In springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball, in the home of Vince and Peg Del Negro on Fountain Street, Sundays are always given over to the Heavenly Father and macaroni.
For as long as Vince and Peg have been married, and that has been some 30 years now, Peg has put the sauce on simmer before the family leaves for 11 o'clock Mass. After Mass, as his daughters, Theresa and Nina, set the table, Vince will strip off his dress shirt and, as is his custom, slip into the kitchen, snitch a piece of fresh bread (when his only son, Vinny, is home from college, he will have fetched it from the bakery, just as Vince did years ago for his father, Carmine) and dunk it in Peg's sauce. Then he'll take it into the den and turn on the television, and if the game on TV is any good, Vince's undershirt will get soiled a sweet red.
This weekly ritual occurs as unfailingly as the Sabbath itself. When Christmas falls on a Sunday, the Del Negros eat macaroni first, and then the turkey. If one of the kids asks how long it is until the family vacation begins, Vince or Peg will reply, "We go to the Cape in three macaronis." Macaroni, the marker of time, is forgone only on those Sundays when the Del Negro family is off watching Vinny play basketball for North Carolina State.
It's just such a Sunday, in March of 1987 in the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and Vinny is teetering on the sideline with only 35 seconds left to play in the game. He's clutching the ball, standing on one foot, about to fall out of bounds.
January 18, 1988
N.C. State has little business being in this championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament—and even less leading North Carolina 66-65. The Wolfpack's record for the season is a forgettable 19-14; to beat the Tar Heels, the nation's second-ranked team, would be a grand form of redemption. Yet now Vinny and teammate Bennie Bolton have crossed each other up on a simple inbounds play, and Vinny has chased the ball down at the sideline, where he is wobbling and falling as North Carolina's Dave Popson closes in. He can do only one thing.
Vinny takes aim at one of Popson's legs and fires, hoping the ball will ricochet out of bounds off Popson and into N.C. State's possession again. But he altogether misses Popson, and after one bounce the Tar Heels' Jeff Lebo fields the ball as if Vinny had planned it that way. In an instant Lebo finds teammate Kenny Smith, who flashes to the basket and banks in a layup to give North Carolina a 67-66 lead.
Vinny's father once made a mistake passing a basketball, and it changed his life. Vince Del Negro, Vince the Prince, later just Vin to distinguish him from Vinny, grew to be 6'5" and wiry, just as his boy would one day. But Vince was robust earlier, and he was tougher sooner.
A hotheaded kid raised in Springfield's hardscrabble North End, he was schooled on the suffocating second-floor court of the local Boys' Club. He learned there to run and rebound and score in an array of ways and in a style that today would have a sort of quaintness to it. His set shot from the corner was unerring, his knack under the offensive glass such that it would catch taller men by surprise. Best of all, he had a sweet roundhouse hook he could toss in with either hand.
Vince was a star in high school and then in the Army, and in the fall of 1958 he and his bride, Peg, set out for Booneville, Miss., site of Northeast Mississippi Junior College. They were amazed by the people of the Mississippi hills, where county law banned booze and the locals patronized the speakeasies "just down the road a piece." The fascination was mutual, for Vince was a basketball Barnum, as exciting a one-man show as anyone in those parts had ever seen.
And those folks showed their appreciation. For filling the gym, Vince would find cash under the scorebook in the coach's office after games. During the action he would hear a professor yell, "The higher you jump, the higher your grade will go!" Peg would get free meat from the butcher, and bottles of French perfume appeared in the mail at their home—an apartment, complete with maid, paid for by a stipend from the school. He was Vee-inco the Pree-once in the inflection of the locals and nothing less than royalty in their minds. "I was peacocking," Vin remembers. "I was the Yankee king of that little town. Those people had never seen a guy dunk before. Or heard a guy talk so fast."
For two seasons Vince was a junior college All-America and the nation's leading juco scorer. After the first year, Peg returned to Springfield, where she didn't have to travel 40 miles to find a Catholic church. But her husband stayed through the 1959-60 season. As Vince was piling up a 33.0-points-a-game average, Memphis State coach Bob Vanatta started sending his assistants around.
