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Boston Ball provides look into how Northeastern, Boston University and Boston College in the 1970s and 1980s shaped basketball for years to come

Clayton Trutor tells the stories of Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams revolutionizing the game from the northeast city

Boston Ball

The college basketball landscape looked radically different in the 1970s and early 80s. Gone are the days where the majority of teams pound the ball inside and play an incredibly slow pace. The game’s revolution centered around a couple of programs in the Boston area with up-and-coming coaches who would go on to have hall-of-fame careers in Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams.

Boston Ball by Clayton Trutor details the stories that changed the game and launched these careers. It is available this November. Use the promo code 6AF23 to save 40% off the cover price.

Below is an excerpt from the book:

Boston Ball

Introduction: The Forgotten Cradle of Coaches

Pete Axthelm called it the “city game.” The style of play that emerged on the asphalt courts, steamy gyms, and close-fitting fieldhouses of the Northeast corridor. It is an up-tempo and aggressive game, built around pressure defense; fast-breaking offenses and drives to the rim; slick ball-handling and bravado. It is a game of speed, grit, guile, and skill. From Nat Holman’s New York Original Celtics in the 1920s, to his City College championship team in 1950, to Philadelphia’s Big Five basketball schools, to Bob Cousy at Holy Cross and later with Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, to Red Holzman’s New York Knicks teams of the early 1970s, to the legendary street ballers at Harlem’s Rucker Park—for close to a half-century, when people in the East thought of big-time basketball, they were thinking of the “city game,” a term first popularized in Axthelm’s account of Holzman’s Knicks and the players he encountered at Rucker Park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Recently, Matthew Goodman reintroduced the term in his fantastic narrative history of City College’s great teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s entitled The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (2019). [1]

At the very moment that Axthelm’s book The City Game (1970) found a large audience among basketball fans, that very style of play was beginning to fade from the national landscape. Both in the professional and college games. At the college level, risk-averse zone-defenses and high-post offenses became the norm in many places as teams bided their time, searching for the best possible looks in the pre-shot clock era. The style of ball control offense favored by Oklahoma A&M’s (later Oklahoma State) Henry Iba had long been the norm in much of the country, but this deliberate, highly structured style of offense found its way by the 1960s into fieldhouses in every corner of the nation. In Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) country, Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tarheels employed a purposeful ball control offense that came to be known as the “shuffle.” In the Midwest, Big Ten teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Ohio State won with a brawny, more plodding style of play. Ball control basketball proved to be an effective means of shutting down more running-and-gunning opponents, but it also wasn’t terribly exciting. Teams holding the ball for several minutes each half threatened to kill off the sport’s once-rabid support in every corner of the country. Well into the 1970s, college and professional basketball seemed like ever smaller and more insular worlds. The sport was dominated by a handful of teams and lacking in the vigorous support that characterized it before a series of gambling-related scandals rocked basketball during the 1950s.

The reembrace of the big man during the 1960s and 1970s offered further proof that Henry Iba’s ball control basketball was winning the day. Iba’s championship teams in the 1940s were built around ramming the ball inside to seven-foot pivot-man Bob Kurland, one of several giants that dominated college basketball in the era. By the early 1970s, coaches had adjusted to rule changes meant to prevent seven-footers from completely controlling the game, inaugurating a new, more athletic era of big man basketball. Even at UCLA, home of John Wooden’s vaunted 2-2-1 press, the Bruins built around their enormous centers, parlaying it into 10 national championships built around the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. The path to college basketball success at the national level became a question of which schools could recruit the most talented centers, not which schools could build the best teams. Downstream in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA), the likes of Jabbar, Walton, Bob Lanier, and Artis Gilmore followed in the footsteps of Chamberlain and Russell in a big man dominated league.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a basketball revolution started in an unlikely place. A cluster of young coaches, toiling in relative obscurity in the same town (Boston) and at the same time (the late 1970s and 1980s), ignited a renaissance of the “city game.” Working in the shadow of the Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins, they unknowingly invented “Boston Ball,” a simultaneously old and new path to the top of college basketball. A high school teacher in Dedham, Massachusetts named Jim Calhoun quit his day job and took a pay-cut to become the men’s basketball coach at Northeastern University (NU), a school that was transitioning to Division I. A cocksure, 25-year-old from Long Island named Rick Pitino convinced Boston University (BU) to make him their head basketball coach. Pitino’s boss, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, pleaded with his young assistant to wait for a better job to open, describing BU as the worst coaching job in the East. Coach Gary Williams left his position at American University in Washington, D.C., a school that played its home games at a National Guard armory, for Boston College (BC), where he had previously served under Tom Davis. Davis’ BC teams excelled in the newly-formed Big East Conference but few outside the Chestnut Hill campus seemed to notice. The Eagles’ footprint in Boston was strikingly small for such a successful program. Moreover, BC was still playing in the shadow of college basketball’s biggest scandal in decades, the 1978-1979 points-shaving affair which involved three of their players. When Williams took over as BC’s head coach in 1982, the points-shaving scandal remained the primary thing that most people knew about the school’s basketball program, as the federal trials of the players and mobsters involved in the case were on-going.

