There is a basketball story that dates back to the war years, when coaches were not only taskmasters but men who lived by their own creed.
So it just so happened that the quarterfinal round of the Catholic High School championships in New York City one year included two powerhouse teams coached by the same extraordinary man.
And with Power Memorial and Regis High now conspiring to put Don Kennedy’s allegiance to the ultimate test, somebody asked, “Coach, what are you going to do if your two teams have to face each other in the semifinals?”
“Well, then,” Kennedy replied, “I’m gonna just take a seat in the stands, smoke a cigar, and watch them have some fun.”
You might find that a bit apocryphal, but you haven’t even heard the punch line:
“Actually, at one time, my dad was coaching three high school teams, the third one being St. Michael’s in Brooklyn,” says George Kennedy. “It was a very different era. He was a gym teacher who would run from one practice to another – luckily Regis could practice only three days a week. But he worked his tail off.”
What makes the story plausible was the expectation that the game would be fun, because for all the old methods used by this martinet with a whistle, fun was a prerequisite in Don Kennedy’s gym.
Take it from the greatest player he had in his 22 years at St. Peter’s: “He was a disciplinarian, who wouldn’t take any nonsense,” Elnardo Webster recalls. “But our offense, which was characterized as ‘Run Baby Run,’ was an absolute blast to play. And believe me, the big programs were scared to play us.”
Or listen to one of his greatest scorers: “Coach let basketball players play basketball, by letting us be the athletes that we are,” says Rich Rinaldi, who had a three-year NBA career. “He played an NBA offense that let me be the sixth leading scorer in the country. That’s the reason I was able to become an NBA player.”
Or take it from someone he actually cut from his 66-67 team, who went on to become a disciple anyway.
“He was way ahead of his time as a coach of the transition game,” Bob Hurley of St. Anthony’s says. “If you chose to run with St. Peter’s – which teams tried, because it’s something players did – he’d run you out of the building.”
From 1932 to 1972, Don Kennedy was a seminal offensive thinker, which is why he is being inducted into theNew York City Basketball Hall of Fame Thursday night, nearly a decade after his passing.
He was first known across the river as a high school coach, because his 1948 Regis team won what was called the “national schoolboy championship.” But it was at St. Peter’s where he changed attitudes and lives; where he had a 323-195 record with the Peacocks (1950-72); and where legendary SID and newspaperman Fred Cranwell called him “the most prominent non-Jesuit in Saint Peter’s College history.”
He took his team to the NIT Tournament five times, but the crowning achievement of the Kennedy years occurred on March 19, 1968, during the week the sports world was focused on the Elvin Hayes Houston Cougars preparing for its rematch against UCLA of Lew Alcindor in the NCAA semifinals.
Little was known of Saint Peter’s nationally when it was scheduled to play 10th-ranked Duke in the second round of the NIT at Madison Square Garden – and that goes for Vic Bubas, the Duke coach, who said, “I always thought St. Peter’s was a church.”
The Peacocks had defeated Marshall in the first round of the 16-team tourney, surviving a 102-93, double-overtime thriller behind Webster’s 52 points.
"St. Peter's obviously was a heavy underdog because Duke was the top seed, but my father just instilled a sense that they were going to beat them,” George Kennedy says. “And they did more than beat them.”
In the first college sellout (19,500) in the history of the new arena resting on top of Penn Station -- MSG had opened its doors one month earlier -- St. Peter’s ran Duke out of the tournament, 100-71. Following that humiliation, Bubas was asked if he’ll remember St. Peter’s College the next time around.
“Yeah,” the coach replied. “Fast church.”
It remains the greatest moment in the Saint Peter’s athletic history, and it says something about Don Kennedy’s methodology.
“He loved to be the underdog,” says George Kennedy, who played one year for his dad (1962-63). “He took players and made them better than they were. Most of the kids he got were maybe the fourth best on their high school teams, and he always had least one or two walk-ons every year.
“But he brought out the best in players. He made you believe that you were just as good as anybody, if not better.”
In the end, he sent four Saint Peter’s players to the pros (Webster, Rinaldi, Bill Smith, and Harry Laurie). One of his Regis players, Tom Kelly, played for the Celtics in the inaugural season of the BAA (1947-48).
A 2004 Regis High newsletter announcing Kennedy’s death includes a salute from 1948 graduate named Joe Breen, who described a coach that loved golf, Tipperary, the triangle-and-two, and a Bombay martini.
Breen wrote said of Kennedy, “He made the bookish kids do pushups and chinups and box each other in the bandbox gym, much to their chagrin and occasional bloody nose. Against all odds, he turned less than athletic, skinny Irish kids into a proud, unafraid team that wouldn’t be beat.”
Such methods aren’t advisable now, but Breen added that every Regis player on the 1943 and 1948 teams showed up for Kennedy’s 90th birthday in 1997 for one reason: “We loved him,” he wrote. “He made us better.”