Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wizard of Providence

Other schools might have backcourts with better statistics, but few can claim a history of guards with stylistic flair like Providence.

In the early 1960s, the Friars boasted a lethal backcourt of high-scoring John Egan and a slick-passing defensive ace out of Brooklyn named Lenny Wilkins. The tradition of crafty playmakers continued with Vinnie Ernst, Jimmy Walker, Billy Donovan, Eric Murdock and God Shammgod.

But nobody exemplifies the lineage better than Ernie DiGregorio. The diminutive point guard from the Italian enclave of North Providence was, with all respects to Bob Cousy, perhaps the greatest behind-the-back passer in the history of the game. For Exhibit A, please see the :20 mark of the clip below.

In his three varsity seasons under head coach Dave Gavitt, DiGregorio set the school’s all-time assists mark. The beneficiary of many behind-the-back passes was Marvin Barnes, who hailed from Providence’s south side. The hometown duo formed the core of the 1972-’73 Friars, a team that is legendary in Northeastern basketball circles.

This high-sun period for Providence crested at the 1973 Final Four against Memphis State. The Friars had gone 24-2 with an inexplicable loss to Santa Clara and a tough defeat to the Bill Walton-led UCLA behemoth.

Despite Barnes’ growing “Bad News” reputation — allegedly hitting a teammate with a tire iron during the season — the Friars were expected to easily dispatch Memphis State and get a much-anticipated rematch with UCLA.

Playing on his biggest-ever stage, DiGregorio had his floor game in top form as the Friars raced to a 26-16 lead in the first eight minutes. According to Providence lore — and it may be apocryphal — legendary CCNY coach Nat Holman called it the best eight-minute start to a game he had ever witnessed. This was coming from a guy that had been around hoops since playing for the Original Celtics.

Unfortunately for Providence, Barnes hurt his knee at the end of that glorious eight minutes. DiGregorio had to bear more of the scoring load, netting 17 points as the Friars held on to a 49-40 lead at intermission. Barnes tried to give it a go in the second half, but his knee wouldn’t hold up.

The loss of Barnes was too much to overcome. Memphis State had a 54-39 rebounding edge with Larry Kenon (28 points and 22 rebounds) and Ronnie Robinson (24-16) having an easier time inside without Barnes, who averaged 19 boards a game that season. DiGregorio had 32 points but needed 36 shots to get there, and the Friars’ championship hopes were dashed with a 98-85 loss.

DiGregorio was drafted third overall by the Buffalo Braves, signing after an intense bidding war with the ABA, and he was the 1973-’74 NBA rookie of the year. Already having a tough time guarding the bigger pro guards, a knee injury eventually made DiGregorio a defensive liability on the court and he lasted only five years in the league.

Stories circulated during DiGregorio’s pro career about him being unable to leave Providence behind, flying back to his hometown on days off with Buffalo. Providence is the place where he is venerated most, a town that has certainly seen its share of great guards.