To start tell me something about Gerry Alaimo, what he was like as a coach and a person.
He was a very intense guy. He loved his players — the guys he recruited, everybody who gave effort. He came here when basketball had died. When he came here Middlebury was losing four or five games a year to Canadian schools. So the first thing he did was start recruiting guys and I think that started in part with the class that was before me. And out of that group he only got about three recruits. In my year, which was the fall of the ’65-’66 season, he recruited six of us. By the time I was a senior I was really the only one left, mostly because of injuries. He was so intense on basketball at a time when it wasn’t even part of the Middlebury lexicon anymore, that he made a lot of enemies. But, the townspeople loved him. Mostly because he drank at the BFW, so he knew all the guys.
He was a big guy, he played at Brown, was the all-time leading scorer at Brown. He was legendary in the Ivy League for how tough he was, and he was a tough guy. Not only did you have to go to class, you had to do well. He said you to go be in bed by 10 at night. There was no drinking during the season … people really didn’t even party on Saturdays. If you did all those things, and you worked on your game, then he stood up for you against absolutely everything.
He and I used to have huge fights about things: about how things were going to be run; about what I was going to do; about this, that and the other thing. And I usually lost the fights.
But the recruiting started to pick up. Now you couldn’t tell it, because the records go down. But we went from playing five Canadian schools to playing AIC, Northeastern, Babson [and] he would get us to tournaments. The year after I was here we played Philadelphia Textile, which was one of the best teams in the country. And there was only Division I and Division II back then. We used to play St. Michaels home-and-home, Norwich home-and-home, UVM home-and-home and the Vermont state series. And then we went out and played Muhlenberg in a tournament, East Stroudsburg, we played in Central Connecticut’s tournament when they were really good. [It was about] changing the culture — from a culture of losing, to a culture of winning. When I was a senior year we won 10 games. Well after [the varsity went] 4-18 when I was a freshman — there were no freshmen on the varsity in the late ‘60s because of the NCAA rules — and then 1-22, 1-22 … 10-14, you couldn’t believe it.
Besides the recruiting and his effort was there anything that changed from those 1-22 seasons to the 10-14 season?
Yes! Players. Bodies. Bodies that could play. When I was a freshman we had six terrific guys.
Connie Brosnan, 6’7½’’ was from Brockton, Mass. He was supposed to be a rebounder … he didn’t hit the boards very hard; we called him Missy. Turned out he wanted to be a party boy; he was terrific guy and a wonderful friend. We had a kid Ned Bergman who was a basketball and football player who we called Eddie Afro because he had tight curly hair. He played for the freshmen team and the chose to play just football after that. So then we were left with four of us. Kevin Ducey, who was one of the very best guards who ever played here. He blew his knee out halfway through his sophomore year. They couldn’t repair ACL tears then. So Duce was essentially gone He tried to come back his junior year, but couldn’t go. So finally as a senior he came back part-time. We had a good rebounder, John Freshman, and he really hurt his back as a sophomore, [which] curtailed part of his sophomore year and then his junior year it went and he had to have surgery. So by the time we got to my senior year I was the only one standing. But we also got a transfer, a kid who went to Rutgers for one semester, Kurt Backstrom. [He] never played for us; he got paralyzed in a car accident on parents weekend our sophomore year. He would have been a terrific guard because he played at Rutgers. And when we’d lose a guy, there would be no one to fill in! We didn’t have any bodies.
How do you get to 10 wins?
When I was a freshman we were eh. When I was a sophomore we got four good guys: Gene Oliver, who could really rebound; Rich Browning who’s from the Jersey Shore — really tough, good player. Those two played as sophomores. [Then] at the Christmas tournament when I’m a junior, Howie Dickerman, the [current] coach at Central [Connecticut] takes the worst cheap shot I’ve ever seen anybody throw on a basketball court, less than a minute into the game, [he] breaks Browning’s jaw to smithereens. So we lose Browning for the season.
But that class that came in when I was a junior was Jimmy Keyes, John Flannagan, John Torrent, Barry Mathayer, Dave Kufta, John Olinowski and Lee Cartmill — all of them could play. We were clunking along my junior year and they started to play. They weren’t all basketball players but they were all good athletes. So now when we were seniors, Browning came back, Oliver was a year older, all of these guys are now sophomores and we’ve got players. We got a couple of good recruits that year and that turned the deal. That got us to 10 wins.
And then Alaimo left and Gary Walters, who’s now the AD at Princeton, came and coached one year before he left and went to Union. And when he coached he was the youngest head coach in college basketball. That was ’70 and he got out of Princeton in, I don’t know, ’66 … whatever year [Bill] Bradley graduated.
Of your teammates, over the years, who will you remember playing with most?
