Friar Basketball

The One and Only Ernie D.

ERNIEDMARVIN

I have often been asked by younger Friar fans what the big deal is about those older PC teams of the ’60s and ’70s and why are so many older Friar fans so fanatical about PC hoops to this day. There are several reasons, of course, including having great coaches like Joe Mullaney and Dave Gavitt, as well as being able to bring in top talent despite being such a small school.

One of the biggest reasons, however, is that once in the ’60s and once in the ’70s the Friars had  players who were doing things on the basketball court that no one else in college basketball was doing. Think about that for a minute. They were doing things on the basketball court that no one else was doing. You just don’t see that today. The first player to do this in the 60’s was Jimmy Walker. The second player player was the one and only Ernie D.

Basketball was reaching a crossroads for PC in the late ’60s. Jimmy Walker had graduated and there were no superstars on the team to take his place. Head Coach Joe Mullaney had left for the Lakers and he was replaced by his former assistant at PC, Dave Gavitt. After Walker left PC quickly fell into mediocrity going 11-14, 14-10, and 14-11 the next three seasons. It took a little guard from North Providence to turn that around and put Providence College back on the basketball map in the 1970s.

The first time I saw Ernie Digregorio play was during the ’69-’70 season when Ernie was playing on the freshman team. I was 14 years old and Ernie, Fran Costello, Nehru King, and the rest of the PC freshman team were playing the URI freshmen at East Greenwich High School.

Right from the very beginning I was amazed. I never saw a player with his court vision, passing ability, and ball handling skills. He was absolutely amazing throwing no look behind the back passes as easily as a normal player would throw a basic chest pass. When he was dribbling the ball  it was literally just an extension of his arm, and this was in the days when palming the ball and carrying the ball were not allowed by the refs. Watch this quick demonstration of his ball handling ability against the Russian National Team after Ernie’s senior year.

Ernie brought the Friars right back to respectability his sophomore year. Led by Digregorio and holdovers Jim Larranaga, Donnie Lewis, Ray Johnson, and Vic Colucci, the Friars went 20-8 and went to the NIT. The college basketball world was introduced to the passing, ball handling, and shooting of Ernie D, but the best was yet to come.

During Digregorio’s junior year the Friars added Marvin Barnes to the team and they were off to the races reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 65-66 season, unfortunately losing in the first round. But the Friars were still not getting the respect they deserved nationally. When the bids came out to attend the 1972 Olympic Trials Ernie was left off the list. Marvin was invited but did not make the team even though he led the Olympic trials in rebounding. The following summer Ernie and Marvin would show the country how big a mistake US Olympic Selection Committee made as they were the two stars leading a college all star team to a big victory over the Russian National Team at Madison Square Garden.

Even though the nation wasn’t catching on yet, everyone in Rhode Island was on the Ernie D. bandwagon. If you went to a playground basketball court in the early ’70s every kid was throwing behind the back passes whenever they could, to the chagrin of high school and youth league coaches around the state. I had marks on the wall in my basement and would try to hit them with behind the back passes every day. What parents put up with sometimes.

Here is a brief example of Ernie’s incredible passing ability, which is still amazing, even today.

Ernie’s senior season wound up being the perfect storm for Providence College basketball. The Friars moved downtown and played all their games at the brand new Providence Civic Center. The final piece to the team was added when junior transfer Kevin Stacom became eligible. PC now had three future NBA players that they could rely on night in and night out. The supporting cast of Nehru King, Charley Crawford, and Fran Costello were now seniors and valuable role players. The PC program was ready to explode and that is exactly what they did going 24-2 in the regular season and also going undefeated at the Civic Center. As a 16 year old I was able to purchase a season ticket and watched it all from my seat in Sec 118, Row A, Seat 10.

After breezing throughout the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament  the Friars faced Maryland in the Eastern Regional Finals. The Terrapins, who were touting themselves as the “UCLA of the East”, were coached by Lefty Driesell. Driesell could not pronounce Ernie’s name before the game, but he sure could after the game as the Friars won easily 103-89 earning their first ever bid to the NCAA Final Four. Here are some highlights from the victory over Maryland:

Unfortunately, everyone knows what happened after that. The Friars got off to a great start against Memphis State in the national semi-final only to have Marvin injure his knee. With no one to clean the defensive glass PC could not get their fast break going and wound up losing, which led to Friar fans everywhere wondering what would have happened if Marvin stayed healthy.

Here are the highlights of the game. Some basketball experts still say that the first eight and a half minutes, before Marvin got injured, was the best eight minute stretch of basketball that they had ever seen. Ernie was at his very best in these eight minutes.

After the season Ernie wound up being the third pick in the 1973 NBA draft and would win the NBA Rookie of the Year during his first season. A severe knee  injury cut short Ernie’s career, but anyone who had ever seen him play will always remember him as one of the best passers they have ever seen.

Here is a great eight minute highlight of Ernie’s career featuring comments from Dick Vitale, Bill Walton, Bob Cousy, Kevin Stacom, Marvin Barnes among others:

Fast forward to February of this past year at the Dunkin Donuts Center. For this particular game there were a couple of empty seats at the press table I was sitting at. Just before tipoff someone sits down in the chair next to me and I look over and it is Ernie D. He proceeds to give me an expert analysis of what is going on during the game. I tried to take it all in but in the back of mind I am thinking how surreal it is to be watching a PC game seated next to Ernie D. An unexpected thrill that I will always remember.

Email Craig: Craig.Leighton@Friarbasketball.com

Follow Craig: @CraigL78

 

 

682 Comments

  1. Kelly Rossi

    June 8, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Anthony W. Gasbarro

  2. David Everett

    June 9, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Pure magic for 10-yr old me.

  3. Stanley Montgomery Edmonds Jr.

    June 9, 2015 at 1:06 am

    That other guy in the photo, wS pretty good also. lol.

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