Vanatta had helped steer Vince to Northeast Mississippi. He hadn't signed him only because Memphis State had run out of scholarships. It was understood that Vince would put in two seasons of juco ball and then join the Tigers. But Vince began putting Vanatta's recruiters off. By now he had fielded four or five calls from alumni of the University of Kentucky, and soon the Northeast Mississippi coach, Bonner Arnold, was talking up the Wildcats.
Then one night Vince caught a second wind against Itawamba J.C., got his hook shot cooking and finished with 49 points as two Kentucky scouts watched from the stands. "Afterward they were telling me I could be the next Cliff Hagan," Vin says, "and I'm believing it, thinking, 'I'm six-five. Cliff Hagan's only six-four.' And I had all the hooks, too. Then I got a letter from [Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's chief assistant] Harry Lancaster, and I'm thinking, 'Kentucky wants me!' Back then, Kentucky was the penthouse."
Booneville would not ordinarily have been on Rupp's itinerary, but that March the Baron arranged to come speak to the local Rotary Club. Several weeks later, in the three-game North-South Junior College All-America Classic in Coffeyville, Kans., Vince led all scorers. Kentucky flew him straight from Coffeyville to the Lexington campus for an intoxicating two-day visit. He was met at the airport by a local alumnus, an Italian-American doctor who would later become his sugar daddy. He had his picture taken with Rupp, was fitted for a new suit and treated to a lavish dinner at a local country club. During dessert, a phone right behind the table rang.
"It's the Herald," someone said. "They want to know if Del Negro's signed."
He hadn't yet, but he could hardly refuse now. Lancaster pulled a letter of intent from his coat pocket and took Vince into another room. Memphis State never had a chance.
Vince began the 1960-61 season as the first-string center, and by early January the Wildcats were 6-3 and scheduled to play Georgia Tech on national television. The regular Wednesday intrasquad scrimmage, complete with a team of Southeastern Conference officials, was Rupp's idea of a shakedown, and Vince was feeling like a colt, up to the challenge. Folks back in Springfield would get to see him play on Saturday. He was still learning Rupp's system, but he hadn't been playing poorly. He was wearing a blue jersey, emblematic of the starters, as he tore down a defensive rebound.
"I took the ball up the middle, because I could dribble, for a big guy," Vin says now. "We had a three-on-two break with Billy Ray Lickert, our All-America candidate, on the left wing."
Vince flicked a behind-the-back pass ("being from the North End, following Bob Cousy and all....") that went off Lickert's hands and out of bounds. Rupp blew his whistle.
"Del Negro!" he thundered. "Put on a white shirt!"
"F——you," yelled Vince. Rupp at first pretended not to have heard and turned to one of the officials. "What did he say?" asked the incredulous coach. The ref repeated it faithfully as Vince stormed off toward the locker room with Lickert in pursuit, trying to talk sense to him.
"I came back to the court, but I'd lost the mind game," Vin says. "I was going through the motions. When I got in against Georgia Tech, there were maybe seven minutes left, and I played no more than four of them. We won, but I really got torn up in the brain. I was thinking national TV, a top team, people back home watching. When you're young, you think of those things."
Over the following weeks Vince cut classes and stayed out late drinking. He got in and played well against Tulane and Tennessee, but still he was despondent and losing weight. One night, just before the return game with Georgia Tech, he roused Dick Parsons, his roommate and the Wildcats' captain. Vince told him he'd had enough; he was leaving. "Dick tried to talk me out of it," Vin says. "He told me I'd be back, that I shouldn't be down. I told him, 'Please, take me to the airport and don't tell anyone until the morning. Just let me get out of town.' "
That night Vince airlifted his shaken ego back to Springfield. Years would pass before he picked up a basketball again.
Vinny wants the ball now. Smith's layup has put the Tar Heels ahead by one, and Vinny takes Bolton's inbounds pass knowing what he will do. "Twenty-something seconds in a game like that, nothing's really organized," Vinny will say later. "Everyone was stunned after Smith's shot."