Well I have to thank Peter Roby, who was a senior when I was a sophomore. Robes was a very good player, always a little bit out of control and I was the guy behind him. He led the nation in fouling. He had 4.78 fouls per game. So he sat a lot and I played. Roby would start, but he’d have two fouls with 16 minutes to go in the first half most games and I’d be in the game. And he never made it to the end. If we played 24 or 23 [games] he fouled out of 19 games. I mean literally, he led the nation in fouls-per-game. And the guy could play and he was an athlete, he could jump! Unlike me.
We remember the good times. The practices that Alaimo would put us through were unbelievable. My senior year was the first time we had January term. We would stay [at Middlebury] and practice until like the 22nd of December and then we’d usually be back [on campus] the night of the 26th, but maybe the 25th; it depended on when the Christmas tournaments were. I remember going to East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania on Christmas night.
What about those guys that you mentioned, what about their games do you remember?
Cartmel and Torrent were extremely quick, good defenders, could drive the ball. Jimmy Keyes [was as] tough as nails, could play the post. He and Gene Oliver were our “bigs” at 6’3 ½’’. Browning was one of the best bank shooters I ever saw in my life and he shot the ball so hard it was unbelievable it would go in. I shouldn’t say that because I shot the ball generally from out in three-land and beyond long before the three-point shot, and have never had any arc on my ball. The thing we did … we played hard. We had guys who could play hard and win. Guys who had good basketball backgrounds from New York and Catholic schools. And then we got better players.
Unless you had a lab that you had to take, you were supposed to be on the floor at 2:45. When practice started the doors got locked and if you weren’t in there or still in the trainer’s room, there was no practice. We just got on the line and ran suicides until the person showed up. And then when that person showed up they ran suicides for the rest of practice. And he had this drill, at the end of practice every day everybody would be on the free throw line with one-and-one [free throws] and if you bricked one you started running. There was one night when we must have run, I don’t know, 35 suicides. Jimmy Keyes was lying on the floor with his legs twisted with cramps. Guys were outside booting in the snow. And it was one of those practices — those brutal preseason practices or the holidays — when Kufta gave him the name the fruit vendor. We’re all on the line and huffing and puffing, going “make the fucking foul shots.” And Kufta just starts laughing like a hyena and he says, “Doesn’t he sound like a goddamn Italian fruit vendor?” And that was it, our loads were all lighter, we ran, we just kept running and that was it.
And we hung together. We played over at St. Lawrence and Clarkson and Cartmel’s father was the AD at Clarkson or St. Lawrence. So we played at Saturday at four o’clock and then we didn’t play until Monday. So we win on a tip-in at the buzzer and we’re ecstatic. And we go to dinner and the assistant coach gets up and Gerry gets up to leave and he says to me “Shotgun,” — he always called me Shotgun — “don’t let anyone get arrested.” And he walks out [after] he threw $40 in meal money on the table. He knew guys were going to have beers. So we go to some little divey place and there’s a pool table, and people are just talking and we’re not getting in trouble. So a couple of guys get in a two-man game of eight-ball with guys from there. Well, long-story short, the thing turns into a fist-fight. One of their guy grabs a pool cube, hits Kufta over the eye. Olinkowski grabs the guy — we call [him] one-two because he only [needs to] hit a guy two times and he’s on the ground — and taps out the two guys who started it. I’m trying to get people out of the way, the cops come, nobody gets pinched. We come down for breakfast the next morning, Kufta has got a hat on [and says,] “Hey coach how are you?” Coach goes, “Kufta, come here. Take off your hat.” He’s got a big knot on his head. Olinkowski comes in, the guy hit [him] and one of his teeth is black. That story went into the Middlebury legend and we were a better team for it.
What are some of the other anecdotes off the court that you can share?
[Laughs] There are a lot of stories that can’t be shared. I had this 1960 Dodge — huge car. And that’s what we used to pick up Butch. And everybody called it the “White Whale.” The car is only like nine years old at this time and the floor on the passenger seat had rotted out and there was actually a hole in the floor. It was very good if you were out riding around and you were having a beer — you just dropped the can through the hole. The night the DEKE house burns down, I’m living in DU, which is [Parton Health Center] now. [It’s a] Saturday night after the basketball season and I wake up and smell smoke. I get up and we’re going to a Celtics game. We’re all going, like four carloads of guys. With me is one my brothers, who happened to be up [at Middlebury], Browning, Torrent and Flannagan. It’s a freezing cold day and we just about get down to Boston and the heater in my car breaks. We go to the game, Celtics-Knicks. We’re trying to get the heat going, we can’t some guy says you put cardboard in front of your radiator, it doesn’t work. On the way back it’s so cold we think we’re going to die. We gotta have the air on to [defrost the window]. But I’m driving and Torrent is in the front seat and he has an ice scraper to scrape off the ice on the inside of the window. We made it. Barely.