For two seasons Vince was a junior college All-America and the nation's leading juco scorer. After the first year, Peg returned to Springfield, where she didn't have to travel 40 miles to find a Catholic church. But her husband stayed through the 1959-60 season. As Vince was piling up a 33.0-points-a-game average, Memphis State coach Bob Vanatta started sending his assistants around.
Vanatta had helped steer Vince to Northeast Mississippi. He hadn't signed him only because Memphis State had run out of scholarships. It was understood that Vince would put in two seasons of juco ball and then join the Tigers. But Vince began putting Vanatta's recruiters off. By now he had fielded four or five calls from alumni of the University of Kentucky, and soon the Northeast Mississippi coach, Bonner Arnold, was talking up the Wildcats.
Then one night Vince caught a second wind against Itawamba J.C., got his hook shot cooking and finished with 49 points as two Kentucky scouts watched from the stands. "Afterward they were telling me I could be the next Cliff Hagan," Vin says, "and I'm believing it, thinking, 'I'm six-five. Cliff Hagan's only six-four.' And I had all the hooks, too. Then I got a letter from [Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's chief assistant] Harry Lancaster, and I'm thinking, 'Kentucky wants me!' Back then, Kentucky was the penthouse."
Booneville would not ordinarily have been on Rupp's itinerary, but that March the Baron arranged to come speak to the local Rotary Club. Several weeks later, in the three-game North-South Junior College All-America Classic in Coffeyville, Kans., Vince led all scorers. Kentucky flew him straight from Coffeyville to the Lexington campus for an intoxicating two-day visit. He was met at the airport by a local alumnus, an Italian-American doctor who would later become his sugar daddy. He had his picture taken with Rupp, was fitted for a new suit and treated to a lavish dinner at a local country club. During dessert, a phone right behind the table rang.
"It's the Herald," someone said. "They want to know if Del Negro's signed."
He hadn't yet, but he could hardly refuse now. Lancaster pulled a letter of intent from his coat pocket and took Vince into another room. Memphis State never had a chance.
Vince began the 1960-61 season as the first-string center, and by early January the Wildcats were 6-3 and scheduled to play Georgia Tech on national television. The regular Wednesday intrasquad scrimmage, complete with a team of Southeastern Conference officials, was Rupp's idea of a shakedown, and Vince was feeling like a colt, up to the challenge. Folks back in Springfield would get to see him play on Saturday. He was still learning Rupp's system, but he hadn't been playing poorly. He was wearing a blue jersey, emblematic of the starters, as he tore down a defensive rebound.
"I took the ball up the middle, because I could dribble, for a big guy," Vin says now. "We had a three-on-two break with Billy Ray Lickert, our All-America candidate, on the left wing."
Vince flicked a behind-the-back pass ("being from the North End, following Bob Cousy and all....") that went off Lickert's hands and out of bounds. Rupp blew his whistle.
"Del Negro!" he thundered. "Put on a white shirt!"