Vinny will look to shoot. Nineteen seconds remain as he forges up the left sideline, over midcourt and past the N.C. State bench, where coach Jim Valvano is "yelling something," Vinny remembers. "Yelling, 'Go to the basket. Shoot.' Or something."
In the fall of 1963, Valvano enrolled at Rutgers, went out for basketball without benefit of a scholarship and, much to his bewilderment, wasn't starting on the freshman team. One blue day Valvano called home. He remembers it as if it happened yesterday: "Eighth floor, Clothier Hall. The pay phone at the end of the corridor. Collect." Rocco Valvano listened as his son told him that he wanted to leave Rutgers and come home to Seaford, N.Y. He wanted to transfer to a nearby college, Hofstra.
"The coach doesn't like my game," Jim said.
"Why do you think that?" Rocco asked.
"Because I'm not starting."
"Sounds like you're not good enough. Are you good enough?"
"Sure, I'm good enough."
"Then show him. Coach isn't stupid. He wants to win as much as you do."
Rocco knew this because he was a basketball coach himself, a highly successful high school coach. Jim had played for his dad and had learned how to listen to him. Rocco would soon see his son star in Madison Square Garden for Rutgers in the 1967 semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
"My father was a romantic. He was very corny about certain things, like the role sports could play in people's fives," Valvano says of Rocco, who died in 1985. "He was just being true to his nature. If you are good enough, you will prove it, and society will recognize that and reward you. It was impossible not to see some of that in Vinny's situation. Vinny and I were not the most heavily recruited players in the world."
N.C. State first checked out Vinny early in his senior season at Suffield Academy, a prep school just across the Connecticut line from Springfield. He scored easily against the namby-pamby competition in Suffield's league, and Dick Stewart, one of Valvano's assistants, didn't know quite what to make of Vinny at first. But Stewart saw something—"A bounce to his game," he says now—that he instinctively liked, and another N.C. State scout visited later in the season for a second look. By now Connecticut, Cincinnati, even DePaul and Kentucky had been around, but as the season wore on, the Wolfpack felt it had a good shot.
Working in N.C. State's favor was the paesano factor. On Vinny's visit to Raleigh, Angelina Valvano, Jim's mother and Rocco's widow, cooked a big Italian meal. During Valvano's return visit to Springfield, the Del Negros took him to Nini's, a restaurant owned by Vinny's cousin Michael. Then Valvano gathered the Del Negros together in the living room of Vinny's prep school coach, where he played an audio tape of N.C. State play-byplay man Garry Dornburg calling a tricked-up "ACC title game." Vinny won it at the buzzer for the Wolfpack.
As the tape faded out, Valvano ran over to the couch and hugged Vinny. It's part of the Valvano method. "After we've answered all the questions about graduation rates and student-teacher ratios, I want to see how a kid reacts to a hug like that," Valvano says. "If he thinks it's childish, he shouldn't come play for me. At some point every year we practice cutting the nets down. We practice it. Can you see yourself doing this? Where does the dream end and reality begin? Fantasy, that's what sport is."
Vinny signed with N.C. State that night. But his first two seasons in Raleigh were hardly the stuff of fantasy. "I figured freshman year would be a learning experience," he says. "I could accept it, playing behind Spud [Webb] and Nate [McMillan]. They're both in the NBA now. But the second year it got a little tough. You go through that time when people back home are saying, 'Oh, you've got to transfer.' "
When Vinny began his junior season without a starting spot, his regular calls home took on more urgency. Vin and Vinny still talk on the phone five, sometimes six, times a week. "When I call after a game, I'm surprised if the phone rings twice before someone picks up," Vinny says. During those dark days in the fall of 1986, the telephone was Vinny's lifeline. "My dad knew how much I worked and cared and wanted to play," Vinny says. "He didn't want me to get to that low point and get mad and give up."
