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Me and Ernie D The popular filmmaker on his--and his home state's--love of Providence hoops

July 14, 2003
July 14, 2003

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July 14, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Me and Ernie D The popular filmmaker on his--and his home state's--love of Providence hoops

Let me tell you about Rhode Island. As you may know, it's the
smallest state, but those of us who grew up there don't think of
it that way. If push came to shove, we know we could kick
Delaware's ass. How small are we? You could fit 220 Rhode Islands
into Texas, or, to put it another way, if the U.S. were made up
of states the size of ours, there'd be almost 3,000 women in the
Miss America pageant.

This is an article from the July 14, 2003 issue Original Layout

Rhode Islanders are, in general, a happy people. Despite our
state's abundance of magnificent golf courses, fewer than 20% of
our marriages end in divorce. Sportswise, we're rich. We're host
to the top farm teams of the Boston Bruins and Red Sox, as well
as the Tennis Hall of Fame, and we have the best beaches
anywhere. The world's greatest putter is from Rhody--that would
be Brad Faxon--as is fellow pro Billy Andrade. American League
Rookie of the Year candidate Rocco Baldelli is from my hometown
of Cumberland.

To fully understand Rhode Islanders, however, you must know this:
We're Boston sports fans. Providence is 45 minutes from Beantown,
20 minutes from Foxboro. If thousands of Rhode Islanders didn't
make the trek to Boston each night, the Bruins, Celtics and Red
Sox would have joined the Braves' convoy when they skipped town
back in the '50s. The Patriots would be playing in Hartford right
now if not for us.

Nevertheless, when a windblown pop-up ekes over the wall behind
Yaz, or the ball dribbles between Gimpy's legs, the Bay State
gets all the condolences, the sympathetic pats on the back. Rhode
Island's pain slides under the radar, like the mistress sitting
in the last pew--the one who did all the hard work but gets no
mention in the eulogy.

Did you know that Rhode Island was the first colony to declare
independence from the British? Well, we were, but when you think
of the start of the American Revolution, you think of
Massachusetts, don't you? See what I'm saying? That state needs
us more than it will ever admit. And the irony is that Roger
Williams founded Rhode Island to escape those crackpots. The
Puritans were driving him crazy--it was like living with the
Taliban. So down 95 he came, and Rhode Island was established,
and it became the first state to walk the talk of religious and
artistic freedom.

There's a reason you've probably never heard any of this Rhode
Island-Massachusetts rivalry stuff. It's because we don't make a
big deal about it. We're thick-skinned. As Roger Williams hoped
when he started this place, we're all about live and let live.
Recently, Providence became the largest city in the country to
elect an openly gay mayor. His name is David Cicilline, and guess
how much of the vote he got? Eighty-four percent.

And do you know why the gay mayor won by such a landslide?
Providence College basketball. Because that's the one good thing
that's always been ours, all ours, and it's given us a positive
self-image and, in turn, the ability to not worry about what
other states are doing. The Friars and Roger Williams gave us
this.

The great Rhode Island humorist Rudy Cheeks once observed that old
songs have a way of transporting us back to a specific place and
time in our lives, but old television shows don't. For instance,
you'll never be watching a rerun of Barnaby Jones and get to
wondering what happened to Mary Ellen from high school. It's
true, old music can dredge up great memories, but it can also
dirty the water, just as certain sports figures can with just the
mention of their names. Like Ernie D.

Ooof! It's 1973, and I'm sitting on the floor of our family room
bawling my eyes out. I'm way too old to be blubbering like this,
but my Friars, the team led by my hero, point guard Ernie
DiGregorio, have just lost to Memphis State 98-85 in the Final
Four. My brother, Bobby, kicks the footrest across the room
toward where my mother is sucking air in gulps. I hear something
that sounds like a grunt on the verge of a laugh and turn to see
my friend Bradley sitting oddly--upright and forward-leaning--in
his easy chair. The cackle isn't at us but at his own sniffly
condition. I've never seen him this way, and it confirms for me
the depth of the tragedy we've just witnessed on TV.

Today Providence hoops means a lot to our state, but when I was
growing up, it meant everything. For the decade of the '60s the
Friars had the nation's third-best record, behind UCLA and
Kentucky. The school had stars like future Hall of Famer Lenny
Wilkens and No. 1 draft pick Jimmy Walker, and my parents would
tell us stories about the legendary Vinnie Ernst, Johnny Egan and
Jimmy Hadnot. On game nights Bobby and I would sneak out of bed
and sit at the top of the stairs listening to Chris Clark on the
radio down in the kitchen. With each victory a honking sound
would break the suburban stillness outside as our excitable
neighbor Buzzy Dunn ran down Thomas Leighton Boulevard in his
pajamas.

