[Kevin Stacom spent six seasons in the NBA, mostly as a member of the Boston Celtics. In 1981, Stacom retired with a 5.1 career scoring average, connecting on 42 percent of his shots from the field, and dishing out 1.5 assists per outing.
Though Stacom’s career numbers are lackluster, he apparently never met a sportswriter who didn’t take a shine to him. The soft-spoken former Providence College star also seemed to bring out the very best in their prose. The five stories here represent sports journalism at its best and captures the challenges that many young role players faced in their quest to make good in the 1970s NBA.
Up first is the great Peter Gammons, then a 29-year-old Boston Globe staffer and now a 76-year-old welcome voice at The Athletic. In this article, Gammons recaps the 1974 NBA draft, during which the Celtics took swingman Glenn McDonald and Stacom one and two. Gammons has almost nothing to say about McDonald, a long-armed Californian who would last three seasons in the association. Gammons wants to focus on Stacom, the regional star from Providence College. Or, as the headline from the May 29 article states: “Second Choice, Top Quality.”]
I wasn’t there, but I’ve always known this about Kevin Stacom. Back in Flushing, the first time his father handed him a basketball, young Kevin flipped it back and took off to run a play out the back door.
Providing you believe those “Celtics . . . Pride” bumper stickers, and Red Auerbach had one stuck in the wall over the office phone which brought him the 6-foot-4 Providence guard, then you understand why Kevin Stacom belongs on this team. He is the epitome of what this past championship meant to every high school coach across the America: It’s not always what you have, but how you use what you have.
And that’s the way the Celtics draft. For a Don Chaney, for instance. The first requisite is the talent, particularly in their current situation, at forward. They would have taken Long Beach State’s 19-year-old Clifton Pondexter to groom alongside their aging frontcourtmen. But when he was gone, they opted for their kind of player, Glenn McDonald. In round two, they were holding their collective breaths for Syracuse’s 6-foot-7 Fred Saunders. But he went. So, they got Stacom.
And, while they already have three good young guards and a potential fourth in McDonald, they got a player. A good one.
In the first place, he comes out of college well prepared for the Celtics system because Providence plays that way. That Ernie DiGregorio of the [Buffalo] Braves, who had more adjustments to make than Stacom will, fit in so quickly is proof. All those kids—Ernie, Stacom, Marvin Barnes, Franny Costello—think and play basketball the way it should be played. They understand how a team game is played, how to play without the ball, play defense, etc. If you have been a Mike Riordan fan, Stacom is his protégé. From Holy Cross High in Flushing to Providence.
Secondly, he comes as a winner. My impressions of him? There was the Jacksonville game his junior year, when Ernie went cold and Stacom took over, hitting 10 straight. Or the Maryland game for the Eastern Regional championship, when Ernie went to the bench with four fouls and Stacom completely took over everything. Or the year, when an overtime buzzer shot beat UMass, or the BC game, when in regulation he made a brilliant defensive move to take away BC’s final shot, then threw in a 30-footer at the overtime buzzer for a one-point victory.
Third, he is intelligent, a kid who will have little problem with the learning process on and off the court.
Anyway, we have seen him play Phil Smith of San Francisco, Brian Winters of South Carolina, and Leon Benbow of Jacksonville, all taken before him. And he proved himself the better player. As far as Jesse Dark or Aaron James, it was the sagacity of NBA people who took Pete Maravich before Dave Cowens, too.
The ironic part of where he ended up when he did was that Stacom will now have lost money by waiting an extra year. Since he left Holy Cross and transferred with the help of Mr. Riordan, to Providence, his original class graduated last year. The Celtics wanted him badly, and the day before the draft tried to talk him into leaving. Then Chicago took him on the second round and offered enough money to build a second library on Ernie D’s mansion. But he stayed around and now, as a late second round draft choice with fewer alternatives, commands considerably less money.
What happened? A lot of things. First off, he was forced to do what he cannot do for Providence this year. He is not a ballhandling guard; he is the guy who plays without the ball, who shoots on the run, who does the little things. But he was not a ballhandling number one guard.
Most important, he wasn’t really healthy all year. From a summer spent in Russia and China representing the USA, he was tired to begin with, then he got sick before the season, lost weight and a step or two, and never really recovered until the end of the season. Something few scouts realized.