Vin was patient, reassuring. Peg, however, had difficulty with such long-distance uncertainty. "When he wasn't playing, I got more down than Vinny did," she says. "We couldn't have people over when a game was on TV because I'd cry watching, thinking I had a brokenhearted kid 700 miles away. But over the phone it was always, 'I'm fine.' "
So Peg went to Raleigh for a face-to-face conversation. "I like to pose things so he knows he can tell me the worst," she says. "I took Vinny to lunch and said flat out, 'You must really hate Coach Valvano.' I never expected the kind of maturity that came back. He said, 'Ma, how could you ever say that? I'm learning so much from him.' And the Georgia Tech game came right after our lunch."
The Georgia Tech game. A Georgia Tech game had long ago been Vince's undoing. Now, on a Saturday night 26 years later, Vinny came off the bench to play 32 minutes, shut down the Yellow Jackets' Bruce Dalrymple and sink two free throws for the Wolfpack's last points in a 63-62 victory. He would never go back to the bench.
A measure of someone's character, Valvano likes to say, is the amount of disappointment it takes to discourage him. "Vinny never had a complaint for me," Valvano says. "When he'd come by my office, it was to ask what he could do to get better. When I told him to work on his upper-body strength, he became a weight-room junkie. Coaches don't decide who plays. Players decide. In no way is it a personal thing, but a kid can always fall back on that. To a kid, it can't possibly be that he hasn't put the effort in, or adjusted his attitude, or waited his turn. But Vinny accepted what I said as true instead of fighting with me."
Lebo is clinging to Vinny defensively, and Vinny remembers a play from earlier in the game. He had been dribbling left of the foul circle—right about here, in fact—when he had stopped and then continued hard to his left again, toward the baseline. Lebo had fouled him. I'll try it again, Vinny decides. I'll go left and dare Lebo to foul me.
The Springfield of the early 1960s was as big (Pop. 174,463) as a small town could get. That made it a comforting place for Vin to return to. He got into the liquor business, opening Vin's Package Store on Rifle Street, and did a steady trade with the college crowd. "Still being young, I'd go to bed at night and dream of what might have been," he says. "Or I'd be in the store, and someone'd come in and say, 'You played at Kentucky,' and I'd say, 'Yeah, I played there awhile,' and change the subject."
By the early 1970s the bar next to the package store came up for sale, and Vin bought it. He redid the interior in a sports motif as a come-on to the students at Springfield College, the phys-ed school up the hill, and called the place Vin's Gym. The Springfield kids came by and so did students from American International College, A.I.C., which some Spring-fielders liked to say stood for Almost in College. There was a rough-hewn integrity about the Gym (which Vin sold in 1980), from its engaging owner to the bullet hole behind the bar, which, the college kids delighted in discovering, lined up perfectly with the toilet in the men's room across the dance floor.
Little Vinny used to spend hours around the Gym, making popcorn and fetching ice, and when he began to show an interest in basketball, his father repaid the time, teaching fundamentals in the driveway. Vinny would run through the house with his ball, exchanging two-hand chest passes with the walls as Vin defended him before Peg's wrath. The shattered garage-door windows, the complaints from Julia Edwards next door about the incessant pounding—Vin indulged them all.
On Tuesday nights, 12-year-old Vinny set up and took down the bingo game at Holy Name Grammar School; the principal compensated him with $5 and a key to the gym. Vin persuaded Ciro's Restaurant to sponsor a local youth team, on which Vinny would be Skinny Vinny, the youngest kid and one of only two white players; Ciro's went 132-1 over three years and created a severe space problem in the restaurant trophy case. Vin was ticketed for speeding all over New England as he drove Vinny and his teammates to games. Sometimes there were two a night.
