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  • Budd Bailey

Book Review: Boston Ball


Review by Budd Bailey


Here's a bit of a history lesson about college basketball in the Northeast, a necessary ingredient before diving into Clayton Trutor's book, "Boston Ball."


It starts with the fact that college sports there were relatively decentralized in that part of the country until relatively recently.

 

In much of the country, the big state schools dominated the landscape. There are other colleges besides those universities in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado, for example, but the big ones attract all of the attention - particularly in sports. Who played in the championship game in college football in January, 2024? Michigan and Washington, two institutions that fit the description nicely. 


But that's not true in the Northeast. The states are smaller up there, and there is a tradition of private schools. Penn State and Connecticut are the exceptions to that, although Rutgers is trying hard to move into that territory in New Jersey. The big state school in New York probably is the University at Buffalo, at least in football and basketball. 


Just as an example, here are some teams that played Syracuse in men's basketball in 1976-77: Colgate, Boston College, Canisius, Penn State, Cornell, Fordham, American, Buffalo, St. John's, Temple, Pittsburgh, Northeastern, West Virginia, St. Bonaventure and Niagara. Some of those teams have been quite good in the past decade or two, but some haven't.


That all changed in 1979. The Big East Conference was formed in an attempt to link the region's top basketball programs. The idea was to play good games in big arenas before big crowds .... that, oh by the way, was ready-made for television. It worked. 


But while the Big East proved its point relatively quickly, it took some time for everything else to settle down. There were still some good teams floating around in the East in late 1970s and most of the 1980s. While the Big East was starting to grab the best players, there was enough flux in the rest of the sport to make winning more than possible - if you had the right coach to collect the talent overlooked by the Big Shots.


As it turned out, the city of Boston collected three of those coaches in the same era. Jim Calhoun landed at Northeastern, Rick Pitino went from a Syracuse assistant's job to head coach at Boston University, and Gary Williams landed at Boston College - one of the Big East schools, but not a powerhouse at the time. The three were considered up and coming coaches, but few could have predicted that all of them would land in the Basketball Hall of Fame.


But that's what they did. Trutor tells their story in great detail in this book.


The author gets good marks for researching the subject. He interviewed two of the three coaches that play the major roles of the story, and spoke with many others from that era. Take it from someone who covered Canisius and Niagara basketball during the early 1980s - that was pretty good basketball back then, and coaches like Calhoun and Boston's Mike Jarvis were always interesting in interviews. And since the level of play was more or less the Big East and Everyone Else, it was relatively easy to find some good players who had been overlooked. It was good fun to read some of the names mentioned here, even if they weren't future NBA players. 


But this comes with some drawbacks. Trutor gives a great deal of detail to games and names from about 40 years or so ago. That's going to have trouble finding an audience, particularly since a relatively small audience followed the teams and their players in that era. Meanwhile, the author organizes the book in a slightly odd way. We ping-pong from Calhoun to Pitino to Williams through the first 15 chapters. They don't cover the same time period, and their stories only occasionally overlap. Sometimes it's easy to get confused with the time line of a particular story.


For those who do remember those days in the late 1970s and in the 1980s in college basketball fondly, this will strike a nice chord. But it's easy to wonder if a book concentrating more on the three coaches might have worked a little better at this point.


(Follow Budd on X.com via @WDX2BB)

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