This tantrum was familiar
When I read about a stunt coach Mike Krzyzewski pulled on his Duke University basketball team during the 2016-17 season, I was reminded of something that happened when I was a member of the Solvay (NY) High School team.
Krzyzewski, already in a bad mood because he was recovering from back surgery, was further upset when his team lost for the third time in four games. He banned his team from using the locker room and also from wearing Blue Devils apparel.
This action came after North Carolina State won for the first time in 22 years at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.
IN DECEMBER, 1954, the Solvay High School basketball team was similarly punished by Coach Robert Demperio after we lost our season opener to Liverpool, 58-59, on our home court.
Some background: Until the 1950s, Solvay had the largest high school in Onondaga County. This does not include schools in the city of Syracuse, where Central High School was located. Its enrollment was more than three times that of Solvay.
Throughout Onondaga County there were small high schools that no longer exist because most of them merged with others through a process we called centralization. Jordan and Elbridge merged, Minoa joined East Syracuse, Warners disappeared, as did Split Rock, which had more boys on its basketball team than there were in its graduating class.
At the time, Solvay not only was the largest village in the county, but its high school was attended by students from Westvale and Fairmount, the latter becoming part of the West Genesee school system, which includes Camillus and Split Rock. Solvay residents would vote against centralization, prompting Westvale to become part of the Westhill school system, which also includes Onondaga Hill, which once had its own high school.
FOR MANY YEARS, Solvay was a power in the Onondaga County Scholastic League. Some seasons found Solvay winning championships in every sport — football, basketball, hockey, baseball land track. (You could say, that back in the day, Solvay basketball was to Onondaga County what Duke is to the Atlantic Coast Conference.)
One of Solvay’s best basketball teams won its first 19 games in the 1951-52 season, before losing to Whitesboro in the Section III championship game in Utica.
Though Whitesboro was favored, and entered the game with a 39-game winning streak, I viewed their victory as a fluke. The bus carrying the Solvay team to the game had a flat tire, delaying the arrival of the team until after the game’s starting time.
The players were rushed onto the court, warmed up briefly, then fell behind, 18-4, in the first period, and trailed 29-16 at halftime. Solvay rallied, got within four points in the second half, but lost 56-47.
IT WAS AN UNHAPPY END to the Al Talmadge era, Solvay’s answer to Coach K. He retired, as did Lester Stone, the junior varsity coach. They were replaced by one man, Robert Demperio, who years earlier had been a very good basketball player at Camillus High School, then Solvay’s most bitter rival.
But changes were afoot. They weren’t evident in Demperio’s first season, not with Solvay’s varsity team, anyway. They lost only three games, all of them to Baldwinsville.
(Today high school teams play more games than we did. In the 1950s, the Onondaga County League had three divisions. There were six schools in our division. We played each team twice. Four of the six teams qualified for the playoffs. The 1952-53 varsity team played only 12 games.)
However, the mediocre record of Demperio’s first junior varsity team — six wins, five losses — was an indication of things to come.
WE FACED something new in the 1953-54 season — the area’s first centralized school. The villages of Fayetteville and Manlius had merged their schools. A new athletic power emerged, and beat us twice in basketball. North Syracuse, which later would become North Syracuse-Cicero, beat us three times. We went to Binghamton during Christmas vacation, and found ourselves way out of our league, losing to that city’s Central High by fifty points.
Which gets us to the opening game of the 1954-55 season. Coach Demperio and all of us who were members of the varsity team were convinced we could — and would — win the league championship. We looked upon the season opener against Liverpool as an easy victory. (Just why we were so optimistic, I can't say. We were regularly outscored by our junior varsity team in practice.)
There was controversy over the way the Liverpool game ended. Pete Lefevre, regarded as our best player, made a shot at the buzzer. We thought we had won, 60-59. Everyone who had jammed into our tiny gymnasium thought so, too. You wouldn’t believe how much noise 500 or so people could make.
HOWEVER, Solvay mathematics teacher Bruce Burroughs, scorekeeper and official timekeeper, notified the two game officials that Lefevre’s shot left his hands after time had expired. Oddly, it was the second home game in a row when we walked off the court thinking we’d won, only to find out minutes later that we had lost.
That first defeat, against North Syracuse in the final game of the 1953-54 league season, was more difficult to swallow. Lance Baker, one of our guards, single-handedly brought us back from a 58-53 deficit by scoring six points in the final 30 seconds, or so we believed. A referee nullified the final basket, claiming Baker had traveled. We didn’t get the word until we were in our dressing room, which we shared with the unfortunate official who made the call. (By the way, that call was bogus.)
