Russ Reilly Era: Greg Birsky Interview

How did you come to choose Middlebury? Were you recruited by Tom Lwason?

As it were, the first recruiting level I ever received was actually from the football coach at Middlebury, Micky Heineken. And I was never going to play football, I’m tiny. But I was all-state football player in high school in Vermont. So I looked at Middlebury. But then Tom Lawson called me after every game my senior year. He was talking to me all the time. He wanted me badly, so I wanted him. As they told me at the D-I level I was a d-I level in a D-III body. I was 5’9’’, 160 pounds and white and couldn’t really jump so no one really wanted me. But I was decent! Tom Lawson was a great recruiter. I wanted to go to Dartmouth, but I got waitlisted there and I ended up at Middlebury, which I think was a better fit for me in the end.

Tom Lawson was a really good high school coach in Vermont. Is that how you met him?

My father was a very scucesful high school basketball coach. I was the typical point guard — son of a basketball coach — and my father was a big name in the state of Vermont, Bo Birsky. Everyone knew him, Tom Lawson knew him, coached against him way back in the day. He coached at Proctor High School, which was Division Two. Springield, Vermont where I’m from at the time was Division One. Now they’ve shrunk all the way down to nothing because the town has lost all its business, but back in the 50s 60s and 70s it was something of a boon town with a pretty big high school. He knew my father so that was part of the reason why I was recruited. I was recruited at UVM too but they were going big UVM and they had a point guard out of the city that they took instead of me. I had the better education — I was number one in my class in high school so I was supposed to go to a good school, and I did.

Back then it wasn’t the same. I got a letter from Georgetown, from USC, just because I was on a list back then. Now they look at you on film, but they didn’t have that back then. Your name got known, so I got tons of recruiting letters, but as soon as they found out my size they were done.

What was your first impression of the school? Of the team?

School-wise I was totally intimidated. Even though I was number one in my high school class, but I was in public school. I came in and got into classes and was blown away by the private school kids: what they knew, how they thought, how they spoke … the confidence that they had. I was definitely set back by that. I handled it, but I was intimidated. I was also intimidated by the wealth of the school. I came from a lower middle class background with both of my parents working in the school system in Vermont. I didn’t even know what a BMW was and I saw all these kids driving their parents kids around. So I was intimidated by the wealth.

The basketball team, however, was my saving grace. All of us were recruited, most of them were urban players out of Boston, New York or New Jersey. We had a totally different attitude. I felt out of sorts in school, but totally at home in the team. Dave Nelson was a great captain my freshman year and then when I became captain I tried to emulate a lot of what he did. He was really a team guy, going after the freshman making sure they were comfortable and then competitive as hell: we had great captain’s practice games.

What was the transition going from Tom Lawson who recruited you to Russ Reilly?

It was a good transition because he had come my junior year and he was the assistant coach so we all knew him. But I was probably not the easiest guy to coach because being a coach’s son I thought I knew as much or more than the coaches half time. I was coachable, but I would get a little upset [sometimes]. Tom was a great recruiter but he had a stifling offense for me that really slowed the game down. We won games, but I felt with the team he recruited we could have run a lot more. So I’d try to push the ball more; he’d be yelling and screaming at me. And if we blew somebody out he’d be happy and if we were losing he’d be upset. But we got along fine.

And then with Russ he let us run more and he let us open it up more and that was fun. And then I coached with Russ for two years so I stayed two more years and was his assistant coach. I thought I was going to go into the coaching business like my father and did a couple of years and then realized that wasn’t for me. I loved it, but I didn’t want to be financially strapped and I didn’t want to do the recruiting thing at the college level and didn’t want to coach at the high school level and gave it up and went into business.

Russ Reilly’s offense really opened things up and records start to fall. What was the big change from a tactical standpoint?

I had a great senior year because he let me dominate the ball. We ran more of a point-guard initiating offense. And basically I just found Kelleher half the time. He was there for three of my four years. I joke with him — I swear half his points came off half of the assists that I had. He was a great player: great hands, great instincts, always got himself open and was determined. He did the most with his abilities. But with Russ, when we had a chance to run, we ran. Tom was controlling and didn’t like it. There were a few of times when we took the game away from him and ran with him yelling at us on the bench. And then all of a sudden we’re up 20 and he’s saying, “Way to go!”

Who are the teammates you will remember playing with most?