The Celtics don’t really need another guard. While deliberating on their choice, [coach] Tom Heinsohn kept pleading for Roscoe Pondexter [ironically, Boston’s third-round choice] or a rebounding forward. “He’s the best damned player,” snarled Red.
And I, for one, think he’s right.
The Celtics represent something unique in this age of glorification of people like Derek Sanderson, Alex Johnson, and Pete Maravich. And so does Kevin Stacom.
He has come to the right place.
[Gammons may have been right about Stacom. But his opinion, of course, didn’t matter. It was the opinion of Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn that would make or break Stacom’s prospects in the NBA, and that’s where things turned tricky. The Celtics were notoriously slow to work their rookies into the rotation, and Heinsohn, who didn’t want to waste his second-round pick on another &%*^!! guard, had reservations about Stacom.
As a rookie, Stacom appeared in 61 games, logging just over seven minutes per outing and averaging a mere 2.8 points, while shooting a respectable 45 percent from the field. Despite his underwhelming rookie production, Stacom remained upbeat about his sophomore season The Boston Globe’s Larry Whiteside caught up with Stacom and his positive attitude for this December 17, 1975 story under the headline: Kevin Stacom, Confidence Has Created that Smile of Success.]
The first clue is the way Kevin Stacom is smiling these days. No longer the nervous Celtic rookie, the second-year man from Providence is relaxed. And he’s starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a thin line between truth and legend concerning the Celtic philosophy of bringing talented players along slowly. Many of them have never found their roles as a rookie, then worked hard to be the best. A couple had been awful flops.
But in Stacom’s case, it is the truth. No longer is he the erratic benchwarmer of a year ago, eager to come in, play a little defense, and bomb away from 35 feet. Stacom has become polished, to a degree, and an excellent ball-hawking defensive guard. And lately, he has not only contributed his ability to push the ball up the floor quickly on offense, but he’s starting to get into the flow of things and take his shots.
It is a tried and tested path for success in Celtic history. “It’s the way I think you ought to learn and develop in this game,” said John Havlicek, who recalls he sat on the bench a lot in his first couple seasons with the Celtics. “Kevin’s strength right now is his defense. Because of the makeup of our team, it’s the role that he has to play if he wants to get the most possible minutes of playing time.
“But I’ve always maintained that it’s the easiest way to get playing time. Teams are always looking for a player who can contribute on defense. At least, one who won’t hurt you. Kevin knows his role, and he works hard at it. He was fundamentally sound and a good offensive player at Providence. That part of his game will come along as his playing time increases. That’s the way K.C. and Sam Jones made it.”
Stacom is hardly ready to have his jersey hung on the rafters at Boston Garden. He is the Celtics’ No. 3 guard, behind Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott. It’s really the same role he played last year, when Don Chaney was at the other guard spot, but this year he is needed more.
“We want him to play tough, aggressive defense,” said Heinsohn. “And he’s doing it. It still leaves time for a player to develop in our system. There are so many things for a guard to learn.
“Kevin’s trouble last year was that he wanted to do too much. He wanted to come off the bench and perform a miracle. We told him we didn’t want him to make super plays. Instead, we wanted him to get the ball up the floor quickly on offense, and play strong defense.
“The pressing on defense is part of what we’re trying to do now. We want to be able to establish the tempo of the game, take teams out of their offense, make them play our game. By just playing good defense and fitting into our overall defense, Kevin has helped us a whole lot. He realizes he’s not the whole show. But he’s plenty quick, and if he has a shot, he’s starting to take it.”
Stacom, at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, might look awkward on defense to some. He has quick hands, and usually plays close to his man. But often he might look like he’s riding side-saddle going up the floor—overplaying his man to either the right or left.
“Actually, it’s just part of our overall defense,” Stacom said, “I might be trying to force a man a certain way, or into a particular part of the floor, depending upon the situation. We generally try to keep guards from penetrating the middle.
“I’ve learned that there’s more to defense than just guarding the man. I’m more aware now of where our people are, and where opposing players are on the floor. That’ll stop you from running into picks, and things like that. I get beat sometimes, but then I count on having help and usually I get it. I like to feel comfortable when I guard people. Comfortable in what I’m doing and in our style of defense.”