The formidable challenges faced by all three coaches were overcome with a combination of hard work, craftiness, and attention to detail. Above all else, Calhoun, Pitino, and Williams were apostles of the “city game.” Each one of them embraced the old-time religion of pressure defense, up-tempo offense, skillful ball-handling, and board crashing in their coaching. They all played deep benches and built tight-knit teams. None of them had a Bob Kurland or a Bob Lanier in the middle they could dump the ball into for high-percentage shots. Instead, they created teams that played with passion, intensity, and intelligence. Their teams were always in peak physical condition and, win or lose, the opposition was always in for a battle.

All three coaches transformed their teams in Boston into programs worthy of national recognition. In 1983, Rick Pitino brought BU back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a quarter-century, guiding a team that had been crushed the previous autumn by the death of their captain and best-player, Arturo Brown, who died of a heart attack during practice. Jim Calhoun led Northeastern to five league titles, five NCAA Tournament bids, and three upset victories in the NCAA Tournament in a six-year period during the early-to-mid 1980s. Gary Williams took two undersized BC clubs that were perennially picked by the basketball experts near the bottom of the Big East to the Sweet Sixteen. On both occasions, BC came within an errant shot of making it to the Elite Eight.

Collectively, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, and Gary Williams played a profound role in the remaking of modern college basketball. The fast and physical play adopted by many of the best college teams of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries looked a lot like the basketball that Northeastern, BU, and BC played in the late 1970s and 1980s. A number of these great teams of the recent past were in fact coached by Pitino, Calhoun, or Williams. This trio won a total of six national championships and reached 13 Final Fours between 1987 and 2011. All three coaches have been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. For close to a quarter century, their teams were almost continually in the conversation as contenders for the national championship. Each coach became a celebrity as college basketball and March Madness became a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Before Pitino became the face of the Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville programs. Before Jim Calhoun turned UConn into a national power. Before Gary Williams brought Maryland its first national championship. All three coaches cut their teeth in front of modest crowds in the crumbling college gymnasiums of Boston during the 1970s and 1980s. Boston Ball is the story of a forgotten cradle of coaches. It details how three ambitious young coaches learned their trade in the shadow of the dynastic Celtics, professional basketball’s most revered and successful franchise. Each coach crafted a distinct blueprint for building a winning program and did so through the collective efforts of their players, assistants, and athletic department staff.

Boston Ball fills a significant gap in the historical record of American sports. While the most high-profile tenures in each of the three coaches’ careers are well known to basketball fans, few outside of the Boston basketball community seem to know much about these earlier periods in Williams, Pitino, or Calhoun’s careers. Even locally, coverage of the three teams was limited in the print and broadcast media. The Boston Globe (referred to simply as “The Globe” in this book) at least wrote up accounts of most BU, NU, and BC games during this era. Many young journalists who went on to big things, including Jackie MacMullan and Leslie Visser, did a fine job covering local college basketball but the paper’s overall coverage of the teams seemed more like due diligence for the local sports scene than reporting on a genuinely mass attraction.

