DiGre­go­rio to be in­ducted into Col­lege Hall

For­mer Braves guard starred at Prov­i­dence

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Milt Northrop

Ernie DiGre­go­rio, one of the most pop­u­lar play­ers in Buf­falo Braves his­tory, is among six for­mer stand­outs who will be in­ducted into the Na­tional Col­le­giate Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Nov. 24 in Kansas City.

DiGre­go­rio, now 68, was a first team All-Amer­i­can in the 197273 sea­son when he and team­mate Marvin Barnes led the Prov­i­dence Col­lege Fri­ars to the NCAA Fi­nal Four at the St. Louis Arena.

Ernie D, as he is known, was one of the best pass­ing guards in basketball his­tory, but in his col­lege years was also a pro­lific scorer. He av­er­aged 20.47 for his ca­reer at Prov­i­dence. In three var­sity sea­sons – fresh­men were in­el­i­gi­ble to play var­sity in those days – he scored 1,760 points in 86 games. His se­nior sea­son he had 761 points and av­er­aged 24.6. His 267 as­sists in 1972-73 still stand as a Prov­i­dence sin­gle­sea­son record.

DiGre­go­rio was truly a home­town hero. He grew up in Prov­i­dence, R.I., and played at North Prov­i­dence High be­fore go­ing to St. Thomas More Prep. At the Con­necti­cut prep school, he played un­der coach Nick Macarchuk, who soon moved on to be­come as­sis­tant coach at Prov­i­dence un­der Dave Gavitt and later be­came head coach at Cani­sius Col­lege.

In Ernie D’s four years at Prov­i­dence, the Fri­ars had a 72-18 overall record and played in the Na­tional In­vi­ta­tion Tour­na­ment once and in the NCAA tour­na­ment twice.

DiGre­go­rio, Barnes and Prov­i­dence re­ally shined in the 1972-73 sea­son when they went 27-4 and packed the brand new Prov­i­dence Civic Cen­ter (now Dunkin’ Donuts Cen­ter) for ev­ery game. DiGre­go­rio had a high game of 41 points at St. John’s, 39 against in-state ri­val Rhode Is­land at the Civic Cen­ter and 37 against Fair­field.

Prov­i­dence seemed on its way to the NCAA cham­pi­onship game against Bill Wal­ton and UCLA in the 1973 Fi­nal Four. The Fri­ars built a dou­ble-digit lead on Memphis State, but then Barnes was hob­bled by a knee in­jury and had to leave the game. Memphis State won, 9885, and went on to lose in the ti­tle game to UCLA.

DiGre­go­rio scored 32 points in that loss and flashed his pass­ing style. He be­came a ma­jor attraction. He played in the East-West All-Star game in Madi­son Square Gar­den and, with Wal­ton, stood out for a team of U.S. Col­le­giate Stars in a vic­tory against the Rus­sian na­tional team in San Diego. It was only a year af­ter the con­tro­ver­sial Rus­sian vic­tory over the U.S. in cham­pi­onship game of the Munich Olympics and any win over the Rus­sians was huge.

Now, DiGre­go­rio be­came even more at­trac­tive to the pros. He was drafted by John Y. Brown’s Ken­tucky Colonels of the Amer­i­can Basketball As­so­ci­a­tion but he signed with the Braves, who had made him the third pick in the 1973 NBA Draft. His pop­u­lar­ity and flair soon be­came ap­par­ent. The Braves drew 10,820 for a hastily ar­ranged rookie game against Doug Collins and the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-year play­ers in June of that year. Ernie D had 27 points and eight as­sists in the game in­clud­ing a few of his pa­tented be­hind-the-back passes.

In train­ing camp at Fre­do­nia State, DiGre­go­rio soon fit right in with the new-look, fast-breaking Braves that Gen­eral Man­ager Ed­die Dono­van and coach Jack Ram­say had as­sem­bled for the 1973-74 sea­son, join­ing bur­geon­ing young stars Bob McA­doo and Randy Smith and trade ac­qui­si­tions Jim McMil­lian and Garfield Heard.

Ernie D av­er­aged 15.2 points, was the NBA Rookie of the Year, led the league with an 8.2-as­sist av­er­age and a .902 free-throw percentage. The Braves had their first win­ning sea­son (42-40), made the play­offs for the first time be­fore los­ing to the even­tual NBA cham­pion Bos­ton Celtics in six games, in a se­ries that is still re­called by those old enough to live then.

The 6-foot DiGre­go­rio suf­fered a knee in­jury early in his sec­ond pro sea­son, seemed to lose a step as a re­sult, es­pe­cially on de­fense, and at times clashed with Ram­say. He played only 31 games in 197475, then 67 the next sea­son and 81 games in 1976-77.

Be­fore the 1977 sea­son, Ernie D was traded to the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers for fu­ture con­sid­er­a­tions. He was waived by the Lak­ers in the mid­dle of the 1977-78 sea­son and signed as a free agent by the Bos­ton Celtics.

Iron­i­cally, Ernie D played for the Celtics in what turned out to be the last Buf­falo Braves game, a loss in Bos­ton Gar­den on John Havlicek Day. An­other irony: It was Ernie who as­sisted on the last bas­ket as a Celtic by Havlicek, who was a Braves neme­sis for each of the team’s eight sea­sons in Buf­falo.

DiGre­go­rio be­comes the third per­son with Prov­i­dence Col­lege ties to en­ter the Col­le­giate Hall of Fame, which owns no con­nec­tion to the Nai­smith Hall of Fame in Spring­field, Mass. The other Fri­ars in the Hall in­clude Lenny Wilkens (as a player) and Gavitt, who was in­ducted as a con­trib­u­tor and not a coach.

The Na­tional Col­le­giate Basketball Hall of Fame is lo­cated in­side the Col­lege Basketball Ex­pe­ri­ence, an en­ter­tain­ment fa­cil­ity ad­ja­cent to the Sprint Cen­ter.

Be­sides DiGre­go­rio, the Col­lege Basketball Hall of Fame will in­duct for­mer play­ers Cal­bert Cheaney (In­di­ana), Shane Bat­tier (Duke), Terry Dischinger (Pur­due), Larry John­son (UNLV) and Todd Lichti (Stan­ford). The coaches to be in­ducted are Homer Drew (Bethel, IU-South Bend, Val­paraiso), Lute Olson (Long Beach State, Iowa, Ari­zona) and the late Rick Ma­jerus (Mar­quette, Ball State, Utah, Saint Louis).

Buf­falo News file photo

Af­ter lead­ing Prov­i­dence to the NCAA Fi­nal Four, Ernie DiGre­go­rio was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1973-74 for the Buf­falo Braves.

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