maybe the geographically isolated SCIAC champion could host the first and second rounds if the Conference puts two in the tournament and Chapman grabs a Pool B bid.

No. 9 – National: Are pollsters too focused on the CCIW and WIAC?

Seven teams in the Top 25 are from those two conferences. That’s a lot but not entirely unusual. Six teams from the CCIW and WIAC were ranked in the Top 25 at this point in 2007 and 2008. Maybe the voters are hedging their bets by picking multiple teams and figuring at least one will advance deep in the tournament. The CCIW and WIAC actually haven’t had an inordinate number of Final Four appearances with three each. That’s not bad but it isn’t more than the MIAA, NESCAC, NCAC, OAC, ODAC and UAA. The CCIW and WIAC sometimes meet in the tournament and cancel each other out, but not always. Last year the representatives were eliminated by teams from the MIAA (Hope), IIAC (Buena Vista and Loras) and UAA (Wash U.). In 2007 they were done in by the UAA (Wash U.) and MWC (Carroll). So are the voters (including me) missing the boat by putting so many in the Top 25?

Feel free to comment on these or any other story lines and happy new season!