My first question: You played for three different varsity coaches in three years. What was that experience like and what was the transition like from Gerry Alaimo to Gary Walters to Tom Lawson?
I had three varsity coaches in three years. Gerry was a character. He was really good for the big guys, and I was as big as there was in those days. I was a short big guy. We didn’t have big guys in those days.
And then we had Gary Walters. He was really god for the guards, but he didn’t have any use for the big guys. When I was a sophomore I was the leading scorer for the varsity team. The year before I came to Middlebury the varsity team was 1-22. The next year they were 1-22 also. In the first year they won the first game, and in the second year they won the last game so we had 44 consecutive games losses. It set an NCAA record.
When I was a freshman we had the first winning freshmen team in 15 years. So Gerry let almost all of us to play [on the varsity team] as sophomores. And everybody imagined that he would stay for three more years and we would have a really good team when we were seniors, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Gary was the youngest college coach in the nation at the time.
Gerry Alaimo thought I had a terrible jump shot, so he made me shoot a hook shot, which was really unusual. You didn’t see anyone else shooting a hook shot all the time. But I could shoot a hook shot from the free throw line, or I could go down to the baseline and I could make a 15-foot hook shot without the backboard. And I was the leading scorer my sophomore year.
But [Walters] said, “Don’t shoot the hook shot. If I ever see you shoot the hook shot, I’ll break your arm.” And when I would get the [offensive] rebounds he would say, “Now throw it out to the guards. Don’t put it back up.” Which I thought was ridiculous. The year we were sophomores we won 10 games. And the next year we won eight. And I was not the leading scorer. It was a miserable year for me, because I felt like he was tying my hands behind my back. We wanted to win games! And I thought, “Gee, if I get the [offensive] rebound and I’m inside the lane, I should do whatever I can to put it back in.” It was a very frustrating reason.
For some reason — maybe I was taking my frustrations out on my game — I was averaging 4.5 fouls per game. So one day, near the end of the season, Gary called me into his office after one of the games and he asked me if I was intentionally fouling out. I had never thought about that and I had no idea whether I was or not, but I wasn’t consciously doing it. And he said, “I think you’re intentionally fouling out because you’re frustrated.” And I said, “No I’m not.” But I had a lot of fouls and I was very frustrated.
And then Tom [Lawson] comes along. I don’t think Tom was a basketball player, but he was the best basketball coach of all of them. He looked at each player on his own merit. He said, “Look I need all of you guys to play well together well as a team.” And he said to me, “By the way, if you don’t shoot that hook shot, I’m going to break your arm.” And so I was the leading scorer again in my senior year. And we had the first winning season in 15 years.
We were 12-12 going into our last game against RPI and there was like a minute-and-a-half left and we were down by two or three. And we said, “We’ve been running up and down these boards for four years. We cannot lose this game. And we won. It was really fun.”
I suppose the natural follow up question to that is, what are some of your favorite memories with those coaches, both on and off the court?
When I was a freshman I lived in Stewart Hall and Gerry had an apartment in Stewart and he would, with some frequency, come cruising down the halls and see what was what. And if you weren’t studying he would get after you. When he was trying to teach me the hook shot he would say, “Let’s go down to the court.” And it might be eight o’clock on a Saturday night and we would go down and put the lights on and play one-on-one for an hour or two. And we did that a lot. He took a lot of personal interest in me, which I really appreciated.
Halfway between Thanksgiving and Christmas my freshman year my father passed away unexpectedly — he committed suicide actually. It was a couple of days before our very first game. So I had to go home, obviously for a couple of days. And then I came back. I still hadn’t really figured out what happened to me. So Gerry comes over to me at practice and he says, “Hey Jim, I only have one thing to say — when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” [Laughs]. And then he walked way — that was all he ever said about it. And clearly I haven’t forgotten about it.
Another time, when we were juniors, playing for Gary Walters, it was near the end of the season and we were disappointed that we weren’t going to win as many games as we had the year before. We thought it was really backwards. There were some other players who were one year younger than us who started and one of them was really quiet — his name was Rick Doud. And we went to see Gary after one of the games and he told Gary that he was making a huge mistake not letting me shoot the hook shot. And this kid was really quiet; he would never speak up. And the fact that he went and did that was astonishing to me. In a very short time Walters called me in, and he allowed me to shoot it.
Tom was a really good coach. He was the first coach that made notebooks for us. There were things in the notebooks to read and then there were plays for us to learn. None of the other coaches had given us written material. Tom was very thoughtful about how we played. We played a lot of different defenses and offenses. Walters came from Princeton and he always made us play man-to-man. I don’t know if we ever played zone. Usually you would pick a defense based on the team you were playing and their strengths and weaknesses. But that was really fun — learning how to play defense one-on-one all the time. There weren’t set plays with [Walters]. That was fun, to learn how to be fluid and set plays up by moving and back door [cuts] and things like that. It worked.
