Assumption College Basketball Legends Show True Meaning of Team
The Assumption College Greyhounds beat the Southern Connecticut State University Owls last night 95-72 at Laska Gym in Worcester.
Exciting? Sure. If you're an Assumption student, fan, or alumnus, it's probably darn right newsworthy.
For me, however, the evening took on an added significance that became much greater than the final score. In the hardwood equivalent of The Field Of Dreams , I was treated to my own personal episode of "If you build it they will come."
Only in this true to life dream, the field that "they" came to wasn't a corn field, and it certainly wasn't in the middle of Iowa. Instead, it was the newly remodeled and luxurious Laska Gymnasium parked smack dab in the middle of the Assumption College campus in Worcester, MA.
And the ghosts of baseball past weren't ghosts at all, but the living legends of Assumption basketball past. Though a bit older and slightly grayer than they were when they donned the Assumption uniform, the likes of Don Lemenager (class of '56), Jimmy Monahan ('65), Ted Paulauskas ('66), and even the legend himself, Hall of Fame coach Andy Laska, are not ghosts at all.
Instead, they are the living icons who hold the history of Assumption basketball so very close to their hearts. They have been entrusted to pass their tales of many victories and occasional defeats on to the next generation of Greyhound hoopsters.
Without this link to the Assumption past, the memories, the stories, the history which is the very fibre of Assumption College basketball becomes lost and quickly fades away after these AC veterans move on.
As a personal thanks for helping them preserve a story of "Assumption's grandest moment on the court," the team was gracious enough to host me at the game. A thank you for a story I had written several months ago about one of their heroic teammates, Danny Gearin.
In my October 18th column, entitled The Man with The Golden Touch, I chronicled how this special hero became an incredible influence on my life as well as my educational and vocational path with his magical golden touch. In 1976, Danny Gearin selected me "randomly" out of a crowd of high school hall dwellers and instantly changed my life forever.
Some twenty years earlier, Gearin's magic touch and court savvy produced the same magical results and forever changed Assumption College basketball lore.
When Gearin passed away unexpectedly at the age of 44 in 1978, not only did I lose a mentor and a close friend, but his Assumption basketball brothers lost an incredible teammate and hero.
As a thank you for honoring their fallen comrade, former Assumption student newspaper editor John DiPietro reached out to me via phone last week and invited me to personally meet coach Andy Laska and other former Assumption players.
I was then tapped on the shoulder by current Assumption team captain, Courtland Bluford, who poked his head out of the locker room prior to taking the court and shook my hand and thanked me for coming. In my four years as an undergrad at Syracuse, I can assure you that none of the players ever thanked the fans for attending.
To me, it was the ultimate show of respect by a current Greyhound, as he honored the legacy which was created by his predecessors some five decades before. The gesture wasn't staged and is a credit to Bluford, who is part of a generation that is often accused of ignoring history and often thinks of the "me and the now," instead of the "we and the how" approach to the game.
DiPietro then introduced me to Lemenager, who was Coach Laska's first captain in 1951, as well as in 1954 and 1955. He was the backcourt mate of Gearin, and led the team to third and fourth place finishes in the '54 and '55 NAIA Regional tournaments.
I then met, Paulauskas, who was Laska's final captain in 1966-67 and led his Greyhound squad to a second place finish in the NCAA Regional Tournament. Paulauskas is the current Athletic Director at Assumption, a post he has held for the past seven seasons.
And then just prior to tip-off of the game, the doors opened in the far corner of the gym and the coaching legend Laska entered the gym that bears his name. The 84-year-old coach greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile and took a seat next to me on the bleachers This wasn't the seat where Andy would ultimately watch the game. That seat is on the opposite end of the aisle, in the very corner of the gym and though not marked is clearly reserved as "Coach Laska's seat."
Upon Laska's induction into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in October, 2002, his bio read as follows:
"The man who could very well be described as Worcester's greatest ambassador of the game, Andy Laska has left a incredible trail of success at the high school, prep school, collegiate and amateur levels."
"His final won loss ledger of 224-96 tells only a part of the story of his legacy to the game in Central Massachusetts."
"He began as one of the outstanding high school players in the city's history averaging 20 points per game (during a time when teams regularly averaged under 40) leading North High to the Western Massachusetts championship and into the New England tournament. He earned all Inter-High (1941, 42, 43) , all-Worcester (1941, 42, 43), all-state (1941) and all New England (1943)."
"After time out for three years of military service in the Pacific, he played collegiately at the College of the Holy Cross. The Crusaders won the 1947 national title and played in the N.I.T. in 1949. He co-captained the 1949 team that set then record 26-game win streak."
"He served as basketball coach (1951-67), golf coach (1969-86), Director of Athletics (1956-86). He also served coach at Worcester Academy (1954-56) . . . winning the New England Prep title in 1954."
