Sunday, June 23, 2013

Personal Reflections On A Much-Appreciated Honor

It's not often I write about myself, and I can't recall doing that even once during my nearly five years of involvement with Keepin' Track of the MAAC.

But, we'll make an exception now, thanks to a recent honor received.

On Sunday your Hoopscribe was recognized for media contributions to basketball, an award presented by the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame. It's an honor akin to getting into the writers/broadcasters wing of baseball's Hall of Fame.

It is indeed an honor, to be recognized before those I have written about for close to 40 years, in my "home" area, a location in which I always wanted to work and have done so for about 32 of my 40 years in the newspaper/on-line writing/broadcasting fields.

There are many, many people to thank. But, first, a little history.

My enthusiasm for sports was sparked by time spent in a two-chair barbershop in the hill section of Cohoes, N.Y., where I first remember being taken by my dad when I was, probably, three years old.

It was an old-fashioned place where the neighborhood "guys" hung out talking sports, and it was a treat for a very young boy to be around that every few weeks ... it gave a sense of importance to sports, a recognition of how much enjoyment they provided.

It probably wasn't until about 13 or 14 years later when, in high school, the realization set in that I wouldn't be a professional athlete, and probably not even a college one.

But, the encouragement of some well-appreciated teachers who recognized my love of sports and some potential as a writer, convinced me use college as an avenue to pursue a career of writing about sports.

And, that began in 1973, mostly covering high school sports in upstate New York for the first few years. Included was a first writing award, a state-level one for a column about a fabricated basketball player gaining inclusion to a national "Who's Who of high school basketball players," someone submitted to show the lack of oversight involved for getting recognized by that long-out-of-business publication.

Following a short break to finish college, the next step was eight years at the Middletown (N.Y.) Times-Herald Record that included coverage of Army's basketball team and a young, on-the-rise coach, one Mike Krzyzewski, who would go on to considerable fame elsewhere.

But, not until he turned around Duke's program after a slow start that saw fans of that program hang his likeness in effigy. Entering Coach K's third year there, I was granted a solo, hour-long audience at his New Jersey hotel room while Duke was in the area for an early season tournament.

Krzyzewski expressed little doubt that he would turn Duke around, mostly because of a strong incoming recruiting class that included Gene Banks, Johnny Dawkins, Jay Bilas and Mark Alarie. And, it appears that he might have been right in that belief.

The move to Middletown, which also included considerable major league coverage of Knicks/Nets, Yankees/Mets, Giants/Jets, etc., was initially thought to be career advancement.

But, it wasn't. Not long after making the move came the realization that a return to roots, a move back to upstate New York to cover "local" sports in my home area, was my preferred career path.

I grew up reading about the basketball exploits of Pat Riley, Barry Kramer, Dick Grubar, Joe Geiger, Ticky Burden and numerous others. I always knew I wanted to tell audience the stories of the subsequent generations of athletic standouts in New York's Capital Region.

So, that opportunity came again in 1985 with a job offer from the Troy Record and, so, began a still-ongoing stretch of 28 years covering Siena and MAAC basketball.

In all, I have covered games coached by 10 different Siena men's coaches, five different women's coaches,  and who knows how many dozens of coaches throughout the MAAC, a count that likely reaches well into the hundreds.

Game coverages have brought me to about 175 different college venues in 25 states around the country, including a nice five-day trip to Hawaii for a Siena tournament appearance in the 2000-01 season.

There are so many people to thank, beginning with my late parents who were always so supportive with their guidance towards my career choice, and to the high school teachers who encouraged my direction towards sports writing.

Of course, my wife of many years, and my son who understood the need to be away so often to cover events. And, thanks to them both for bringing some balance to my life. Both are musicians, my son already a superior saxophone player who has won national and international competitions. They have instilled in me a love of music that equals my love of sports.

Thanks, too, to my late daughter Julie who, somehow, became a sports fan and accompanied dad to nearly every near-by sporting event over the last five or six years before her sudden and unexpected passing in November, 2008.

She was my "Trusty Sidekick," and her absence remains a considerable hole in my life.

Her loss corresponded with the continuing demise of the newspaper industry, and occurred not long after I was "downsized" by my last newspaper home, of 17 years, The Schenectady Gazette. I was informed, at the time, that production personnel, those who did the behind-the-scenes work to create the product, were more valued than those who wrote the stories that appeared. Because I was solely a writer, I had become a luxury, of sorts.

