[For anyone who came of basketball age during the early 1970s, there is no forgetting the six-foot Ernie D., a.k.a., full name Ernie DiGregorio. With the ball in his steady hands and eyes in the back of his head, Ernie D. was electric on the court while navigating Providence College on its high-profile, but ill-fated, run in the 1973 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Everybody had their own hard-edged opinion about Ernie D. in March 1973 and whether his flashy ballhandling would translate to pro stardom. “Ernie DiGregorio is a flake,” swore one commentator. “Ernie DiGregorio is the best pure collegiate player in the country,” countered NBA great Bob Cousy.
Who was right? Take your pick. But there was no denying that some pro teams desperately wanted Ernie D. and his buzz on their roster to sell tickets and fill their arenas. The NBA Buffalo Braves grabbed him early in the college draft and came seven-figures strong, reeling him in amid even more hoopla. This article, published in the magazine Popular Sports All-Pro Basketball 1974, tells incoming rookie Ernie D.’s story and sets the stage for his darn-good pro career before chronic injuries slowed him down. Telling his story is John Hanlon, a reporter with Ernie’s hometown Providence Bulletin.]
Buffalo’s traditional dourness of winter will be considerably brightened this coming season. Ernie DiGregorio, the charismatic Ernie D. from Providence College, will be there to lighten the times, playing for the Buffalo Braves. And among the new players coming into the NBA this year, none is quite like Ernie D., in manner, in talent, and as the cause of excitement in others.
In his native Rhode Island, where he grew up only a short dribble from the Providence College campus, he is already an established folk hero. At UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the present-day Palace Theater of college basketball, his performance in a losing game against the Walton Gang last season won Ernie D. a standing ovation when he left. The same thing happened when Providence was eliminated by Memphis State in the NCAA semifinals. All-American and MVP awards he has by the drawerful.
But the most recent best of Ernie D. was his playmaking, shooting, and ballhandling for the American team that played the touring Russians here last spring. Specifically, the very exemplification of the good times ahead for the Braves’ patrons was his work in the game played in the showcase of New York’s Madison Square Garden and seen by millions on television.
In the last 50 seconds of regulation time, Ernie popped two baskets that sent the game into overtime. Then he scored the first two baskets of the extra period, and then assisted on two more by his Providence teammate, Marvin Barnes. After that, in the final minute, Ernie indulged in a spectacular display of dribbling that used up the clock, brought in an 89-80 victory and, as one writer put it, sent the Russians right up the Berlin Wall. Even Ernie liked the look and feel of that one.
“The whole thing was very exciting,” he said later. “The Russians are good. If they could play their rules against our college teams, they’d be one of the top 10 in the country. But it was really wonderful, playing for your country; it was a funny feeling, hearing their anthem and then our own, especially at the Garden. That was a game that excited a lot of people.”
There was another aspect of it that was not lost on Ernie, as well. “I think,” he added, a little wryly, “that game made me a lot of money, too.”
It didn’t hurt. The bargaining was between the Braves and the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. The Colonels coach, Joe Mullaney, who had left Providence for the pros in Ernie’s freshman year in college, applied the full-court press on behalf of his team and, when it got down to the crunch, the league itself. One report had it that ABC would take on a series of ABA telecasts coming season if Ernie D. was included in the package.
Mike Storen, the president and general manager of the Colonels, offered Ernie what was termed “a staggering offer that he couldn’t refuse.” Paul L. Snyder, the Braves’ owner, countered with a multi-year contract “for a tremendous amount of money” and won. But not without considerable confusion. Three times in late May, the Braves called press conferences to present their new man. Each was canceled, pending new dealings. Snyder finally made good on the fourth call, and Ernie immediately began earning his keep.
He tooled into Buffalo, with family and bride-to-be, on Tuesday, May 29, for an 11 a.m. meeting and was met by more than 100 members of the media, the largest such gathering, it was said, in Buffalo’s sports history. And Ernie, in a striped summer suit and a cap set squarely on top of his head of black hair, wowed ‘em.
“In college,” he said, “I studied an hour a day and practiced basketball five hours.” In response to the laughter that the line brought, he replied, “I’m not kidding. Basketball is hard work.”
The next day, in company with the Braves’ publicist Rudy Martzke, Ernie D. went to meet the press in Toronto, where the Braves will play one exhibition and nine regularly scheduled games this season. He drew an audience of 50-plus for this session.
Before leaving for home and his wedding that next Saturday, Ernie recorded promotional messages on behalf of the Braves for radio and television (“Hi, I’m Ernie DiGregorio . . .”). Eddie Donovan, the Braves’ general manager, called him the team’s “catalyst” and “the type who gets others to play better.” Martzke, with the fine hand of a publicity man showing, didn’t stint. He flatly called Ernie D. “the greatest single thing that ever happened to this franchise.”
For the Braves, with their three-year won-lost record of 22-60, 22-60, and 21-61, this was heady stuff. Season ticket sales perked up. Genuine and unaccustomed excitement developed over the team. And not the least enthusiastic was the subject of all this attention, Ernie D.
“I’m really excited about playing there,” he said, soon after his Buffalo debut. “It’s a new challenge to prove what Ernie D. can do. Every step up the ladder has been a challenge for me, and things have worked out so far. Now, I’m against the best in the world, the NBA, which is what I’ve always wanted.
“From what I know and have heard about the Braves, they need a ballhandler, and that’s where I can help them most. I can help get the ball to them. I can help them with shots they never got before, and we’ll all be better. I’m not out to prove I’m a great shooter, scoring 50 points a game. All I want to do is help them win and have people appreciate me.”
And, he was asked, could he foresee an improvement soon in that 21-61 mark of last season?