To one extent or another, the coaches themselves have deemphasized this aspect of their respective careers in their official retellings of it. Pitino gives his five years at BU (1978-1983) a total of five pages in Pitino: My Story.[2] Williams spends four pages on his four years as BC’s head coach (1982-1986) in his memoir, Sweet Redemption.[3] Jim Calhoun, who spent 14 years at Northeastern (1972-1986), is the most verbose, covering his time as the Huskies coach in two slim chapters.[4]

Boston Ball is more than a coming-of-age story for three coaches that went on to star on the national stage. For one thing, it is also the story of many other great coaches, some well-known and others more obscure, who competed and coached alongside the three Hall of Fame coaches in this book. Three other coaches who figure prominently in Boston Ball belong in the Hall of Fame. Mike Jarvis, who twice coached BU to the NCAA Tournament after coaching at his alma maters Northeastern and Cambridge Rindge and Latin, is an obvious omission from the Basketball Hall of Fame, having later revitalized flagging programs at George Washington and St. John’s. Dr. Tom Davis, Gary Williams’ mentor and the man who transformed BC into a power in the early years of the Big East, is one of the great tactical innovators in the history of college basketball. Kevin Mackey, Davis and Williams’ top recruiter and, later, the author of one of the great upsets in NCAA Tournament history, has made unique contributions to basketball at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. The life’s work of so many other fine coaches including Jim O’Brien, Karl Fogel, Jack Leaman, Al Skinner, Dick Dukeshire, Jim Bowman, Roy Sigler, Nick Macarchuk, Pete Lonergan, as well as many other fine teachers of the game in the Big East and ECAC North are also discussed in this book. Without delving too much into the tactical nuts and bolts of the game, Boston Ball offers a window into the strategic diversity that characterized eastern college basketball in the 1970s and 1980s.

Boston Ball is also a story of recruiting—how did coaches at lesser-known schools find the student-athletes that enabled them to compete for NCAA Tournament bids. Unable to lure the bluebloods that chose the brand name programs of the ACC, Big East, and Big Ten, Northeastern, BU, and BC each developed distinctive and consistently fruitful recruiting pipelines. Northeastern cultivated a “Pittsburgh Connection,” a network which drew many talented if overlooked players from Western PA to Huntington Avenue. The Huskies later developed significant pipelines to Southeastern Massachusetts and to Baltimore/Washington D.C., where they landed the greatest player in NU history, the late Reggie Lewis. Rick Pitino made extensive use of the network emanating from Howard Garfinkel’s famed Five Star Camp to sign players at BU. The young BU coach won many recruits in his old New York tri-state area stomping grounds while finding a number of solid players in lightly-recruited eastern Canada and northern New England. Despite its Big East affiliation, Boston College struggled to lure the most high-profile recruits in the Northeast to Chestnut Hill. Instead, BC proved incredibly creative under Tom Davis and Gary Williams at finding great players in less-familiar places. The Eagles got a number of fine players out of the Mid-Atlantic states but BC’s success in the first half of the 1980s is due in large part to the pipeline that the school’s top recruiter, Kevin Mackey, built into Connecticut. Mackey convinced four future NBA players, none of whom was prized by the other Big East programs, to sign on at BC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. BC’s “Connecticut Connection” served as the architecture for the school’s two Big East regular season titles and four trips to the Sweet Sixteen in five years.

Boston Ball is set firmly in its namesake city but also in a very different time. This was Boston before the renaissance that remade the city into a destination for young people and immigrants from around the world. This was a post-industrial city, a shrinking city that was simultaneously showing its wear and scarred by urban renewal. Before its hospitals, tech sector, universities, home renovators, and endless construction projects became the primary drivers of an economic boom, Boston was much more a city of discrete spaces, its colleges being one such enclave. For African American players considering a Boston-area school in the 1980s, the strife and violence of just a few years earlier during the city’s bussing crisis was not something of the past. Even after the most obvious signs of conflict dispersed, Boston remained a place that seemed to run along several parallel tracks.

This sense of cultural divergence was certainly evident at the universities featured in this book. African American players that chose to play and study at BC, BU, or Northeastern found themselves on predominately white campuses on which they were a highly-visible minority. For the sports teams that represented these universities, an inability to transcend their institutions played no small role in their limited bases of support. Boston’s big-league teams were among the traditional cultural ties that bound people in the region together. Practically everyone I interviewed for this book used the exact phrase “Boston is a pro sports town” to describe the place of college sports in “America’s College Town.” To be more precise, Boston is more a town with colleges than a conventional college town, where one institution is the social and economic focal point. No one university in Boston cultivates the kind of municipal unity one finds in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Madison, Wisconsin or Athens, Georgia.

