It is past 12 o'clock and the illuminated sign outside the Club Geister offers the only promise of late-night activity on the North Side of Providence, R.I. Inside at the bar, Joe the Hound, Chicken Man and Frankie Stangietz are, as usual, deep in a discussion of the neighborhood hero, Ernie DiGregorio, who used to star for Providence College and run the town from his guard position. They are waiting for DiGregorio's successor, Kevin Stacom, who will tell them how the Friars are going this year. Stacom (it rhymes with take 'em) will be hard to miss. He is tall and skinny and, with a headful of black curls and hauntingly blue eyes, darkly handsome. But he is quiet and shy, too. Probably he would never have seen the place were it not for Ernie D, who made Geister's a popular hangout by leading Stacom and Marvin Barnes and other teammates there after playing night ball at the Smith Street playground close by Ernie's home.
"We would sit around for a couple of hours," DiGregorio recalls, "talking to customers who didn't want us to sign autographs or nothing, and knocking each other for laughs—you know, the way guys do to get along."
It was at Geister's that Stacom put away five meatball sandwiches at one sitting, placing him right up there in peer-group respect with Ernie D. The feat was a lot more noticeable than the 18 points a game Stacom was scoring last season alongside his two All-America playmates, Barnes and DiGregorio. Stacom was the invisible man on New England's most successful college basketball team in 25 years. He is anything but invisible now. With DiGregorio and two other starters graduating, this team was not expected to come close to last year's 27-4 record, but at 15-2 it has been running neck and neck with its predecessor.
This evening when Stacom comes through Geister's front door, Hound and Chicken and Frankie and a couple other regulars are all over him. He is pounded on the back, he cannot pay for a beer and he listens to the old thing about Ernie promising to buy them all new cars with the millions he got for signing with Buffalo. The proprietor, Geister Vertieulli, finally steers the conversation to the serious business of athletic socks for his son. "They're $3 a pair at the store," Vertieulli says from behind the bar. "I just thought maybe you could get a better price over at the college." Stacom says he will see what he can do, downs another beer and goes to a table in the back, where he can do what he likes best, talk quietly.
"You really have to try to understand these people," he says. "They are a little weird and there are rumors that some of them are not unknown in the underworld. Just rumors, I think. Take Spook over there, our local Damon Runyon character. You can learn something valuable about life from him."
And in that sentence Kevin Stacom sums up his own values. He has been playing basketball almost all his life, but he is always looking, weighing, questioning—and coming up with answers that are slightly surprising.
Stacom started college at Holy Cross, but when that school adopted a more modest athletic stance he transferred to Providence. After sitting out a season, he jumped directly into the Friars' lineup as the "other" guard and surprised everyone by bettering DiGregorio's junior-year statistics. Some pro teams did not realize Stacom was eligible for the 1973 drafts, but the Chicago Bulls did and chose him in the second round, and Denver selected him in the ABA. Neither club could sign him, though, which led to an unusual scouting report.
"Honestly, I tried to tempt Kevin in every way possible," said one scout. "In fact, some of the ways were not all that honest. He wouldn't budge. We would have chosen him in the first round if he had given us the nod, and we were set to pay him a million dollars over three years. Frankly, as much as I hated to lose him, in these days of greedy kids he was like a breath of fresh air. He'll be a better pro than a college player because of the way he moves without the ball. But what he does with the business of life will be a more interesting story."
The business of life in Geister's eventually palls. Stacom walks back past the bar, reassures Vertieulli about the socks, accepts a last beer and heads home to Chapin Hall, an old hospital wing that now serves as a Providence dormitory.
"Kevin lives alone," says DiGregorio, "but he's not a loner. He just likes his privacy. I'd come into his room sometimes and he'd be reading that Shakespeare book of his. He's pretty quiet, but he seems to be coming out more now."
Coming out a bit, that is. Stacom went to Coach Dave Gavitt this fall and asked to call the team's defensive signals. Gavitt said, "Sure, but I want to be able to hear you."
Returning to his room, Stacom plays a Taj Mahal album on his beat-up stereo and talks about religion. A Catholic from a devout Irish family, he mistrusts what he calls "quick-sell religious programs" like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Athletes in Action, "which are packaged with athletics. I'm leery of leaps into faith."
Two of the courses he is taking are Philosophy of Communism and Nietzsche and Christ, "if you can believe that combination," he says. He thinks they are pretty good courses, but says, "We don't even read The Communist Manifesto in the first class and some kids ask questions like 'Can Communists go to heaven?' I think they put Christ's name on the second course just so they could teach Nietzsche at a Dominican school. As a kid growing up I had always heard that he was the source of Nazism. That's not true, and Nietzsche was the first to realize his ideas would be distorted. But this is the trouble with being interviewed. A lot of things you'd like to say about yourself, you don't want everybody to know. Maybe it would be better if you didn't write anything about me reading Nietzsche. People will think I'm an intellectual."
When Stacom began playing ball, he was so small that he was forced to develop as an outside shooter rather than a one-on-one player. "He was only 5'3" as a freshman," says Bill O'Meara, his varsity coach at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, N.Y. "But my experience with the Irish is they're late growers. You could already see Kevin's potential and I had a hunch he'd be all legs some day. Besides, Mike Riordan went to high school here and we made the mistake of cutting him as a freshman. All he turned out to be was an NBA All-Star."
Stacom is 6'5" now, about perfect for a contemporary guard. But he weighs only 185 pounds, which is imperfect. He makes up for what he lacks in brawn with the speed and stamina he built up during summers dribbling a basketball from his home to the St. John's University gym seven miles away.
"My best time is 65 minutes," he says, "but it usually takes me an hour and a half. The older you get, though, the weirder you look dribbling along. I hear people saying, 'Here he comes again.' "
Last season Stacom's Irish Afro was almost a constant blur, whether he was scoring at the end of the Friars' burning fast break or getting open without the ball and transforming one of Ernie D's scintillating passes into an assist by making the open shot. A .533 marksman, he is so consistent he has been no worse than a shot below .500 in 43 of 48 games at Providence. He also leads the Friars in assists and in a recent seven-day period won three games that were so tense they gave Coach Gavitt severe laryngitis. On a Thursday Stacom drilled in an 18-footer with six seconds left to overcome previously unbeaten Massachusetts 77-76. His DiGregorio-like cross-court assist laid St. Joseph's to rest 67-62 and a long jumper in overtime stopped Boston College on Wednesday 79-77.
Stacom enjoys the two halves of his present life, basketball and school. "You don't have to think strictly like a basketball player just because you play the game," he says. "But it is amazing that I can get up in the morning and just go play ball. Not only that, but get an education by doing it and then make a living at it. There's just something about basketball—somehow I've gained control of something I can't explain."
They can't explain it at the Club Geister either, but they'll keep sending a beer to the kid at the back table.