My sophomore year was a huge team for D-III, at least back then. We walked in the door with Zenon Smotrycz at 6’9’’ — “Big Zee” — out of Jersey City, good player big guy, Peter Vuvora at 6’6’’ or 6’7’’ and wide. Those two were a senior and junior, Kelleher started as a freshman and he was 6’5’’, Mark Mauriello who was 6’5’’. The only guy under six feet was me; the other starting guard was 6’2’’. So we started 6’9’’, 6’7’’, 6’5’’, 6’2’’ and 5’9’’. That year we did very, very well. We beat UVM at home and UVM was trying to get ranked nationally. They had a seven-foot center. That was a big win for me and the other Vermont kids. That was my biggest win. I think I led the team that night with 14 points, but everyone had 12 or 13 — it was a beautiful game. And that was one of those games where Tom sat on the bench screaming at us to slow down and we were taking off.

What are some of the other outstanding memories from your career on and off the floor?

The beautiful thing for me is that I stayed and coached for a couple more years so I got to know a bunch more kids coming in and I played with them during the captain practices because I was young and foolish and having a great time. And then I ran the alumni game for 15 years. I started it with Russ and we had it going. Those years we had a big turnout. One year we put on a show — the game went 100-99. We played right before the varsity game and people were coming into watch it and it was exciting and fun. It was a bunch of guys in their 20s and 30s who were in good shape and they were good players. So we had a good thing going. As a basketball family I’m still best friends with all of my teammates. That’s what kept me sane. The things I miss the most, the after-practice laughs, going to eat in Proctor, the travels on the road trips, the story-telling — it was a wonderful time.

What are some of the stories traveling with the team that come back to you?

Every year we had a Maine trip, to go play Bates and Bowdoin or some combination. My senior year was Russ’s first year and there was a snowstorm going over. We get to Bates and they weren’t very good that year, and they just decided they want to beat Russ in his first game back. And they held the ball. Back then we didn’t have a shot clock — there was no shot clock in the college game until the mid-80s. (This was 1979). So they get ahead of us and they held the ball. And if you go back in history and watch the four-corners stall that NC State ran in the 70s, it’s as boring as hell … it’ll drive you nuts. But we finally get ahead and then they can’t hold the ball anymore because it’s illegal to hold the ball once you’re behind. And once we got ahead we blew them out so we won for Russ’s first game, which was awesome. And then the next day we had to play Colby, and Colby was real good. And we were real good — we should have had more wins than we did; we had a lot of close losses and Colby was one of them. We lost on a buzzer shot. Kelleher actually had a tap in to win it — we were down one — and it rimmed out after Jeff Sadir had a little fadeaway jumper that rimmed out as well. We had two shots to win with under five seconds. I still remember to it this day because it would have been a great win.

So we get on the bus and we start to drive home and another freaking snowstorm hits and it took forever. We had this great guy, Tex, who was in his late 70s or early 80s who would come to every practice and sti on the sideilines and watch us practice. He became, for lack of a better word, our team mascot. So we invited him to go on the road trip with us. He was a retired guy from New York, had a lot of money. We were half the state of Maine and couldn’t get out of the snow and he says, “Russ, we need to stop for a beer.” And Russ goes, “OK.” So we stop the bus, go into a bar, I don’t know where — we all pile into this place — and he sets us up. And he had a rule — “a pitcher a table so everyone gets two beers.” So we all sat down, drank beers, got back on the bus, which made the trip so much better.

What’s the biggest difference with the program today compared to the late 70s and early 80s?

The biggest difference is that winning begets winning. Jeff Brown is a great coach and now he’s turned into a great recruiter and a great coach. It’s the old line, “You can’t make chicken salad with chicken shit.” He was able to get some players and all of a sudden they got hot. And now that he’s hot, Middlebury basketball is the program. Is it any different about caring about kids committing to the team? No. If you knew my team, we were loaded with talent. And I would say these last few teams are the first teams that I saw that would be beating us. Russ didn’t have a lot of talent in certain years, but now I think Jeff Brown has it going and the whole school is excited about it and it’s awesome.

What was Russ Reilly’s coaching demeanor like and how did that affect you as a coach?

Russ was a terrific practice coach — he absolutely had it down to a T; he had it designed time-wise, he was very efficient, very effective teaching the basics and everything that needed to be done. IN the game he had a system where he made sure he rested people and made sure we were balanced. He was very educated as far as how to coach in those teims. I think he’ll tell you he had a couple of instances in his early years where he lost his cool — he threw a chair, he was like Bobby Knight! — but he hardly ever lost his cool at us; he lost it at the officials. The biggest thing about Russ is that he’s the nicest guy in the world and he cares about his players. He knew how to coach practice and he had a system in the game that worked. As a young coach he had a couple of episodes, but nothing bad.