Of the three, Boston College drew by far the largest and most consistent crowds to their basketball games, as their bandbox gym, the Roberts Center, was one of the most raucous venues in the Big East. Outside of the school’s students and alumni, few others showed much interest in Eagles basketball. BC was a highly selective Jesuit institution nestled in Chestnut Hill. In many ways, BC felt more like its own orbit than a city school. In the case of archrivals Northeastern and BU, these were both historically large, private commuter schools that drew students from the surrounding towns and neighborhoods. It was much harder for these commuter schools built along Huntington Avenue (Northeastern) and Commonwealth Avenue (BU) to develop large fanbases than residential schools with a more permanent sense of campus life. As both institutions evolved into more selective and residential universities, they continued to struggle with cultivating strong identifications with their sports teams. Neither BU or Northeastern’s teams benefitted from the affinities that come from representing a specific state, city, or religious group. All three schools had historically strong hockey programs but, in each instance, they culled their support largely from alumni bases that had backed these teams for decades. Their fanbases were steady and rarely spectacular outside of the two weeks of Beanpot Hockey each year at the Boston Garden.

Boston Ball is also the story of a sport in transition. The adoption of the shot clock and the three-pointer happened gradually and then all-of-a-sudden during the 1980s, forcing players and coaches to adapt quickly to the changing circumstances. The NCAA Tournament, too, changed significantly in this era. When Jim Calhoun took over at Northeastern in 1972, the NCAA Tournament had a 25-team field. The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) remained highly prestigious in the early 1970s and selected a 16-team field. The size of the NCAA Tournament field grew considerably during the 1970s and 1980s before arriving in 1985 at the 64-team bracket that still forms the core of the selection process. At the same time, the NIT declined considerably in prestige, even in its traditional bastion of support, the northeastern United States.

The creation of the modern system of conferences in eastern college basketball also figures prominently in this story. The amorphous Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) imploded in 1979 with the formation of the Big East Conference, which coalesced around many of the ECAC’s best basketball schools. BC earned a spot in the Big East after historic basketball power Holy Cross demurred. BU and Northeastern found themselves in a free-for-all as the remaining ECAC schools looked to form their own permanent leagues that retained the ECAC’s automatic tournament bids. Both Boston schools ended up in the marriage of convenience known originally as the ECAC North before the league changed its name to the North Atlantic Conference (now known as America East). Instability reigned in the new league as membership and the configuration of the conference’s playoffs changed frequently throughout the decade.

Most significantly, this is a story of teams—of the camaraderie, conflict, triumphs, disappointments, and, sadly, tragedies that the young men who spent the early years of their adulthoods playing and studying experienced at these three fine universities. The backbone of this book is the more than 90 interviews I conducted with former players, coaches, team managers, journalists, and administrators from college athletic departments. I spoke with two of the three subjects of this book, Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams, both of whom were generous with their time and their recollections. I spoke with dozens of people associated with Northeastern, Boston University, and Boston College basketball during this era as well as many coaches, players, and administrators from opposing schools in the Big East and ECAC North. Collectively, their recollections provide tone and texture to this account of events often 40 years old. More importantly, they offer a glimpse into the relationships that make up a team, the preparations they made to compete at the highest level, and the experience of playing highly competitive college basketball.

[1] Pete Axthelm, The City Game (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1970); Matthew Goodman, The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (New York: Ballantine Books, 2019).

[2] Rick Pitino with Seth Kaufman, Pitino: My Story (New York: Diversion Books, 2018).

[3] Gary Williams and David Vise, Sweet Redemption: How Gary Williams and Maryland Beat Death and Despair to Win the NCAA Basketball Championship (New York: Sport Publishing, 2002).

[4] Jim Calhoun and Leigh Montville, Dare to Dream: Connecticut Basketball’s Remarkable March to the National Championship. (New York: Broadway Books, 1999).

From Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches by Clayton Trutor. Used by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. November 2023 by the University of Nebraska Press.

Use the promo code 6AF23 to save 40% off the cover price.