"He organized and conducted basketball clinics in Lebanon (1965) and served as business manager of the U.S.A. National Team (1975). He was named the new England Coach-of-the-Year in 1957 and 1964, was elected to the Assumption College Athletic Hall of Fame (1967) and had the Assumption College gymnasium dedicated and renamed in his honor (September 20, 1975)."
Included in his trail of success are the following:
a. 1953-54, the first winning season in Hounds' history since 1933-34;
b. 1954-55, the first N.A.I.A. tournament team in the College's history;
c., 1956-57, team finished 21-1 led by captain Joe O'Brien '57, declined N.A.I.A. bid to play and beat Holy Cross (69-68) in the Pete Houston Benefit Game. Still the ONLY team in Hounds' history to play and beat both Holy Cross and Providence in the same season.
d. 1957-58, team won N.A.I.A. regional tournament and advanced to its first national tournament in Kansas City, MO.
e. the College is admitted to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and celebrates with its first N.C.A.A. tournament berth
f. team get second N.C.A.A. tournament berth, the first of an N.C.A.A. Division II record 17 consecutive.
As athletics director he was involved in the implementation of Title IX on campus including adding scholarship aid for female athletes (1976) . . . the first institution in Central Massachusetts to do so. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Northeast-10 Conference, which has now grown to 15 institutions.
He coached eight all-Americans during his tenure at the College including: Buddy Masterson '60, Fred Barakat '61, Ed Hippert '62, John Jenkins '64, Steve Warner
'64, Jim Monahan '65, John Driscoll '66 and George Ridick '67.
COACHING RECORD AT ASSUMPTION COLLEGE
1953-54 11-8 first winning season at College since 1933-34
1954-55 13-5 N.A.I.A. regional
1955-56 15-7 N.A.I.A. regional
1956-57 21-1 did not accept N.A.I.A. berth to play Holy Cross in Pete Houston Benefit (winning 69-68)
1957-58 16-4 N.A.I.A. regional CHAMPION
1959-60 14-6 N.C.A.A. regional
1962-63 14-5 N.C.A.A. regional
1963-64 19-2 N.C.A.A. regional; ranked No. 2 final A.P. national poll
1964-65 16-6 N.C.A.A. regional
1965-66 18-6 N.C.A.A. regional CHAMPION
1966-67 17-5 N.C.A.A. regional
I was admittedly nervous as I was approached by this coaching legend, who is arguably Assumption's version of UCLA's John Wooden. Once I heard Laska's kind and gracious voice, however, any semblance of nerves disappeared. He, too, thanked me for honoring Gearin and then proceeded to educate me with a course in Assumption Basketball History 101.
We discussed everything from Gearin, who he referred to as a "good ball-handler and the smallest guy on the floor," to the "ice water" that flowed through Gearin's veins.
He shared the most minute fact about the Gearin story, but a fact that is a testament to how cool Gearin was.
"Just before he shot the first free throw," explained Laska. "A piece of paper blew onto the gym floor. Danny bent over and picked it up before he stepped to the line and sank the two free throws."
I had been warned by DiPietro that Coach could tell you every word of every time out pep talk he ever had and this seemed to lend credence to that lore.
Laska, who still attends every home game, then showed off the newly renovated gym. Originally built and dedicated in 1963, and then rededicated in 1975 when it was named after him, the gym now boasts a new floor, bleachers, beautiful overhead lighting, and comfortably cushioned seating under the baskets.
"I never expected the gym to be named after me," laughed Laska. "And then I lived 35 more years to enjoy it."
Laska moved to his special seat as the game commenced, but was right back over at the end of the half. He proceeded to point out yet another former player in Monahan. "He was a guard," explained Laska. "In the dedication game in '63-64 against Providence he and his backcourt mate shot 18-28. That game was one of the greatest moments of my career."
I asked Laska to share some other great moments before the second half started.
"Oh, there were so many," explained Laska, who likes to play golf in his post-retirement days. "I'd have to say when we beat Providence at the dedication of Alumni Gym in 1956-57 and then when we beat Holy Cross in the Pete Houston benefit game."
Laska went on to explain that the team that went 21-1 in '56-57 is the only Assumption team ever inducted into the Assumption Hall of Fame as a team, and that they actually passed up a trip to Kansas City to play in the NAIA tournament in order to play the famed game against their cross-town rivals, Holy Cross.
The second half began and Coach returned back to his seat. Occasionally during a lull in the action he'd remember another fact or anecdote he wanted to share.
When the final horn blew and another Assumption victory was etched into the record books, I said good bye to my new Assumption friends.
I have to believe that Danny Gearin looked down on us all and smiled, knowing that the memories of "The Game" would live on for another day.
Todd Civin is a freelance writer who writes for Bleacher Report, Sports, Then and Now, and Seamheads. He is a supporter of A Glove of Their Own, the award-winning children’s story that teaches paying it forward through baseball.
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