Despite everything, Rhode Island was on a roll. Why? It's like this: If my wife left me tomorrow, I'd be devastated. She's a great woman and I love her and I'd miss the occasional sex. But it wouldn't change the fact that the Pats won the Super Bowl two years ago. That's what the Friars gave Rhode Island in the '70s. No matter how dark that decade got, we had a happy ticket in our back pocket, and it lifted the state because even if you weren't a Friars fan—and who wasn't?—you were surrounded by 900,000 people who had excitement in their lives. It made Watergate and gas lines and even Disco Duck bearable.
The '72-73 team was guided by Dave Gavitt, the greatest coach who ever passed our way, and that's saying something. Rick Pitino and Joe Mullaney coached at Providence, and Wilkens and John Thompson went there as undergrads. But Gavitt was the best. He knew the game and kept his cool and somehow made us feel, I don't know, classy.
Something else made that team special. Its two biggest stars were from here. Ernie D was from North Providence, and center Marvin Barnes was from South Providence. They had our accents-Ernie sounding a bit like Frankie Avalon, Marvin turning his r's to v's. ("Me and Chevyl are going to a fund-vaising chavity in Flovida—we're gonna stay at the Shevaton.") The Friars were the greatest team in the country that year. They were never ranked No. 1, but at season's end they were the best and would have proved it, except they never got the chance.
Providence was 27-2 before facing Memphis State in the national semifinals. The only defeats had been an early-season loss to Santa Clara and an annihilation at the hands of Bill Walton on UCLA's home court. But that was before my Friars had jelled. Since Pauley they'd won 17 in a row, including six victories over ranked teams. Ernie was throwing passes no one had ever thought of before, shooting guard Kevin Stacom's sweet outside stroke was gold, and Marvin was simply the smoothest player anyone had ever seen.
In the NCAA tournament they beat everyone in their path by double figures, including a Maryland squad led by Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Len Elmore. Now here they were, eight minutes into the Memphis State game, and the rout was on. Marvin was sweeping the boards and dishing off to Ernie, who was winging behind-the-back passes to Stacom for layups. Renowned CCNY coach Nat Holman would call it the greatest eight minutes of team basketball he'd ever seen, and with the Friars up 24-16 all of Rhode Island was already looking ahead to the finals and our rematch with UCLA But of course that would never happen.
When Marvin's right knee gave out after a collision with a Tigers player, everything changed. We were a running team, and to run, you first have to rebound. Marvin had averaged 19 boards a game, and suddenly that was gone. Our team didn't lose, it was struck down, like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, except Hobbs got another chance. We wouldn't. Ernie was a senior; he was done. Marvin and Stacom were coming back, but we knew the team wouldn't be the same without Ernie, and it wasn't.
Today, providence has a new downtown, a low crime rate and a thriving community of writers and artists. Its restaurants rank up there with those of Charleston and New Orleans. At night, along the reclaimed Providence River, you can stroll on a torchlit walkway past the new outdoor skating rink and a row of upscale bars and clubs.
But Providence College basketball is still the city's lifeblood. The '87 team, coached by Pitino and quarterbacked by Billy Donovan, made it back to the Final Four, and in '97 the Friars fought their way to the Elite Eight before losing in overtime to eventual national champ Arizona. The current team is coached by Tim Welsh, a good man, and as we look ahead to next winter, he makes us all hopeful.
Someone once told me that when a person close to you dies, you have a choice: You can get either strength from their memory, or pain. I try to look on the bright side and say it was enough just watching Providence play in '73, seeing the surprise and awe in the other, more heralded teams' faces. Sometimes I get weak and imagine that Marvin hadn't hurt his knee and that we'd beaten Memphis State by 30 and gone on to shock UCLA, and then I stop myself because it feels a little pathetic, like imagining the world if JFK had lived. But it's O.K. that it didn't happen, because we didn't blow it, we didn't play beneath our abilities, we didn't let the ball go through our legs. We lost because, well, it was in God's hands, that's what I tell myself. And 99% of the time I really do believe this, because I'm a Rhode Islander and Rhode Islanders have thick skin. But sometimes...man, it hurts.