Vinny's passion for the game seemed limitless. By the summer after his freshman year at Springfield's Cathedral High, he ran a regular circuit. He would hit South End Community Center in the morning, eat pizza at the Red Rose for lunch and then tool by the Jewish Community Center for more ball. He would head home for a quick bite and taper off with a pickup game at Dunbar Community Center, a tiny church turned rec center just steps from the site of the YMCA where Dr. James Naismith invented basketball. And whenever Vinny played an organized game, summer league or otherwise, Vin was there to watch. "It's funny how my father separated himself from playing, but not the game," says Vinny. Vin also took on his son one-on-one in the driveway, at least until that summer when Vinny won for the first time and Vin never wanted to play again.
One lazy afternoon that summer, as Vinny shot hoops in the driveway, Vin called his son aside. Weeks before, Dennis Kinne, the coach at Suffield, had written Vin to inquire whether Vinny would consider a boarding-school education. Vin had filed Kinne's letter away and thought no more of it, but he had come upon it while cleaning out a desk drawer. "My dad initiated it," Vinny says. "He wanted to give me the opportunity to make that decision. He never had the same chance."
When he met the coach and saw the campus, Vinny knew instantly he wanted to try Suffield. Vin assured his son that he need not worry about the cost. Vinny assured his father that he could cope with leaving Cathedral and his buddies. In the car back from the campus, Vin voiced the one difficulty they both knew remained: "What are we going to tell your mother?"
Peg cried for days when she heard. That fall, during Vinny's first weeks away, she slept in her absent son's bed.
Lebo doesn't take Vinny's dare. He won't foul him, at least not here, not now. As Vinny leaves Lebo behind, turning the corner and negotiating the left baseline not far from the basket, North Carolina's 6'11" Joe Wolf comes down the lane to attempt to stop him. Vinny is now between the baseline and the backboard; he squares up to the basket, springs into the air and double-pumps the ball into a thicket of arms. There's a whistle. Wolf has fouled Vinny over the back.
After the play, Vinny notices NBC commentator Al McGuire standing up. "I'm looking toward the sideline," Vinny recalls, "trying to think about something else, to relax." Vinny's eyes meet McGuire's for an instant charged with urban-ethnic telepathy. Over the air, McGuire says, "Vinny just looked over here and made a positive sign. In my world, that means he's going to make these foul shots."
Just as Rocco Valvano once rehashed games with his son in the living room—overplaying the armchair, screening the bridge table—so has Vin. always had postgame advice for Vinny. Often now his words of wisdom must be dispensed over the phone, after Vin has played back his videotape of the game several times. "At first when he did that, I'd want to say, 'Give me a break,' " Vinny says. "Now I can handle it better. And what he says, we usually end up working on in practice the next day."
In the fall of 1985, a year after Vinny's arrival at N.C. State, a kid from Woodstock, Va., named Walker Lambiotte hit Raleigh carrying a gaudy portfolio. He was the Most Valuable Player in the McDonald's All-American game, the most prestigious of the showcases for high-school talent. People who studied such things called Lambiotte the White Tornado and "the next John Havlicek." Vin heard that one on TV. "I used to run over to Boston to see John Havlicek play," he says. "I'm hearing that and wondering."
Lambiotte, the son of a well-to-do lawyer, was a fine prospect. And an even better teammate—he was likable and bright. He and Vinny roomed together and became friends even as Lambiotte, much as Vinny had, faded in and out of Valvano's good graces. For a while during his first two seasons with the Wolfpack, the 6'7" Lambiotte was playing out of position—sometimes at Vinny's position—in the backcourt. But toward the end of last season, Vinny was on the floor while Lambiotte sat and watched. In the ACC title game, Lambiotte didn't play at all, and a few months later he announced he would leave N.C. State.
Valvano wishes Lambiotte only the best. Indeed, he smoothed his way to transfer to Northwestern, where he'll play next season for Bill Foster, the same Bill Foster who once coached a young guard at Rutgers named Jim Valvano. But Vinny was crushed by Lambiotte's decision.
"I wanted Walk to do what was best for him," Vinny says. "I also wanted him to be happy. But it took two and a half years before the coach saw that I had it in me. I'm a lot better now—stronger, more mature. It's not, 'Oh, I did this in high school.' It's not that easy. When I called home, I heard, 'Get your ass out there and show him your ability.' And that's what Coach V's father said to him. If Walk's father had said the same...."