Thus ended a newspaper career that included well over a dozen awards, several on the national level, for writing. The awards included one for the very last newspaper story I had published, a profile of former UMass/Schenectady H.S. standout Rashaun Freeman's effort to overcome dyslexia to complete work for a college degree.

Thankfully, basketball helped in the recovery from the indescribable loss of a beloved daughter, and there are many to thank for that.

It can start with former Siena women's coach Gina Castelli (now at Le Moyne), who regularly called, shared dinners, texted and e-mailed with support. Her team had become my daughter's passion, and they had a nice connection. So, Castelli's team became my way of staying involved with the program my daughter enjoyed so much.

Castelli opened daily practices to me, and often called when I did not attend. Soon, she arranged for me to become the radio color commentator for broadcasts of her games. She, and her staff members, particularly Andrea Woodbury and Michelle Collins, have provided much support and have become close friends.

There's thanks, too, to MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor, who brought me aboard five years ago to do the on-line blog work produced in this space. It has enabled me to continue to be a "hoopscribe," to continue to be associated with a terrific mid-major level Division I league where controversy is at a minimum and where member institutions do things the right way.

And, although it's not a direct connection to college basketball, thanks also go to John Kmack, who established and operates the GymRat CHALLENGE basketball tournaments in the Albany area. Kmack brought me aboard five years ago to publicize the event, to organize talent evaluators and to write championship game reports and produce the descriptions of the event's all-star selections. Many of those who participate, both for the boys' and girls' events, become outstanding college players and more than a few of them wind up in the MAAC. My affiliation has enabled the production of annual reports on players who are looking at, or are being looked at by MAAC programs.

Thanks go, too, to Hall organizer Rene LeRoux, and to Hall nominating committee members Bob Pezzano, whose connections to basketball are lengthy and noteworth, and to Joe Loudis, a longtime outstanding high school basketball coach, for bringing about my honor.

Thanks, finally, to those who have been on the other side of whatever I produced over the years ... the readers of the stories, whether they appeared in newspapers or within this on-line space. The MAAC blog's number of "hits," individual views, has nearly tripled from its early months and continues to grow. That interest is greatly appreciated and is a validation of just how much readers care about and appreciate MAAC basketball.

The formal "media recognition" by the Capital District Hall came on Sunday night (June 23) at its annual dinner, before a crowd of over 300.

The dinner was particularly noteworthy since it also honored legendary basketball figure Howard Garfinkel, the godfather of the pre-college ratings system for players (HSBI) as well as the long-time owner/operator of the 5-star summer camps.

On hand to support "Garf" were Mike Fratello, George Raveling, Dereck Whittenburg of North Carolina State fame, and former Siena men's coach Mike Buonaguro.

It was a bit of "basketball royalty," and there were some personal connections.

One of the best stories I wrote in my first year in the newspaper business was about how Garfinkel rated players, and included his ratings for some Albany-based high school standouts.

I remember, from interviewing Garfinkel, that he was typically gruff but also extremely cooperative and generous with his time.

Raveling's connection is that he was and remains a mentor, of sorts, for former Siena men's coach Paul Hewitt, who remains a good friend.

And Whittenburg and Buonaguro were involved with arguably college basketball's two biggest championship-game upsets.

Whittenburg was a North Carolina State guard when that program surprisingly reached the 1983 NCAA championship game, and took a last-second shot that fell short but was grabbed by teammate Lorenzo Charles, who made the last-second, game-winning basket that beat heavily favored Houston.

And, two years later, Buonaguro was not only an assistant coach with the Villanova team that shocked the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown squad in the 1985 NCAA championship game, but Buonaguro drew up the scouting report that produced the upset.

Buonaguro, in his remarks, joked that it was nice to be in front of a crowd that wasn't booing him.

Those who read this space know of my respect for Buonaguro as both a person and for his basketball expertise. And, for sure, there were never boos for him from this direction.

And, a quick aside ... it's a commentary on what mid-major level basketball is becoming if a team's fans, by definition its supporters, can be so negative toward a good man like Buonaguro based entirely on won-loss numbers without caring anything else about the circumstances involved or knowing anything else about the individual.

In all, there were 25 inductees at Sunday's event and your Hoopscribe was the only direct link, this year, to the MAAC.

It was indeed a much-appreciated recognition.

Over 40 years, there have been over a dozen writing awards ... a couple on the national level. But, to be recognized in front of an audience filled with the basketball connections I grew up aspiring to writing about, in my home area ...

It was, indeed, the greatest honor I have ever received.


Nomar said...

Congratulations well deserved

topher2084 said...

Great to learn more about the man behind the words. Thanks Steve.