In the '70s the Friars meant even more to our state. Because we
needed them more. Do you remember the '70s? They weren't good
years--not just in Rhode Island but everywhere. There was tons of
progress in the '60s, '80s and '90s, but what did the '70s bring
us? Touch-Tone dialing. It was a dark, strange period with bad
music, ugly cars and H.R. Haldeman.

Despite everything, Rhode Island was on a roll. Why? It's like
this: If my wife left me tomorrow, I'd be devastated. She's a
great woman and I love her and I'd miss the occasional sex. But
it wouldn't change the fact that the Pats won the Super Bowl two
years ago. That's what the Friars gave Rhode Island in the '70s.
No matter how dark that decade got, we had a happy ticket in our
back pocket, and it lifted the state because even if you weren't
a Friars fan--and who wasn't?--you were surrounded by 900,000
people who had excitement in their lives. It made Watergate and
gas lines and even Disco Duck bearable.

The '72-73 team was guided by Dave Gavitt, the greatest coach who
ever passed our way, and that's saying something. Rick Pitino and
Joe Mullaney coached at Providence, and Wilkens and John Thompson
went there as undergrads. But Gavitt was the best. He knew the
game and kept his cool and somehow made us feel, I don't know,
classy.

Something else made that team special. Its two biggest stars were
from here. Ernie D was from North Providence, and center Marvin
Barnes was from South Providence. They had our accents--Ernie
sounding a bit like Frankie Avalon, Marvin turning his r's to
v's. ("Me and Chevyl are going to a fund-vaising chavity in
Flovida--we're gonna stay at the Shevaton.") The Friars were the
greatest team in the country that year. They were never ranked
No. 1, but at season's end they were the best and would have
proved it, except they never got the chance.

Providence was 27-2 before facing Memphis State in the national
semifinals. The only defeats had been an early-season loss to
Santa Clara and an annihilation at the hands of Bill Walton on
UCLA's home court. But that was before my Friars had jelled.
Since Pauley they'd won 17 in a row, including six victories over
ranked teams. Ernie was throwing passes no one had ever thought
of before, shooting guard Kevin Stacom's sweet outside stroke was
gold, and Marvin was simply the smoothest player anyone had ever
seen.

In the NCAA tournament they beat everyone in their path by double
figures, including a Maryland squad led by Tom McMillen, John
Lucas and Len Elmore. Now here they were, eight minutes into the
Memphis State game, and the rout was on. Marvin was sweeping the
boards and dishing off to Ernie, who was winging behind-the-back
passes to Stacom for layups. Renowned CCNY coach Nat Holman would
call it the greatest eight minutes of team basketball he'd ever
seen, and with the Friars up 24-16 all of Rhode Island was
already looking ahead to the finals and our rematch with UCLA.
But of course that would never happen.

When Marvin's right knee gave out after a collision with a Tigers
player, everything changed. We were a running team, and to run,
you first have to rebound. Marvin had averaged 19 boards a game,
and suddenly that was gone. Our team didn't lose, it was struck
down, like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, except Hobbs got another
chance. We wouldn't. Ernie was a senior; he was done. Marvin and
Stacom were coming back, but we knew the team wouldn't be the
same without Ernie, and it wasn't.

Today, providence has a new downtown, a low crime rate and a
thriving community of writers and artists. Its restaurants rank
up there with those of Charleston and New Orleans. At night,
along the reclaimed Providence River, you can stroll on a
torchlit walkway past the new outdoor skating rink and a row of
upscale bars and clubs.

But Providence College basketball is still the city's lifeblood.
The '87 team, coached by Pitino and quarterbacked by Billy
Donovan, made it back to the Final Four, and in '97 the Friars
fought their way to the Elite Eight before losing in overtime to
eventual national champ Arizona. The current team is coached by
Tim Welsh, a good man, and as we look ahead to next winter, he
makes us all hopeful.

Someone once told me that when a person close to you dies, you
have a choice: You can get either strength from their memory, or
pain. I try to look on the bright side and say it was enough just
watching Providence play in '73, seeing the surprise and awe in
the other, more heralded teams' faces. Sometimes I get weak and
imagine that Marvin hadn't hurt his knee and that we'd beaten
Memphis State by 30 and gone on to shock UCLA, and then I stop
myself because it feels a little pathetic, like imagining the
world if JFK had lived. But it's O.K. that it didn't happen,
because we didn't blow it, we didn't play beneath our abilities,
we didn't let the ball go through our legs. We lost because,
well, it was in God's hands, that's what I tell myself. And 99%
of the time I really do believe this, because I'm a Rhode
Islander and Rhode Islanders have thick skin. But sometimes ...
man, it hurts.

Peter Farrelly is half of the Farrelly Brothers, whose films
include There's Something About Mary and Kingpin.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO
After a win, honking would break the stillness outside as an
excitable neighbor ran down the street in his pajamas.