“Well,” Ernie said quietly, “I don’t think I could wake up each day and live with that.”
So, much is expected from Ernie D., just as Ernie D. is expecting a lot from himself. The burden is a large one for a rookie, particularly one of his six-foot size and his propensity for sometimes forcing the flashy behind–the–back pass and firing off the low-percentage shot. These occasional flights of fancy, though, have been more than equalized by his overwhelming margin of success in such maneuvers and the way they are received by the spectators. And, as Donovan has cited, there is that knack he has for fostering success in others.
Besides, Ernie D. has been preparing himself for this role, in this league, since she was a boy of about 12. Indeed, if one were to present some of the elements of his story in a fiction-writing class, any serious instructor would be obliged to give the author a failing grade.
Still . . .
Ernie grew up in a typical tight-knit Italian family of reasonable means. During his boyhood, Providence was just emerging as a basketball power under Joe Mullaney, sending such as Johnny Egan, Lenny Wilkens, Jimmy Walker, and Mike Riordan off to the pros. That [stardom] was for Ernie, and he decided early to put aside other sports and practice basketball.
“Every morning about 7:20,” a neighbor remembers, “there was Ernie on the way to school, bouncing a basketball. He was my alarm clock.”
Afternoons during the basketball season, when he was around 14 and a little shaver of about 5-foot-5, he would be at the Providence College gymnasium to watch the team practice. “Once I was going in, and the janitor stopped me,” Ernie said of those days. “He said that I’d have to have permission from the coach to watch practice.
“So, I went to the office, and Bill O’Connor, an assistant coach then, was there. He said to me, ‘What do want, little boy?’ And I said to myself, ‘Little boy, he says, and someday I’m going to be playing here.’”
Ernie never did waver from that goal. After a big senior season for North Providence High School, the offers came. But that admirable Italian trait of love of home, hearth, and his mother’s cooking, prevailed.
He literally fought off chances for junketing weekends to Hawaii and practically every good basketball school on the continent. Some of the offers were of a kind to turn a young man’s head. Ernie did not make a single inspection trip. “There wasn’t any sense in going,” he has since said. “Oh, I missed a chance to see something different then, I suppose. But I just would have been kidding those people if I went, because I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play basketball, get an education, live at home—and go to Providence College.”
Which is exactly what he did—after one detour. His grades needed bolstering, so he reluctantly accepted a scholarship to Saint Thomas More School, a preparatory school in Connecticut, about 100 miles from his cherished family home.
It was a near-traumatic experience for him, the first real trip away from the tribe. He didn’t like the school, didn’t like the regulation requiring that students remain on campus over weekends; he hated the food, and even hated the school water. After three days, he was ready to leave.
Now, Ernie smiles at that experience, charging it up mainly to being “just a kid trying to find himself.” The matter was solved when the authorities granted him an easement of the weekend rule. His parents countered the food problem by providing him with an electric broiler and a constant supply of steaks, which Ernie would cook in his room in the evenings. And he brought his own water from home by the gallon.
These matters resolved, Ernie then managed academically, and the basketball team won the New England prep school championship, with Ernie D., naturally, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Then he went to Providence College, and it was a great time for the DiGregorios and all others in the sizeable Italian population of Rhode Island. One of the running gags of Ernie’s sophomore season was that if for some reason Coach Dave Gavitt did not play Ernie, then Gavitt might well have been the first basketball coach ever to have been shot right there in front of a live audience.
There was never any danger of his not playing. At first, Gavitt wasn’t sure about Ernie’s ability to play defense. Mainly, Gavitt thought, Ernie wasn’t that interested in defense, because for him the game begins when his team gets the ball. So, the coached urged and needled Ernie into putting more into defense, and that part of his game became quite adequate. How he will fare defensively with the pros remains a matter of observation. But, rather significantly, Ernie was not embarrassed in that department by the big Russians.
Then, early in Ernie’s college career, Gavitt worried about his player’s “court maturity,” as the coach called it. This was Ernie’s liking for the silly pass when a plain and simple one would do. Or taking the hard shot instead of working for the easy one. Ernie was, in the coach’s favorite word for it then, “impatient.”
“Impatient . . . impatient,” Ernie said, speaking of that period. “It rang in my ears, I heard it so much. Sometimes I guess I was impatient, but you know, there was a funny thing about that.”
A small smile crossed to his face (there is much of the imp about him still), and he went on. “Sometimes, I’d try that pass through a tight place. It’s almost a challenge to me at times—and I’d make it. Then the coach would say to me, ‘Nice pass, Ernie.’ But when that same pass missed, then I was ‘impatient.’”
He still uses that “impatient” pass, because he explains now, it is often “the quickest and the best way I can get the ball where I want it to go.” This and more modest forms of passing led him to a career total of 527 assists, 267 of them last season. He also scored 1,760 points in three varsity years, 761 of them in last season’s 31 games.
And from the player who was no more than “well-regarded” at the start of his senior season— worth then a contract in the $500,000 – $750,000 range at best—Ernie played himself into the crop’s third draft choice, by far its most electrifying performer and commanded a price, it has been said, that is about the highest ever in the often-bewildering stratosphere of pro basketball finance.
All this is part of the very stuff of the charisma of Ernie D., and what the Buffalo Braves need and want from him. He, they fervently hope, will move the ball, hit the open man, galvanize the attack, and entertain the populace. It is a lot, but Ernie is the kind who inspires this kind of hope. As the Russian coach Vladimír Kandrashin said of him after the magic of the performance at Madison Square Garden, “If we had Ernie DiGregorio, we would never lose a game.”
Buffalo can’t deal in so Russian a fantasy. But, with Ernie there, the winter’s load is certain to be lessened.