About the last thing you figured Kevin Stacom would need help with as a Celtic was his shooting. He was a splendid outside gunner with Providence, and even today he can be found spending an extra half hour or so after practice just working on his shots.
“But he had to make some adjustments as a pro,” said Heinsohn. “He had a habit in college of taking the ball, then pumping from the waist then shooting. Now, instead of two or three moves, he’s got one fluid motion. He’s become a fine shooter.”
But Stacom insists that shooting, while fun, is secondary in his present role. “I think that I’m getting more shots now that I’m getting more playing time,” he said. “But I’m more concerned about getting into the flow, not one-on-one stuff. If I can move, then pop out once in a while for an open shot , I’ll take it. But I know my shooting is not the best way to help the club or myself. I know if we all do our jobs, we’ll be successful. The game will be fun again.”
[Year two never quite brought the success that Stacom envisioned. He got into 77 ballgames in year two, doubling his minutes to just over 14 per game and boosting his scoring average to 5.3 points per game, now popping 44 percent from the field.
By year three, Stacom had been typecast as a spot defensive specialist and familiar third or fourth guard on the Celtics. He now got 13 minutes of burn per game, and the shooting percentage of this former major-college marksman had dipped to 41 percent. The Boston Globe’s John Powers caught up with Stacom and his 5.3 points per game in this March 3, 1977 article. Like everyone at the Globe’s sports desk, Powers couldn’t say enough good about Stacom, now perceived as a team-first throwback to the good old days of Cousy and Sharman.]
He is the last of the true ones left, the only Celtic who knows the difference between Galway and Waterford, and who wouldn’t ask for a frosted mug for his Guinness.
On a club filled with Havliceks, Kuberskis, and Wickses, coached by a Heinsohn and owned by a Levin, Kevin Stacom is a period piece. He dresses in tweeds and a scalley cap with the fine curly hair brushing out underneath. Slipping off up the street with his bouncing gait, he could pass for the driver of an IRA getaway car.
The man’s grandparents come from places called Roscommon and Kerry, and, although he grew up in New York, he can work up a fine brogue when the spirit is on him. And when every other nose on the subway is buried in the book Roots, Kevin Stacom reads Trinity. Sure, and what else would you have the man do?
There was a time, and not too long ago, when it didn’t appear that Stacom would be around for Saint Patrick’s Day, though. There were Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott and John Havlicek, and a man named Dean Meminger was showing up at practice. When you’re getting only five minutes a night, those are dangerous signals.
“Just a fact of life of the profession,” Stacom figured. “You know you have to produce. But it’s a long season, and you have to keep that in mind. Eighty-two games . . . and things can change.”
So after Scott had broken the wrist and the Celtics had come apart at the inseam during January, the chance was there. Kevin Stacom was No. 3 guard, for better or worse. As Heinsohn went to his Meet the Press strategy, with Stacom and Bobby Wilson as the point men, the playing time grew.
Gradually, you began seeing Kevin Stacom still in there with five minutes left and a game at stake. Last Sunday, you saw him in overtime, calmly popping in the two baskets that busted Denver. Calmly, mind you. The hesitation, the frozen step to the basket, and the uncertain glance were gone. This was Providence College again, and Kevin Stacom wanted the ball.
“I think it’s finally come together for Kevin,” Heinsohn says. “This is his third year with us, and he’s playing better overall basketball. He’s playing with confidence. He feels he belongs—which is the first thing a player has to develop when he gets here. That’s why the cocky guys usually do well in this league . . . they KNOW they can do something.”
All of which gets you into the Catch-22 existence of a reserve in the NBA—as in, we’d like to play you more often, guy, but you haven’t been playing much. A man can’t do much in five minutes, so in five minutes, you must prove you deserve more. That was where Meet the Press came in—the kamikaze units specifically geared to pick up the pace at the start of the second quarter and exact a price.
“I think the biggest thing was that, as a team, we decided to pressure people,” Stacom says now. “When you do that, you get more people involved. And usually when you do that, we run, and I feel more comfortable in a running game.”