I was having a great senior year and I hurt my back. I got taken to the rim by this guy and I went up and I flipped over and landed on my back and got knocked out. They were worried about my neck, but the next day I could hardly walk the next day because of my low back. And that injury has stayed with me for life. But I played, and Dick Watterman, who was the trainer at the time, would tape me up ardound my belly and my back — it was like a tourniquet brace — and I played at like 70 percent. So I went to Russ and said, “As soon as you sit me down to rest me I stiffen up and I can’t go. So I’d rather just keep playing and you take me out if I foul out or if I’m not playing well or I can’t make it to the end. So for the last 10 games of the season he just let me go. It was nice — he broke his own rules to let me keep playing. I was playing well, but he wanted to have the other guys play also. As long as I was moving, but as soon I sat down it was over.

Are there any moments from Kelleher’s career that stand out in your mind?

I don’t remember huge scoring outbursts, Kevin just scored a lot; he was a scorer. And he didn’t always score [the same way] — he had a lot of points on offensive rebounds just muscling in. He liked to score; he liked to shoot. The big joke when we were playing for Tom Lawson was that Tom would yell to me, “Don’t start the ball with Kelleher in the corner,” because Kelleher would just take the ball and shoot it. So he’d yell at me. And I’d say, “Coach, yell at Kell … he’s the one shooting. He’s supposed to kick it back out to me before we start the offense.”

But in general I played great with Kevin because he would fill the lane. Back then we didn’t have the three-point line either so you saw much more of the tendency on the 3-on-2 break where the two guys filling the lane would take it all the way to the hoop. Now in today’s game you either get a breakaway dunk or you penetrate, stop, kick it out and take a three. So you don’t see some of the beauty of the three passes side to side with an easy layup that you used to see when there wasn’t a three-point line. But in that sense, Kevin loved to score so he hustled his ass down and he was always one of the guys filling the lane. And for some reason — Jeff Sadir used to say, “You never give it to me when I fill the lane, you always give it to Kelleher!” — I would give him the ball (it was like he had a magnet in his hands) and he just scored. He didn’t miss layups, he didn’t miss underneath and we had great games. There was a game down in Castleton where I ended up having 27 points in the game with 11 assists and Kelleher had 25 points or something so either I shot it or I came down and threw it to him. And I just happened to have one of those games where I had some really fun passes — over the head, behind my back, one between my legs — and it was just in the flow of the game, I wasn’t showboating, but it was always to Kelleher. And he always finished. And he was an animal on the boards: didn’t jump well, boxed out extremely well, strong, was incredibly fit.

We were playing for Tom Lawson and his idea of the end of practice was what we called “And-Two,” which was basically just passing the ball without dribbling, going end to end with layups. It was kind of like running sprints with the ball, but it really wasn’t that hard. And Kell and I both came from programs in high school where we pressed all over the court and we ran and we had to be in shape. Kell was a pretty good cross country runner so he had great lung capacity and I was a football, basketball, baseball player, so we were both in pretty good shape. So at the end of practice we would say, “That wasn’t a good enough work out,” so he and I would stay and run suicides. And then other guys chimed in, so half the team would stick around and run extra sprints after practice. It was really Kevin’s idea and we did that from my sophomore year. But then when we played for Russ, his practices were hard and we ran sprints. We didn’t stay after those practices.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Yeah, my senior year our equipment manager at the school, Warren who was an old Vermonter who worked at the College, handed out towels, picked up after us. He was a retried farmer, didn’t have any teeth, spoke with a real strong Vermont access and was the nicest man in the world. He couldn’t understand anything the Boston guys would say. He was this great guy and he retired my senior year. So Russ put it together and we honored him at halftime during one of the last games of the homestand. We gave him tickets to see the Celtics. I got to go, all the captains got to go and the coaches got to go and we brought warren down to the Boston Garden. He had never been to the Garden; he was a lifelong Celtics fan watching on Vermont TV. So at this award ceremony at half time — and back then we didn’t have as many fans as the basketball team does now, but when they heard that Warren was going to be honored at half time all the athletes from other sports — lacrosse, hockey, football — really came out. I gave the award and the place rocked. It was emotional, people were crying, it was really cool. It was a highlight of my life, seeing the Middlebury basketball family honoring a guy who had really served us and helped us. Afterwards a lot of coaches went up to Russ and said, “Boy I haven’t seen that much emotion at Middlebury College in a long time.” So that was a big memory for me.

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