Wooden’s teams were not only notorious for winning, but also for gathering a group of players from across the country … especially the lucrative pipeline provided by the northeast.
The landscape of northeast college basketball was that of a desolate wasteland where even the best of teams had to struggle to grow into anything noticeable. Teams were quite good, but they existed mainly in darkness.
A huge reason for this disinterest was that the local players were going to schools in power conferences that were outside the region. The best example being Lew Alcindor going from Power Memorial High School in Manhattan to UCLA to play for Wooden.
Ernie DiGregorio was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. He grew up on the north side, in an Italian neighborhood. Marvin "Bad News" Barnes was also born in Providence, but on the opposite side of town in a black neighborhood.
It was very important for northeast basketball that local talent such as Barnes and DiGregorio to stay local and grow college basketball in the area.
Luckily for Providence head coach Dave Gavitt, it takes a lot to get DiGregorio to actually leave Providence.
He scored two huge wins when DiGregorio committed and then Barnes joined two years later. As great as it was to score to local recruits, Gavitt was given the task of officiating an unlikely marriage between the native sons of Providence’s north and south side to form the best team the city had ever seen, led by two locals.
“People could never understand, with the racial tumoil being so crazy in the 70’s, how a big, black 7-foot high guy and a little white Italian guy could be friends,” said DiGregorio. “And the reason we were best friends is we had the same goal, to win.”
It was nearly ceremonial that the Providence Civic center opened while Barnes and DiGregorio were in school and the Friars were ready to host a national audience.
"I knew we were good very early on. It was an unusual team because Dave did not play a lot of people," said former Providence sports information director, Mike Tranghese. "I think we played six players and it was a team that had, very unusual camaraderie in addition to talent and right from the start you can sense this was a team that could -- if we didn’t suffer any injuries and that was a big key for us -- have a very successful season."
Gavitt knew the product was good, which, not only made it so important that they stay local for college ball, but also shined through in his coaching style.
“[Dave] Gavitt had no huge ego,” DiGregorio said. “And so what he did was, he understood that he had the best -- next to Walton -- rebounder in the country in [Marvin] Barnes and he had a ball handler in me who had the ability to see the open man.”
Gavitt let loose the reigns and gave DiGregorio the freedom to play this creative style of basketball that wasn’t run-and-gun, but rather a dizzying up-tempo style of play that wouldn’t be made possible without Barnes and DiGregorio’s specific skill set.
Tranghese referred to Gavitt’s coaching philosophy as “very, very innovative.”
“That’s a hard thing for a coach to do because I think most coaches have an instinct to want to control and dictate and with Dave it was pretty simple,” Tranghese said.
“We’re going to defend, we’re going to pressure and we’re going to get the ball and we’re going to run and we’re going to put the ball in Ernie’s hands. It was a simple formula that he created and it was a perfect fit for that team.“
As important as it was to have Barnes and DiGregorio running as one cohesive unit, the team was still missing an outside shooter to help the team score should the fast break fall apart or just to have as another option to feeding the big man in the middle.
When Kevin Stacom joined the team for the 1972-1973 season, Tranghese described a change in Gavitt’s style of coaching.
“With the 72-73 team, Dave played, for the most part, a lot of man-to-man because he felt that was going to be the best way, for his team to get out and run and to up the tempo of the game. So basically that year, we at Providence had probably played 99 percent man to man”
The innovator had grown comfortable with his team and found the proper track he wanted them to continue on.
“Dave didn’t even have to be innovative, Tranghese said. “I think Dave’s creativity is that he let them play. Unlike a lot of coaches -- tend to want to control -- he basically … turned his team over to [Ernie].”
DiGregorio was the perfect leading man to run his own show.
"He let us run and every time we rebound the ball, we look to run and get a layup and if that wasn’t there and the defense got back. Then we move up and we’d play basketball,” DiGregorio said.
DiGregorio played with a creativity that would impress the harshest critic, including the ones at a South Providence Rec-Center. The New Englanders saw similarities in the game the Friars played to the game made popular by Bob Cousy and Bill Russell for the Celtics.
DiGregorio and Barnes drew comparisons to the Russell-Cousy combination that brought 11 NBA titles to Boston.
“[Bob] Cousy once gave me one of my greatest compliments, he said that he was asked if he’s ever watched anyone that reminds him of himself," DiGregorio said. “He said not really, every point guard has their own unique abilities, but … the only one that did was Ernie D. because I had the ability to hit the open man like he did.”
Of course, Cousy could only go so far without Russell. And Ernie understood how important Marvin was to him.
“It made the game easy, DiGregorio said, “When you were playing defense and if your guy beat you, you knew you had a defender who was back there who could block shots and we was going to rebound.
“When he got the rebound … coming back to the ball and slowing up the break, I would cut on angles and he would hit me on the angles and I would be on the move.”
MARCH 24, 1973
Providence had won high-scoring games against St. Joseph’s, Pennsylvania and Maryland before drawing Memphis State in the Final Four.
The high-scoring games were the result of finely tuned fast breaks orchestrated by DiGregorio and completed by Barnes and Stacom.
The assault continued in the first half against Memphis State when the Friars jumped out to a huge double-digit lead and it seemed a blowout was forthcoming.
Memphis State had been exposed down low and if Barnes could continue to aim for the gut, the Friars would have a chance to avenge a regular season loss to UCLA in the finals.
Then bad news came for Gavitt’s squad late in the first half as Barnes injured his knee and was unable to return.
Providence lost the game and missed their shot at redemption against UCLA in the finals. Barnes finished the season averaging 18.4 points and 19.1 rebounds per game (with the season high in rebounds coming on a night where he pulled down 30 against Assumption).
DiGregorio had led the team in scoring with 24.6 points per game. Both DiGregorio and Barnes were eventually named NABC All-Stars.
But the importance of exposing Gavitt’s brilliant basketball mind and this entertaining style of play from the northeast to national spotlight was tremendous. Especially for what would happen to hoops in the region over the course of the next decade.
Despite all the success Gavitt had with his future endeavors, this team carried a heavy burden and -- although there was plenty of poetic justice surrounding Providence basketball in 1973 -- the joys were fleeting.
It was DiGregorio’s senior year and this great team that was made up of local boys had already lost its founding member after just two seasons together. Barnes remained but he needed DiGregorio more than anyone ever realized.
“[Dave] Gavitt said the greatest assist I ever [did] in my life was not on the court," said DiGregorio. “It was keeping my buddy Marvin alive … keeping him away from the drugs.”
Marvin and Ernie both went to the NBA, reuniting on the court for the USA national team but neither ever played on the same NBA team. Both DiGregorio and Barnes played with Stacom on the Celtics, but at different times.
In 2011, Gavitt passed away at a hospital in his hometown of Rumford, Rhode Island, a Providence suburb.
Ernie had kept Marvin alive long enough to see coach out and the 1973 Final Four team were the pallbearers at Gavitt’s funeral.
In Sept. 2014, Barnes lost his battle with addiction and Stacom confirmed his death to the public.
“We all loved Marvin and we all tried our best,” said DiGregorio. “But in the end, he couldn’t help himself and people couldn’t live with him and protect him.”