Vinny is at the line now, and he prepares for the first free throw in his usual rigorous way, waiting patiently at the top of the key until the official flips him the ball. You never go to Mass before putting the sauce on simmer, and you never step up to the line before getting the ball from the ref.
Vinny's first free throw doesn't swish through—and that will become a source of some mock-perfectionist irritation to him. "It kind of snuck in," he says. "It wasn't clean." Nevertheless, the game is tied 67-67.
Growing up, Vinny turned his bedroom into a shrine to his dad's old school—especially to Kyle Macy, Kentucky's All-America guard of the late 1970s. He wrote his essays at Holy Name about Kyle Macy, even wiped his hands on his socks before shooting free throws, just like Kyle Macy. "He could tell you where Kyle Macy had a birth mole," Peg says.
One fall day in 1979, Macy and the Wildcats came to Springfield to play in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, and Vin arranged with his old teammate, roommate and airport chauffeur, Dick Parsons, then an assistant to Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, to meet the team for dinner. For Vin it would be a bittersweet moment, the first time he had seen Parsons since that night in February 1961. For Vinny, who fairly begged his father to take him along, it was the night he would meet Macy and hear Hall say, "Vince, we've got to get your boy down to our camp."
And so the following summer Vinny, then 14, flew to Lexington with Frankie Manzi, another boy from the neighborhood. Vinny was voted best offensive player in his age group at the Wildcat Basketball Camp and made his way into Hall's mind as a potential KU legacy.
But Kentucky's pursuit of Vinny three years later was really just a dalliance. "My father wanted me to go to Kentucky," Vinny says, "but he didn't want me to, if you know what I'm saying." The family liked Leonard Hamilton, Hall's top assistant, who told them frankly that a dazzling guard from Ohio, Gary Grant, was Hall's choice for the last scholarship Kentucky had in 1984. Hamilton was certain Grant was going to Michigan—which he did—and tried to persuade his boss to take a chance on Vinny. But Hall held the spot for Grant. When Kentucky made no commitment to Vinny during his visit that March, he came home disappointed.
"You really don't want me to go there, do you?" he said to his mom.
She didn't. "My husband got lost there," Peg says. The men in her home had conspired to send her only son away once over her objections. It wouldn't happen that way again if she could help it.
Vinny goes through his Kyle Macy socks routine before stepping to the line for his second shot. This one rips through the net perfectly. Carolina's last two field goal attempts fall harmlessly away, and Vinny and Valvano run to each other for the embrace they had rehearsed years before on the Del Negros' living room couch. N.C. State is the unlikeliest of ACC champions, 68-67. Vinny, who scored 42 points in the tournament, is as unlikely an MVP. "The end, babe," Valvano will say. "Fade, and let's get out of here. This is the All-Clichè Experience."
One of the regrettable by-products of the spectacularization of the NCAA tournament is how that grand event now eclipses the many conference tourneys in early March, those little passion plays that give college basketball's Wolf-packs a momentary run, and its Vinny Del Negros a stage. Then, barely savored, they are pushed from the mind by the big show.
But the Del Negro den won't forget. There, as his son cocaptains the Wolfpack through this senior season and anticipates being drafted by the NBA, Vin stands as archivist of the trophies and photographs and clippings that chronicle the big-time dream Vinny has lived out. And the redemption by the son of the father's failure is clearly not lost on Vin. "People say to me, people who know basketball, 'You lucky bastard. You're reliving your life through him,' " Vin says. "But I gave him my true stories—up front, no lies—about what I did with my life. I told him I didn't have what he has, the discipline, the good attitude."
Or the father. Carmine Del Negro died of a heart attack at 39, years before his son, Vince the Prince, would turn and run from Kentucky. There are no scrapbooks from Lexington. "I never saved any of that," says Vin. "I save my son's. My son has a gift. I give him credit. He worked." And that will be remembered in the home on Fountain Street in basketball's Old Country, many macaronis from now.