Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE NEW HAVEN ELMS

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.

2 comments:

john said...

Great article Kenny. I never realized that despite the perceived hot bed of talent we had in New Haven that according basketball-reference.com http://www.basketball-reference.com/friv/high_schools.cgi?country=US&state=CT there has been less than 10 that have made it to the NBA or ABA. Here is a list;
Scott Burrell
Billy Evans
Tharon Mayes
Paul McCracken
Sly Williams
John Williamson

I recognize and remember all except Billy Evans. Did he coach at Hillhouse?
Is that really the whole list?

Michael Carlson said...

It's a little late--but I just linked to your blog following Woody Sauldsberry's death and was remembering the Elms/Bics--whom I seem to remember playing in Milford as well.

Anyway John's list is way short--starting with Johnny Egan who somehow couldnt crack Sports Illustrates top 50 sports figures from CT (a weird list that had AJ Mlesko way up top --Bruce Jenner at no1--and just barely got in Ken Strong and Albie Booth)

Amazed anyone from CT could not known Calvin Murphy. He got 67 against me in a post-season tourney in 68--but he's in the NBA Hall!

Other CT NBA/ABA players would include Rick Mahorn, Charles Smith, Mike Gminski,Vinny Baker,Marcus Camby, Michael Adams,John Bagley, Chris Smith, Wes Matthews, Frank Olyenick, and Walt Garris. I'm sure there are more I dont recall...I also did a littlel research and saw Chuck Aleksinas, John Pinone, and Corny Thompson (who was amazing as a HS soph!) all had cups of coffee. Corny had a long pro career in Europe. I discovered abt 30 names on pro basketball ref, but some are guys born in CT but HS'd elsewhere (Chris Dudley, for example) so I wouldnt count them
Mike Carlson