The name resonated with me but I couldn't immediately figure out why.
Former NBA player and coach Al Cervi died Sunday at 92. His playing career happened well before I was born. His coaching career in the NBA took place in my early days of grade school.
Finally I realized that Cervi had coached an Eastern Professional Basketball League team based in New Haven called the Elms that flashed across the bow of my youth at a time when becoming a sports fan was a poignant part of my life and growth.
I remember one wonderful Saturday when I started the day working as an usher in Portal 14 at Yale Bowl and came home just in time for a neighbor to take me to the old New Haven Arena for an Elms game. The Elms were the state's very first EBL franchise.
The EBL would later become the Continental Basketball Association, which younger fans may recall had a franchise in Hartford that played in the Armory called the Connecticut Pride.
When the Elms started out, they had a pretty good team. Former Hillhouse High coach Sam Bender was their coach. Among their players were Woody Sauldsberry and Bruce Spraggins. I had never seen such outstanding players and such big men up close before. Saulsberry was picked up by the Celtics after just a few games and the Elms received veteran guard Sihugo Green in return.
Frank Keitt and Cleo Hill were dynamic guards. Former Hillhouse star Mike Branch gave the team some local flavor. So did 6-foot-8 Wayne Lawrence, who was from the New London area as I recall. Walter Byrd could leap out of the gym and Wilbert Frazier was a decent center.
Cervi later replaced Bender and inherited a team that couldn't compete having sold off its players to other teams, like the Hartford Capitals. Former two-sport star Gene Conley (Celtic forward and Red Sox pitcher) replaced Cervi the next season but the team was horrible. Attendance fell off as the novelty of having pro basketball in New Haven diminished.
Much to my delight, the team was purchased by the Bic Pen Co. of Milford and moved to Hamden. The Bics played in the Hamden High Gym. A few of my friends and I went to all the games, sat high in the bleachers, made signs and plenty of noise. The late and great New Haven Register sports writer George Wadley actually wrote a story about us.
I plied the recesses of my mind for memories and it dawned on me how deeply those days
affected me and what I was to become. The experience fired up my enthusiasm for minor league sports. In the days before the Whalers, UConn's athletic explosion and the super-saturation of sports on TV, minor league was as good as it got for fans who couldn't pick up and go to Boston or New York.
Cervi was a very small part of it but I'll never forget him. Rest in peace, Al.