Dave Gavitt, basketball coach of the Providence College Friars, was acting as a photographer's assistant. His prize sophomore forward, Marvin Barnes, was having his picture taken in front of the school's main gates, but a tree branch was casting a shadow over the scene. Gavitt obligingly bent the branch out of the way and just then a passing bread truck stopped. The driver leaned out and yelled: "Hey, Gavitt, if it's for Barnes, chop down the tree."
That is the way with the vicarious alumni of Providence, the jewelry makers, the barbers, the bartenders in this heavily Catholic industrial city. They have always been slightly wild for the talented basketball teams assembled by the little school run by the Dominican Fathers, the teams that featured such imports as Lenny Wilkens from Brooklyn, Vinnie Ernst from Jersey City, Johnny Egan from Hartford and Jimmy Walker from Boston. But this year they are almost beside themselves. The Friars are not only good again; their two big stars, Marvin B. and Ernie D., are local products. Barnes is a 6'9" re-bounder from black South Providence whose high school team won two state titles. Ernie DiGregorio, a tricky ball-handling genie whom somebody let out of a bottle of Soave Bolla, comes from North Providence where he is idolized by all those DeLorenzos, DiCarlos and DeSimones who seem to take up half the city's telephone directory. After a slow start, the two have led their well-balanced team to a 14-2 record, to a position challenging Penn for supremacy in the East and, last Saturday night, to a ragged 77-67 victory over downstate rival Rhode Island.
DiGregorio's home is not far from his school and his horizons do not stretch much beyond Pawtucket and Woonsocket. He was such a local hero in high school that his cult even threw a testimonial dinner for him
and his dad gave him a new Corvette.
"Here was a kid with a Corvette who didn't even know where Boston was," said Gavitt. "Then he found out the car wasn't big enough to drive him and his buddies to various places for two-on-two pickup games, so he decided to trade it in on a four-seat Thunderbird."
The Friars had no trouble recruiting DiGregorio, and Chris Clark, radio and TV voice of the team, quickly figured out that at the tempo at which Ernie played, the name DiGregorio was going to be a serious hazard to smooth broadcasting. He started calling him Ernie D. Now even the license plates on the T-Bird say ERNIE D.
Barnes might have got away to Cincinnati if it had not been for a storm. He boarded a plane for the first time in his life to fly there for a campus visit. After bobbing and weaving around the Ohio skies for a while, the plane had to detour to Baltimore. Barnes got off and immediately flew home to Providence. He never did make it to Cincinnati.
He did get out with the rest of the Friars this season to Los Angeles, however. After arriving he went to Gavitt and asked if he and some teammates could rent a car and go touring.
"Marvin," asked the coach, "did you come out here to beat Southern Cal or have a ball?"
"I came out here to beat Southern Cal and then have a ball," answered Marvin B.
It turned out that he managed to combine the two. He took down 17 rebounds and Ernie D. scored 27 points (20 in the first half) as Providence upset the Trojans 70-66. An ecumenical euphoria set in at home. No longer were the Italians along Atwells Avenue complaining that Barnes shot too much. No longer were the blacks in South Providence complaining that Ernie D. seldom fed their man. And the ill feeling that for a while clouded the Friars' future was blessedly past.
The fever that set in after that win afflicted even the legitimate grads, one of whom, Hal Rich, covers the Friars for The Providence Journal and takes his beat to heart. Rich has been known to get so nervous before a game that he had to down tranquilizers, and he once passed out in a Philadelphia hotel lobby before a round of the Quaker City tournament. Some of the priests at the college are infected, too. Gavitt says that four or five of the faculty are under doctors' orders to turn off the radio report of a game when the score gets too close.
The Rhode Island game Saturday could have been just that kind. The Rams had a mediocre 7-7 record, but the squad was loaded with transfers (from Duke, Tennessee, Wisconsin and a junior college) who were just getting the kinks out after at least a year's layoff apiece. Rhode Island had become known as Transfer Tech, and Coach Tom Carmody, admitting that his recruiting had suffered as a result, vowed to take no more switchers—not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Gavitt, only 34 but already an experienced, dedicated worrier, figured that Rhode Island would battle desperately to win and perhaps turn its season around. Poor Carmody had more believable woes, like how to handle Ernie D. "I saw him destroy Southern Cal and Villanova, and they were pretty good clubs," he said. "He's one of the most perceptive floor leaders in college ball. He doesn't have good speed, but he has a great quickness and he sees things that most people are blind to on a basketball court. He can spot the open man as well as anybody since Cousy."
Good enough, but Saturday DiGregorio almost saved Rhode Island the trouble of defending against him. Coach Gavitt was taking his customary pre-game nap when the telephone woke him up. It was Ernie D. sheepishly admitting that he had turned his left ankle while playing one-on-one with his little brother on their driveway court at home. Guard Don Lewis had pulled the same trick last season and missed most of the NIT.
DiGregorio was X-rayed and got the ice-pack treatment, but he did not get the O.K. to play until an hour before tip-off. In the game he was far from the slick-passing floor leader who had worried Rhode Island's Carmody so. Instead of an All-America, maybe he was just All-East.
Approximately 3,500 fans, sitting and standing, were squeezed into Alumni Hall, but that was no surprise. It has been sold out virtually every game since 1958, which was the year Wilkens began to amaze people as a junior. All home games are now televised, but the situation will be greatly improved next season when the Friars will play in the new $13 million, 11,000-seat Civic Center.
Rhode Island opened in a two-three zone defense, and at first Gavitt thought it was a break for his team because DiGregorio would have had a tough time functioning against a clinging man-to-man defense. He didn't have time to cackle, though, because Providence shot poorly over the zone and Rhode Island got off to a six-point lead. A combination of strong board work by Barnes and good shooting by Forward Fran Costello brought the Friars back to a 37-34 lead at halftime. But Wilkens, who was in the stands scouting for the Seattle SuperSonics, was not seeing the Ernie D. beloved of the Northside. The bad ankle had effectively eliminated the team's wicked fast break.
The game stayed close all the way, but fouls, technical and otherwise, did Rhode Island in. Providence was trailing 59-58 when it made its big move. Sub Nehru (Sky) King scored underneath with a fancy assist from DiGregorio. Then Rhode Island's center, Don Blackman, fouled out on a bad call and complained so bitterly that he got slapped with a technical. Providence made three free throws and kept possession to boot. When Costello hit a turnaround jump shot, the Friars had a six-point lead.
Providence went on to win by 10, but it wasn't easy. Three times before the final buzzer its hulking center, Larry Ketvirtis, who seems to go into a frenzy when played closely, lost his temper and started throwing elbows, which is not a nice habit for a fellow to get into. At least that is the way the officials looked at it. They gave Ketvirtis two technical fouls.
Barnes finished with 18 rebounds and 16 points. Ernie D. played nearly all the way on the sore ankle and had six assists and eight points. Captain Don Lewis did his usual good defensive job while scoring 14, but the leading scorer with 21 was Costello, an Irishman who loves to show up for games wearing a gray bowler and spats. Costello is from Massachusetts, not Rhode Island, but the alumni did not seem to mind at all.