It is one of the oldest stories in sport. The father, once a good athlete, is born again in his son. He teaches the kid fundamentals, coaxes him to compete, pressures him to succeed. Usually the boy tries, fails and gives up. Both the father and son end up feeling guilty. But for every 100—or 1,000—failures there is an exception, a Kyle Rote Jr., a J. K. McKay, a Mark or Marty Howe. Ronnie Perry of Holy Cross is one of those rare cases.
Ron Perry was a Holy Cross basketball and baseball star who is now the school's athletic director; his son Ronnie is the best freshman guard in the country and also a baseball prodigy who plays shortstop and pitches. Playing fall baseball, he hit a two-run homer in his first at bat. His first varsity basketball shot swished in from 20 feet. But he has been more than the good-shooting guard Coach George Blaney sought to fill out his offense. Perry not only is averaging 23 points a game, tops among all freshmen, but his deft passing and tight defense have helped Holy Cross to a 20-4 record and the No. 2 ranking in New England. In the finals of the Colonial Classic, he helped defeat Providence 67-65 with seven assists. He sank all 10 of his free throws and scored the basket that put the Crusaders ahead for good when they beat Seton Hall 82-77 to win the Madison Square Garden Classic. And last Saturday he got eight of his 33 points in overtime as Holy Cross beat Army 81-77.
Mostly, though, Perry plays like the collegiate Bill Bradley, understating his maneuvers so elegantly that spectators at first wonder what all the fuss is about. Although it is tempting to proclaim Perry a modern version of the most famous Holy Cross alumnus, Bob Cousy, the comparison is farfetched. "Cousy had more flair," says St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca. "He was artistic. This kid has poise and fundamentals. He's the old-fashioned well-rounded guard. He can play with anyone because he blends. He's been through a lot of rehearsals."
Most of them came under the eye of the elder Perry, who had been a play-making guard, feeding Tommy Heinsohn and Togo Palazzi, on the 1954 NIT champions and a pitcher with a 22-1 record who led Holy Cross to the 1952 NCAA baseball championship. But Perry never played either game professionally. After graduation, he served three years in the Marines, then quit baseball after failing to make the Milwaukee Braves. Under the pressure of family responsibilities, he passed up pro basketball to take a coaching job at Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, Mass.
February 28, 1977
Many times in his 14-year coaching career, during which he had a 292-34 record and won two state championships, Perry must have wondered about his decision. Today he remains ambivalent. "When I graduated in 1954, there were a lot of six-foot guards like myself," he says. "Three years later they were all bigger.... Still, I feel I could have played for some teams."
No matter. In 1958, as he looked at his only son, perhaps he saw the chance to discover what he might have been. So the training began. "I taught him how to catch a hard sponge ball," the senior Perry says. "He showed good coordination for a 5-year-old." The father later erected a five-foot-high basket in the cellar. "He showed me how to grip the ball on the seams, follow through, stand square to the basket," says Ronnie, now 6'2". "A lot of kids start wrong."
In 1966, Ron asked Ronnie if he wanted to compete in the national Pass, Punt and Kick contest. Ronnie agreed, then beat 130,000 other 8-year-olds to win the finals before 70,000 in the Orange Bowl. Other carefully planned pressure situations followed. At Ron's basketball camp, Ronnie once shot free throws while dozens of kids stood around the keyhole, shouting, jumping and waving. No wonder Ronnie was 91% from the line in high school. Ron took his son to the playgrounds of Boston's black ghetto and showed him how the tight guarding that intimidates many youngsters could be overcome with fakes and spins. He had Ronnie watch Catholic Memorial's fine guards, King Gaskins and Billy Raynor. From Gaskins, Ronnie learned to fake left and drive right; from Raynor, to pass and penetrate. Ronnie says he loved every minute of it.
When Ronnie entered Catholic Memorial in 1972, his father had just been offered the Holy Cross position. It was a happy coincidence, because Ron wanted no part of the conflicts that might arise from coaching his son. But that didn't stop him from attending Ronnie's games whenever he could. Ron even passed up a trip to Hawaii to watch a prep tournament. Most of the time he was happy with what he saw. Averaging 35 points a game as a senior, Ronnie set a state schoolboy record of 2,481 points in four years. He had the best hitting and pitching records in his high school and on his Legion baseball team, graduated second in his class and may have been the most popular boy in school.
"I kept telling him it wouldn't be all fun and games," Ron says. Sure enough, in the finals of the 1976 state Catholic tournament, Ronnie missed a free throw with one second left and Catholic Memorial lost by a point to archrival Don Bosco. "We stayed up and talked about it," Ronnie says. "It all came down to: I still had 45 points, and even if we had won, there's always another game, so forget about the last one." A few days later he opened the state sectionals by going 13 for 17 from the field, 9 for 9 from the line.
"The father was patient, careful and above all consistent," says a Massachusetts basketball insider. "Other fathers will give highly concentrated attention for a short time, then nothing. This guy gave the kid small doses and never pushed him too hard. When it came to decisions, they had one of the strangest relationships I've ever seen. They would discuss things, and then one of them would make the decision. They shadow-boxed. It was like two friends who never want to have an argument."
As an example, the man pointed to Ronnie's decision not to play quarterback on the high school football team. Ron had made sure his was just one of several voices urging Ronnie to be satisfied with place-kicking. "I was embarrassed not to be playing out there with my friends," says Ronnie, "but I went along." He also went along to Holy Cross. In this case, his father's only advice was to tell Ronnie to take the pressure off himself by deciding which college to attend before the start of his final high school season. "My father being at Holy Cross was one reason I went there," says Ronnie. "The fact that I liked everything about the school was the other."
An economics major, Ronnie had a 3.25 average last semester and enjoyed himself thoroughly. "The thing I like most about him," says his girl friend, Marion Nelligan, "is that he's nice—to everyone." Including his old man. Ronnie looks to his father for moral support during games. Afterward, father and son embrace, then Ron often will detail Ronnie's mistakes, reminding him to penetrate more or to play intensely (he tends to be mechanical).
This may not be overprotecting, but observers wonder about Ron's advice to Ronnie on how to act off the court. A controversial coach—at Catholic Memorial he was accused of recruiting, running up scores and being too friendly with officials—Ron had Ronnie talking to reporters like a politician by the time he was 15. It was unnecessary. Ronnie was naturally tactful and got excellent coverage; still, his father often complained of insufficient publicity.
"They asked me if I had a bad shooting night," he said to his father after going 5 for 19 in the Seton Hall game. "Did you tell them you were 10 for 10 from the line?" his father shot back. Half an hour later Ronnie blurted out, "I didn't shoot well." Ron answered, "If you say that again..."