So our “championship” season began with an unexpected loss. There was no team meeting afterward. It was a Friday night game, we all went home, and the only criticism and ridicule we faced all weekend came from parents and schoolmates.
Those of us on the varsity team didn’t see Coach Demperio until after we had dressed for practice on Monday. When we trotted from the dressing room onto the gymnasium floor, he yelled at us, telling us to turn around and leave. He punished us by not allowing us to practice that day.
However, we were expected to return early Tuesday evening to board a bus for a non-league game against Phoenix High School. It was located just north of the county line, but might as well have been on the moon. We knew nothing about its basketball team.
AS I RECALL, Coach Demperio had little to say before the game. Our situation was made worse by the players’ attitude toward our coach. We didn’t like him, and resented what he had done weeks earlier when he decided the varsity could get along with a roster of just seven players, while he left fifteen players on the junior varsity, including one boy who had played varsity basketball the season before.
Our roster was reduced to six players for the Phoenix game, because it had been discovered that one of our starters — whose name I’ll omit — had circulated a three-game betting parlay a few days before the Liverpool game. Winners of the other two games would beat the parlay’s point spread. It was believed our player made sure we didn’t do the same, because most of those who had played the parlay — and this group included at least one teacher — had bet on all three favorites.
That player was kicked off the team the following Monday morning.
I cannot explain what happened next. We heard later than Phoenix had scrimmaged against Liverpool, and held their own. Because we had lost to Liverpool, on our home court, Phoenix players thought they’d beat us.
Instead, we won the game by 50 points, 73-23. Because it was a non-league contest, Coach Demperio was able to insert junior varsity players into the game in the second half, without worrying about their eligibility later in the season. There was a certain grace period — one or two games — in which it was possible to play in a varsity game, while remaining eligible to play for the junior varsity.
THAT NIGHT our coach may have felt his brief tantrum at Monday’s practice had a positive effect on his varsity team. But it hadn’t, not really. Turned out, as the season unfolded, that Liverpool simply was much better than we had expected, though we did beat them on their court a few weeks later. We felt no pressure to beat Phoenix. I think we played well because we were loose. It was like a pick-up game.
Three days after beating Phoenix, we played our second league game, against Fayetteville-Manlius, and lost by nine points at home. We would go on to win seven of our remaining eight league games, losing only at Fayetteville-Manlius, which for a year or two played their home games on the world’s longest basketball court.
(I’m not making that up. I believe the gymnasium belonged to the Manlius Military Academy, and apparently a mistake was made when the lines were painted for the basketball court, which was, as I recall, 100 feet long, or six feet longer than a regulation college basketball court.
(Solvay, on the other hand, had the smallest court in the league, probably about 60 feet long. Needless to say, at Manlius, we were gassed by the second period.)
YEARS LATER I felt some sympathy for Robert Demperio, though I always harbored resentment for the way he deprived us of a full roster. After we began our league season with two losses, he concentrated efforts on the junior varsity team, which went undefeated until the overall league championship game when they lost to Marcellus by three points.
I don’t know if this has changed, but when I went to Solvay High, there was a January graduating class. One of our basketball team members, Ed Showerman, left us through graduation in mid-season, which reduced our roster to five.
Demperio might not have given it a second thought. He had kept Showerman on the bench in December when we beat previously undefeated North Syracuse, 88-54. Maybe he thought he needed only five players. Take note, Jim Boeheim.
But I wonder what spectators thought at our first game after January graduation, when five of us came out on the court at Baldwinsville High School, and simply passed the ball around while we waited for three junior varsity players to change into varsity uniforms just so we could run a layup drill.
I FOULED OUT of the Baldwinsville game, forcing Demperio to advance one player from the junior varsity to the varsity. He selected Bill Hall, who’d played on the varsity the year before, but who wasn’t even a starter on the junior varsity. Hall replaced me and scored eight points in the final quarter, and a week later came off the bench, this time against East Syracuse, and scored 17 points, raising questions about the way he’d been handled by our coach.
Hall had given Demperio a lot of grief by ignoring instructions during practice. He was one of five players selected to attack our zone defense, which was effective in our bandbox gymnasium. Hall, perhaps the best shooter I’ve ever played with — or against — chose not to penetrate the zone, but to fire up shots from what now would be way beyond the three-point arc. (Hall may be the only boy who won the county free-throw shooting contest two years in a row.)
Demperio went bullshit, but Hall kept firing. I don’t think he missed a shot, but coach sent him to the bench and summoned another player to do as instructed against the zone.
But I’ve strayed far off topic. We ended the 1954-55 season by losing to Fayetteville-Manlius in the division championship game, this one on a neutral, slightly shorter court.
I’ll watch with interest to see how the Duke team responds to Coach Krzyzewski’s tactic.