He had been a runner at Providence, gunning happily off the break, with the likes of Ernie DiGregorio providing the ammunition. “At Providence, Kevin would just get free and shoot,” says Heinsohn, “but he was getting free in a different way there. Now, he’s got to find his openings behind the picks that develop off the break. He was never the ballhandler on the Providence team—and you have to be one here to run the fast break and find the open man.”
So they had made Stacom a specialist in Boston, a pressing guard who could crank up the pace a notch. And maybe that was part of the problem. “He’s a conscientious kid,” says Heinsohn, “and he works hard. But you’d ask him to do something different sometimes, and suddenly, it would become like an obsession . . . he’d forget everything else. Instead of a little salt, a little oregano, it’d become all oregano.”
The blend is smoother and more diverse now, like a good Irish stew, and Stacom finds himself more relaxed. “I think one difference is that I used to go down to the Garden and shoot on the day of a game,” Stacom says. “And (clubhouse man) Walter Randall told me, ‘You’re trying too hard.’ Now, I don’t shoot on the day of a game anymore.”
He gets all the time he needs in the evening—24 minutes a game since the comeback victory at Phoenix, which he helped ignite. And the points have come, too . . . nine a night for the past half dozen games.
So the last of the true Celtics is not about to become an endangered species. You could see as much at the Garden a week ago, when the man calmly—calmly, now—let fly the high, soft, lollipop jumper from his Providence days that turned the Nuggets into so much iron pyrites.
And afterward, as he was toweling off, Kevin Stacom was told of a place in Brookline where they sing in Gaelic, and serve the Guinness properly (at room temperature) and leave the ginger ale out for the man’s whiskey. Kevin Stacom said he would be going there. Sure, and what else would you have the man do?
[Stacom’s Meet the Press role didn’t stick. At the start of his fourth NBA season, the 26-year-old Stacom slid to the very end of Heinsohn’s bench. “The thing Kevin needed most was playing time,” said Boston’s John Havlicek. “That’s the only way you improve in the NBA. But he was in a difficult situation.” In November, Heinsohn cut Stacom to make way for his now-healthy veteran forward Steve Kuberski. When Kuberski failed to impress, the Celtics abruptly waived him and resigned Stacom. “At least they brought back a buddy,” quipped Kuberski.
Stacom hung in there anchored at the end of the bench while his slumping Celtics couldn’t find the win column. In January 1978, Heinsohn got canned, and Stacom got a new lease on NBA life under new coach Satch Sanders. Then, in early February, Stacom got a shock: the Celtics signed to a 10-day contract his celebrated former college teammate Ernie DiGregorio. “Ernie D,” now in his fifth NBA season, couldn’t get healthy and back to his old form, leaving many pro basketball insiders to gossip and spew the self-fulfilling consensus that DiGregorio was done. The Boston Globe’s Leigh Montville picks up the narrative in this February 2, 1978 article, which draws heavily on Stacom and his now-veteran’s perspective of life in the NBA.]
Kevin Stacom watched his friend walk across the locker room. Who would have believed it? There he was. Ernie Di Gregorio. Ernie D. The perpetual kid, still the perpetual kid, but banged around now, coming off the flipper and the bumpers of basketball life, and landing here. Who would have believed it? Ernie D. A Boston Celtic and scratching.
Kevin Stacom shook his head.
“It’s amazing that people believe what they read in newspapers,” Stacom said as he watched his former Providence College teammate go past after another Celtics’ inspired 103-100 overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers last night at the Garden. “That’s all I have to say.”
“I mean, there is a great player. A great player. He has an ability that few people have in this game. He is one of the few people I have seen who can make other people play better. I mean . . . “
How does it happen like this?
Where do the doubts begin to arise? Where do the whispers come from? How is the closet door opened? Why is it opened and closed and never opened again? What happens?
Ernie D. Shuffled away from Buffalo in the offseason. Treated almost as a non-person with the Lakers this season. Sent home on the injured list and finally cut Monday. Plugged into the Celtics at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, handed a No. 7 and put on the bench to begin a 10-day tryout.
How does it happen that abilities suddenly become suspect? Tryout? What happens between Rookie of the Year awards and this tryout three years later? Are not the good points good anymore? Have flaws somehow become magnified? Has the ubiquitous knee surgery been a final, damning factor? What happens?
