The men's and women's basketball teams return to action on Dec. 18, with the men home against Holy Cross, and the No. 2-ranked women playing the game of the year at No. 1 Baylor. So during the break, I thought it would be a good time to revisit a tradition I started when writing college basketball columns for The Hartford Courant.
I love books, so around this time of year, I like to suggest books on college basketball that would make great gifts. My first recommendation, of course, is my book on the history of UConn basketball, "The University of Connecticut Basketball Vault." I'll be at the library in Enfield tonight (Dec. 14, 7 p.m.) discussing the book and signing copies. Stop by and see me.
But I've got to recommend a new release by a friend and talented sportswriter who has released an interesting look at basketball in Connecticut. Here's my review:
In the introduction to his new book, longtime Connecticut sportswriter Don Harrison recalls one particular trip to Storrs to cover a UConn basketball game. It was a memorable drive, not because of the game, but simply because of the journey.
"Entering the recently constructed Route 84 in Waterbury, I pulled into the passing lane and began to accelerate," Harrison writes. "Something – or someone – told me to return to the slow lane. I did. And just after I completed the maneuver, a car heading in the opposite direction whizzed past us. Incredible. We would have been killed. After spending a few moments at the side of the road to collect our wits and thank our lucky stars, we proceeded on our journey to UConn."
Whether you are a writer covering basketball games, or a fan attending basketball games, such stories are somewhat common in Connecticut. Almost everyone has had a close call of some kind – many of them weather related. Since basketball is a winter game, there are many nights when quest for hoops can be filled with treacherous moments on the slick and snowy roads through the Connecticut hills.
Harrison's story of survival on the hoops beat that night gave him the opportunity to stick around and tell many more stories about the sport he loves so much. And that is why "Hoops in Connecticut: The Nutmeg State's Passion For Basketball," published by The History Press, is such a treasure. "Hoops in Connecticut" is the story of a longer journey, one that spans Harrison's entire career as a writer for the Waterbury Republican, the Waterbury American, the New Haven Journal-Courier, and up to the present as a contributing columnist to two websites, Fairfield Patch and Naugatuck Patch.
The UConn men's and women's programs, with all their national championships in recent years, have dominated the Connecticut basketball universe. But if you think the state's basketball heritage is limited to those two teams and those UConn players, this is a book you need to read.
Harrison, 72, recaptures his travels around the state through stories that capture the top players, coaches and teams at those special and unique moments that he interacted with them. His own roster of Connecticut greats includes Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, NBA stars Vin Baker, Charles Smith, Wes Matthews, the late John Williamson, Johnny Egan, Porky Vieira, and John Bagley, as well as Harlem Globetrotter Alvin Clinckscales.
Among the coaches chronicled are Fred Barakat, Bill Detrick, Dee Rowe and Joe Vancisin. And there are passages on teams from UConn (1975-76), Fairfield (1977-78) and Sacred Heart (1985-86) as well the high schools: Bassick, Roger Ludlowe and Wilbur Cross. You didn't think he'd leave the high schools out, did you?
"My passion for the game had its genesis during my years at East Haven High School," Harrison told me when I asked his inspiration for this book. "We had terrific teams and a superb coach named Frank Crisafi. In a five-year span, they won three state titles and were runners-up twice. The college game and early trips to the old Garden to watch the Knicks reinforced my desire to follow the sport. So, when I began to cover UConn, Yale and Fairfield basketball during the early and mid-1960s, I knew this was where I wanted to spend my winter evenings. I still feel that way today."
The final chapter of the book tells the story of Bridgeport playground legend Ray Andrade, a guard with "silky smooth moves" who was shot to death during a botched robbery attempt in 1992. Andrade was 39 when he died. George Thompson, who played against Andrade in high school, gives a chilling description of Andrade, in the chapter titled "The Devil Drives."
"He had a ‘Jekyll and Hyde; personality. I didn't hang around with Ray because he was involved with types of deviant behavior even then," Thompson says in the book.
"The Devil Drives" first appeared in the Fairfield County Advocate in 1992. It was cited in The Best American Sportswriting 1993. During his time in Waterbury, Harrison also won two Connecticut Sportswriter of the Year Awards from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriter Association.
The chapter on Vancisin, former Yale coach and executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, is especially timely because this dedicated basketball man was recently inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo. Harrison's chapter, written in 1975, focuses on Vancisin's resignation from Yale. You've got to love the segment on Yale's 1956-57 Ivy champions, who went on to play the eventual national champions in the NCAA tournament.
"That North Carolina team with Lenny Rosenbluth. . . we stayed with them for thirty-five minutes until we fouled out the first five," Vancisin remembered.
These glimpses of players, coaches and teams at specific stage of their basketball lives are priceless. Harrison isn't providing biographies on these hoop stars. Each story is like a snapshot from that particular date and that is the fascination.
The story on Vin Baker is from 1996 – three years into his NBA career. We all know Baker ran into a lot of trouble eventually. It's a sad story when you reflect on everything that dragged Vinny down. But here Baker is a young player with all that raw potential and a future ahead of him. His agent at the time, former standout Walter Luckett, labels him "a six-eleven Scottie Pippen." It's a story of hope, without the unfortunate ending.
For UConn fans, there's a Q and A with Tony Hanson from 1977. The story on Chris Smith, UConn's all-time leading scorer, mentions the "January afternoon in the Hartford Civic Center when the Huskies wrote fini to their seventeen-game losing streak against St. John's." Do you remember that day?
The 1976 story on Rowe takes you back to the time the UConn coach was under so much pressure from Huskies fans. It includes the chant "Hump Dee, Dump Dee" that rose from the crowd during UConn losses in that era. The story takes an analytical look at the complaints against the coach, who eventually stepped down but now is held in high regard because he's such a tremendous ambassador for the university – and one of the finest gentlemen ever.
Harrison makes a point of mentioning how many friends Rowe has in the world of basketball. I can testify that this is a fact. When Rowe attends the Final Four, it seems everyone knows him. And Rowe always could win a best-dressed award from GQ Magazine but hopefully some of the ties, jackets, turtlenecks and other hideous examples of menswear captured in this book were long ago burned or destroyed. It's not Rowe's fault or Detrick's or anyone else's for that matter – except the fashion designers.
Thankfully, the pictures are in black-and-white. But they are entertaining, especially the photo on page 26 of 5-6 Porky Vieira standing next to 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain, a teenage prep star at the time. There are photos of trading cards of UConn players and others who went on to the NBA. There is a tremendous appendix of Nutmeggers who are Hall of Famers, All-Americans, record holders, All-Stars, etc.
In other words, there is something here for everyone – especially the lover of the game who may not be tied to a particular program or school, but just enjoys good hoops and the stories that follow. Put on your list. Tell someone you've got to have it.
Harrison, who has lived in Fairfield the past 38 years, is currently appearing around the state to sign copies of his book. On Thursday, Dec. 15, he will be at Bank Square Books at 53 W. Main St. in Mystic, CT from 6-8 p.m. The book sells for $19.99. Copies also are available at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores throughout the state. The book is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and The History Press (www.historypress.net).