Interview with Joe McLaughlin

How did you come to choose Middlebury?

I started playing freshman ball for Joe Marrone who was the varsity soccer coach and when he left Middlebury he went to the University of Connecticut and won a national title in soccer. So that was my first basketball experience at Middlebury. Then for two years I played for Stub and one year I played for Gerry Alaimo.

Stub was primarily a football and track coach, and I don’t think anyone was under the impression that his first sport at Middlebury was basketball. He put in a fairly simple offense that probably was well-suited to our limited talent. I think players liked him — he was very philosophical about the talent that he had. Middlebury basketball at that time was kind of a stepchild. Hockey and skiing were the dominant winter sports. We had maybe 20 people at games down at the field house. So it was not a sport that held much interest among the rest of the campus.

The way we felt about Stub was demonstrated when one of my teammates Paul Witterman suggested creating a fund in [Stub’s] name to benefit student-athletes and quite a bit of money was raised. Stub had a great sense of humor. He was a very patient guy, and he had to endure a lot of defeat.

What are some of your favorite anecdotes that you can share about Stub?

There’s a quote. I think he made this comment on a bus, coming home from UVM or St. Michaels — two schools that I never beat [when I was at Middlebury] — he said something like, “We may not be big, but we sure are slow.” He had a very wry sense of humor.

I remember Dick Maine who was the captain. Dick was the year ahead of me so this must have been 1963 and he was interviewing for jobs and he encountered one interview where the interviewer asked him about the basketball team and Dick said, “We won 17 moral victories.” I think that was the year we didn’t win any games at all.

There were some talented athletes in the school that could have really helped the basketball team but never came out for it. I don’t know if I want to point fingers at anybody because they might have had good reasons. But we were aware that there were some athletes who were very good basketball players who didn’t come out for basketball. I think that was maybe indicative of the fact that this wasn’t a sport that the college seemed to care a whole lot about.

What was the culture on the team like despite all those losses?

We got along pretty well. I loved playing basketball, and I think everybody on the team did, or they wouldn’t have gone through that. None of us enjoyed losing, but we all enjoyed playing, and we stuck with it as a result. There were some talented people, but we didn’t have enough depth or talent all the way around to win.

One of my best friends at college, Dick Ides was an extremely good soccer player and tennis player and a very good basketball player although he was only about 5’7’’ or 5’8’’. We created a memorial to him in the English department at the University of Southern California that memorializes his years at Middlebury. One of the stories that’s told had to do with a game at Williams where, in the second half, Dick got the tip [from the jump ball] and drove the length of the court, through two Williams defenders, and put the ball in the wrong basket. Of course the Williams crowd went wild with laughter, but Dick actually played a very good game, and scored a fair number of points in the second half after he realized what he’d done wrong. And after the game, the President of Williams College, who was at the game, came out on the court and shook his hand and said, “You showed a lot of poise.”

What was the transition like from Stub Mackey to Gerry Alaimo?

There was a new energy level [when Gerry became coach]. Gerry was very high energy, very intense. He knew he was facing a challenge. He worked us real hard — his practices were brutal. He put in a new offensive system: something called the Yale Shuffle, which was popular in the Ivy League at that time and more complicated than what Stub ran, which was a simple rotation offesne. He also spent a lot of time on individual defense. He was a very good coach in that respect; I learned a lot from him.

We all got a preview of what Gerry was like during the first football game. There was a bad call out on the field and Gerry was standing down on the sidelines — and he’d been at Middlebury for a few weeks at this point — and he disagreed with the call, so he ran out on the field and started yelling at the ref. I don’t know what Duke Nelson thought about that, but it was pretty clear that he was driven.

At practice when he was trying to make the point that you’ve got to dive for loose balls, he tried to demonstrate how important it was by throwing a ball out on the floor and then diving for it, and he broke [his] elbow.

For him, basketball was his first love — basketball was his only love. As far as I know, Gerry never got married. Basketball was his life.

He went to Brown and I think he spent the end of his career as an assistant at Providence. He went to Brown as head coach and he had some success there. In fact he got in touch with me when I was working as a reporter in Chicago and asked me to do some scouting for him because he was playing the University of Chicago and Duquesne or one of the other schools up here.

Gerry was a very good bridge player. And once the season was over, he basically treated us like his equals. We had a few beers together, and he would invite us over. He was a bachelor [and] the other coaches were a lot older than he was so he was looking for some kind of friendships with his players.

What are some of the accolades, moments or games that stand out from your career?

Senior year was the most successful [season]. At the same time that some of the Division I coaches were running it, like North Carolina, we ran the four-corners offense and it drove some schools — that beat us in the end — crazy for most of the game, including UVM at one point. We experimented with a lot of ways to overcome the talent [disparity]. I remember practicing the four corners a lot. I don’t think many of the coaches we were playing had seen it before. To me it seemed like an innovation that wasn’t very commonly used. There were teams in those days before the [shot] clock that would hold the ball a lot, but this was a variant of that which really spread out the defense and relied on reverse cuts to take them surprise and also relied on just holding the ball a lot. That’s one of the features of Gerry’s career that I remember.

Karl Lindholm told me to ask you about the wins you had against Canadian teams your senior year.

We did play a tournament in Montreal — I think that happened twice when I was on the varsity. It was a great trip because, you know, it was Montreal! The team’s name was Sir George William and they had a tournament with two Canadian teams and two American teams and I think we won a couple of games over the four years. And believe me, as soon as the games were over we were out seeing the sites and the bars. So those were trips that we looked forward to!

We played in Boston at Northeastern and MIT. Especially when you got to be seniors and were old enough to get a beer, there was some of that going on, regardless of what the training rules were.

How in your mind has Middlebury basketball changed over the years, and have you stayed close to the program?

I came back for a reunion alumni weekend and it was the year they honored Gerry, so that was what drew me back. I’ve been back mainly for class reunions every five years. That particular weekend when I came back for the alumni game — I had been playing a lot of basketball — I remember I got there early and went out there on the court and I started shooting and I made nine three-pointers in a row and there was no one there! [Laughs]. It’s like making a hole-in-one when you’re playing by yourself!

I think the tallest player we had was Charlie Ladd, who was maybe 6’7’’ and then we had a couple of guys who were 6’5’’ and we had a couple of African American players, Cecil Forster and Wally Lucas, but when you look at those teams, you’re looking at a 1960’s, small college team, [which] doesn’t [have] anything like the size or talent that Middlebury fields today. None of the teams that we faced had the kind of size that Middlebury has had in recent years. So I think there’s a world of difference [between the 1960s and today] — not only in the outcomes of games — but also in the kind of talent that Middlebury is attracting. I think it’s great.

Finally, what was the basketball team’s relationship like with the student body and also with the administration in an academic sense? How did athletics and academics work together in the ‘60s?

I think the feeling a lot of people had, not just on the basketball team, but maybe elsewhere was that the fair-haired athletes were the skiers. The hockey team had been to a national tournament title game a couple years before I got [to Middlebury]. So these were the teams that the coaches focused on. There were good Middlebury teams but basketball wasn’t one of them.  My sense is that the administration wanted to be successful but they might not have put as much emphasis on it outside of skiing and hockey as they do today.

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