“It’s a question of confidence,” Kevin Stacom said. “Someone has to show confidence in you, put you out there and let you play. You have to be allowed to play in the games to show you can play.”
There has to be a backer. There has to be a believer in charge of the team. There has to be a coach somewhere who says, “Yes, Ernie D. can play,” or “Yes, Kevin Stacom can play, and I’m going to have him play.” There has to be a chance to make mistakes and to show what can be done when it has to be done.
As Kevin Stacom knows, the door to the closet has to be opened by someone else. That is the only way out.
Two months ago, he was out of the game, cut by the Celtics and practicing basketball by himself at Boston College’s Roberts Center, feeling “cut loose” and wondering if he should start thinking about a real-world job or “keep dreaming.” Last night, not only was he playing again, but playing 41 minutes and scoring 19 points and collecting a half dozen rebounds and a half dozen assists.
What had happened? The coach had changed. There had been injuries. The door finally had been opened. “That’s the most time I’ve played since college,” Stacom said. “And at the end—taking the last shot in the game—that’s the first time I’ve done that since college. No excuse, though, I still should have made the shot. But 41 minutes—that’s been my goal since I came here.”
For DiGregorio, the goal is the same. The situation is the same. He has been cut and is coming back. He needs the time. He has to play to show whether or not he can play. He needs the same door to be opened, and he needs it opened rapidly. He only has 10 days.
“It’s out of my hands,” the little man said. “All I can do is play hard and see what happens. I think I can really play this game if I’m in the right situation. I don’t have to be a star, but I have to be in a position where I can contribute, where the game means something. The key for any player being effective is having a chance to play.
“If they want me to play, if they give me the chance. I think I can help this team. If they don’t . . . I still believe I can play this game and I can help someone in the right situation.”
In 10 days he will have his answer. In 10 days he will see if he has a chance. In 10 days—if he gets that chance—the local eyes will have seen what he does with it.
Ten days will tell the story for Ernie DiGregorio.
“Practice here tomorrow at the Garden,” trainer Frank Challant told him. “Your stuff will be in the locker. Don’t worry about anything.”
“How do I get in?” Ernie asked.
“Same way you did with the Lakers and Buffalo,” the trainer replied. “Same side door.”
Who would have believed it? There he was, the same guy who brought this region to the front of the basketball world. There he was, Ernie, on the successful Providence College firm of Ernie and Kevin and Marvin Barnes. Ernie D. Who would have believed it?
“Amazing,” Kevin Stacom said as Ernie DiGregorio left for the night. “It’s been a crooked road for all of us, hasn’t it?”
[The 27-year-old Ernie D. played 27 games for the Celtics. He averaged 10 minutes per outing and just 3.9 points and 2.4 assists. By the summer, the Ernie D. Show was officially over. His buddy Stacom, however, seemed to have gotten his big NBA break as a free agent. Stacom signed a handsome long-term deal with the Indiana Pacers to fill the role as a stabilizing, veteran third guard and the team’s catalyzing sixth man.
Despite a warm welcome in Indianapolis, Stacom and the Pacers didn’t mesh. By January 1979, Stacom agreed to take the no-cut out of his new contract, allowing the Pacers to return him to Boston. He literally switched locker rooms before an Indiana-Boston game. The Celtics stashed Stacom on the bench and finally waived him for good at the end of the season.
In the NBA, it’s very much who you know, and Stacom had made enough friends to get one last unlikely shot. The great Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News fills in the details in an otherwise angry column from December 4, 1981 at the sorry state of the NBA. And yes, he does take very stiff jabs at now-NBA icons Marques Johnson and Magic Johnson. He wasn’t the only one.
Neither was Lupica the only one to heap praise on Stacom. When Stacom retired for good at the ripe, old NBA age of 30, as far as I can tell, nary a bad word had ever been printed about him. That quite an accomplishment in itself and a testimony to his high character.]
Ray Williams is a wondrously talented basketball player who earns $500,000 a year from the New Jersey Nets. One of his favorite pastimes with the Nets is taking long jump shots, some of which he makes. Another of his favorite pastimes is, obviously, eating. Ray may miss a jump shot now and again, but between the time he played his last game for the Knicks and his first game for the Nets, Ray did not miss many meals.