Gary had a really hot temper. And we had these folding chairs that you would sit on along the edge of the bench. And we would often turn around and kick the chair and it would fold up and actually move. When we were freshmen there might have been a dozen people in the gym. But there was a woman named Mrs. Kelly, she was here for almost 45 years and she was the Dean of Women. The President of the College was James Armstrong and his wife would also go to the games and she would sit with Mrs. Kelly. And they both sat three or four rows behind where the team would sit. And one time when Gary kicked the chair it landed right up next to Mrs. Kelly. He thought he was going to get fired; he was mortified. So fast-forward 30 years later: For a brief period of time Gary worked in Boston and I was also in Boston working. So I went over to see him. And he said, “Come here,” and he walks me behind his desk and picks up his waste paper basket and there’s a huge hole in the side of it.
Gerry spent the most time with us off the court. Always asking about grades and tests and papers. He gave me a lot of support.
Did you ever see Tom Lawson’s high school coaching record? It was the most incredible thing you’ll ever see. He was the head coach at Proctor High School in Proctor, Vermont. All of his teams were winning the state championships for years.
He was the assistant coach to Gary Walters. He was quiet and respectful and Gary was the personality.
In those days how did recruiting work? Was there much recruiting?
There was recruiting … it was very informal. And Gerry found me before I found Middlebury. Because he lived two or three towns away from me, he kept his eye on all the leagues, and which players were good players. There was a classmate of mine named John Torrents, who came from Litchfield, Connecticut. Gerry recruited him to play at Middlebury. He was an all-state player, incredibly fast on his feet. I’m not sure how many other kids were directly there because of Gerry’s persuasion. We had no depth. There was a period of time when we were sophomores or juniors when we didn’t have 10 guys at practice. So we couldn’t scrimmage. It was really pathetic. I was the tallest guy, which was also pathetic.
When you think about the guys that played with, who will you remember playing with most?
There are probably three or four different people who I’ll never forget. And we were all in the same class. There was a guy named Lee Cartmill. Lee played three varsity sports, football, basketball and golf. He broke his arm on the last football game of the season against Williams. He might have come into the last game of the year, but wasn’t able to play [his senior basketball season], which was a huge disappointment to us. So that was a huge loss.
Then there was a guy named John Flanagan. I don’t know how tall John was — short. He interviewed at Williams. And the admissions officer asked him, “What do you want to do when you’re not in class.” And John said, “I want to join the basketball team.” And the guy looked at John and was quiet for a minute and then he said, “We have a tremendous intramural program.” And John decided then and there that there was no way he was going to Williams. So any time we played Williams, his game came up.
We were sophomores and it was Winter Carnival weekend at St. Lawrence and we’re up there playing a game. We’re down by one point and we have the ball under the hoop [on the offensive end] and there was a play where I passed the ball in and Rick Minton came off a pick and shoots. There’s like 10 seconds left. So Rick shoots the ball and it hits off the back of the rim and it comes right back to him. So he shoots it again and it hits the rim and comes back. So this time, he and I both come down holding the ball. And I turned and looked at him and when I saw him look at me, I knew there was no time left. So I ripped it out of his hands and threw a hook shot. It probably didn’t even reach its peak when the buzzer went off and the ball went in. The fans had been so loud and then all of a sudden there wasn’t a single solitary sound in the gym.
What about off the court? Are there any anecdotes that you can share?
DU, the fraternity most of us were in, used to make a hockey rink on its lawn during the winter and play with an old sock. And one night John Flanagan is out there and he got hit with the stick — he got a pretty mean cut over his eye. Gerry was furious that he was out there playing on the ice, with a chance to get hurt in the middle of the season. And I think we were playing Norwich the next day and Gerry wouldn’t play John, our starting guard. He was really angry at all of us for letting John play hockey. I think we won the game, and I can’t remember if he let John come in at the end of the game, but he was furious. And it was really hard for John to sit on the bench.
The year before me there was a player named Gene Oliver who was about my height, a little bit bigger. Geno and I always had to play opposite one another in practice. So it was just three years of pounding on one another. And he never got upset, and I never got upset.
From my understanding that was a time of nickname of giving. What was yours and can you share the story?
It was hooker.
So one game I played, we were playing MIT at home and I think I had 20-some-odd points at halftime. And I played three more minutes and had 26 points and fouled out. I shot 80 or 90 percent, all on hook shots. You have those days where you just can’t get it to go in, no matter what you do and then you have those days where, no matter how you throw it, it goes in. That was one of those days. And I fouled out.