The other morning, Ray called his coach, Larry Brown, and said he felt a little sick to his stomach. Ray was suffering from a common, uh, intestinal disorder that involves a fastbreak similar to the ones he messes up for the Nets. Ray told his coach that he was so intestinally disordered that he could not practice with his teammates. His coach told him to take the day off.
That night, his coach discovered that Ray’s stomach was well enough for him to attend the Knicks-Pistons game at the Garden, then drink a beer with his old buddy, Michael Ray Richardson, in the locker room after the game. Larry Brown thought this was the NBA equivalent of staying home from school, then going out to play afterward. Brown thought this was, well, bad form.
“He wants to be the team leader,” said Brown, “and I just explained to him that you lead by example, on and off the court.”
Ray, of course, did not think he did anything wrong. For this perfect NBA attitude from a young millionaire, after showing up in an extremely public place on his extremely sick day, Ray Williams is my choice for NBA Player of the Week. He joins other early season winners Marques Johnson, Magic Johnson, and Richardson.
Marques, who had two years remaining on his Milwaukee contract, won’t play again until he gets a new zillion-dollar contract; he’s going to become a male model instead. Magic is the $25 million punk who helped get Paul Westhead fired as coach in LA. Richardson is the Knick guard who wants a new contract after every quarter and complains that worrying about his current contract often affects his play. Joining them on this honor roll is my man Ray (Boom Boom) Williams, who needed a day of rest to sit in the stands and watch his old team play. It is players like these who make the NBA such a worthwhile entity. They are inspiring examples for all of us.
“Everyone has their own perspective I guess,” Kevin Stacom said yesterday, discussing these stalwart young men.
Maybe you do not know about Kevin Stacom. He was a gym rat out of Holy Cross High in Flushing and Providence College who played five seasons in the NBA, most of them with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics finally retired him before the start of the 1979-80 season. Stacom was 28 years old at the time and, after living in gyms all his life, he was told there would be no more basketball, Stacom nearly felt like his heart had been cut out.
So he went to work. Real job. Real world. The Dock House Inn, Newport, R.I. Stacom was the manager, the weekend bartender. Sometimes he waited tables. Sometimes he bussed them. He still played some ball, at the Newport YMCA. Occasionally, he would drive over to Providence College and play pickup games with his old college teammate Ernie DiGregorio. “Just to keep a hand in,” said Stacom. ”’cause I had a lot of time on my hands.”
A couple of weeks ago, Stacom drove up to Boston. The Bucks were going to play the Celtics that night. His best friend on the Celtics had been Don Nelson, who now coaches the Bucks. He and Nelson had lunch that day, and Nelson was complaining that guard Brian Winters was hurt and that Mike Evans, another guard, had just separated his shoulder. Nelson needed a guard, fast. So he and Stacom began poring over the waiver list. At one point, after they had dismissed another name, Stacom laughed and said, “Listen, Nellie, I’ve got my sneakers in the jeep.”
Lunch ended. Stacom got up to leave, on his way to have a beer in the bar of Boston’s Parker House. Nelson told him to wait in the bar and went up to his room. Ten minutes later, Nelson came back and said, “I’m signing you to a three-game contract, and then I’m going to cut your ass.”
Stacom played against the world champion Celtics that night. Five baskets. Ten points. Big cheers from fans who remembered. “I felt like I’d never been away,” he said. He played two more games and prepared to head back to Newport. Nelson cut Bob Dandridge instead. Stacom kept playing. The other night he scored nine points against Cleveland.
“I’m still here,” he said from his Milwaukee hotel room yesterday. “And I’m still having a hoot.” Evans is scheduled to return on December 9. That means Stacom has two more games, against Atlanta and Detroit, before going back to the Dock House Inn of Newport, R.I. That will make eight games in all in a special season Kevin Stacom thought he would never have.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I got a few more weeks in this game than I thought I would ever have. I’m gonna be back tending bar on the weekend of the 13th, but I’m gonna remember every minute of this.”
Kevin Stacom, whom the game sent away before he was ready, was asked about players such as Magic and Marques and Boom Boom Williams yesterday. “I never got to super status, so I don’t understand them,” he said. Then Kevin Stacom laughed. “Hell, I always liked going to practice.”