Vin was patient, reassuring. Peg, however, had difficulty with such long-distance uncertainty. "When he wasn't playing, I got more down than Vinny did," she says. "We couldn't have people over when a game was on TV because I'd cry watching, thinking I had a brokenhearted kid 700 miles away. But over the phone it was always, 'I'm fine.' "
So Peg went to Raleigh for a face-to-face conversation. "I like to pose things so he knows he can tell me the worst," she says. "I took Vinny to lunch and said flat out, 'You must really hate Coach Valvano.' I never expected the kind of maturity that came back. He said, 'Ma, how could you ever say that? I'm learning so much from him.' And the Georgia Tech game came right after our lunch."
The Georgia Tech game. A Georgia Tech game had long ago been Vince's undoing. Now, on a Saturday night 26 years later, Vinny came off the bench to play 32 minutes, shut down the Yellow Jackets' Bruce Dalrymple and sink two free throws for the Wolfpack's last points in a 63-62 victory. He would never go back to the bench.
A measure of someone's character, Valvano likes to say, is the amount of disappointment it takes to discourage him. "Vinny never had a complaint for me," Valvano says. "When he'd come by my office, it was to ask what he could do to get better. When I told him to work on his upper-body strength, he became a weight-room junkie. Coaches don't decide who plays. Players decide. In no way is it a personal thing, but a kid can always fall back on that. To a kid, it can't possibly be that he hasn't put the effort in, or adjusted his attitude, or waited his turn. But Vinny accepted what I said as true instead of fighting with me."
Lebo is clinging to Vinny defensively, and Vinny remembers a play from earlier in the game. He had been dribbling left of the foul circle—right about here, in fact—when he had stopped and then continued hard to his left again, toward the baseline. Lebo had fouled him. I'll try it again, Vinny decides. I'll go left and dare Lebo to foul me.
The Springfield of the early 1960s was as big (Pop. 174,463) as a small town could get. That made it a comforting place for Vin to return to. He got into the liquor business, opening Vin's Package Store on Rifle Street, and did a steady trade with the college crowd. "Still being young, I'd go to bed at night and dream of what might have been," he says. "Or I'd be in the store, and someone'd come in and say, 'You played at Kentucky,' and I'd say, 'Yeah, I played there awhile,' and change the subject."
By the early 1970s the bar next to the package store came up for sale, and Vin bought it. He redid the interior in a sports motif as a come-on to the students at Springfield College, the phys-ed school up the hill, and called the place Vin's Gym. The Springfield kids came by and so did students from American International College, A.I.C., which some Spring-fielders liked to say stood for Almost in College. There was a rough-hewn integrity about the Gym (which Vin sold in 1980), from its engaging owner to the bullet hole behind the bar, which, the college kids delighted in discovering, lined up perfectly with the toilet in the men's room across the dance floor.
Little Vinny used to spend hours around the Gym, making popcorn and fetching ice, and when he began to show an interest in basketball, his father repaid the time, teaching fundamentals in the driveway. Vinny would run through the house with his ball, exchanging two-hand chest passes with the walls as Vin defended him before Peg's wrath. The shattered garage-door windows, the complaints from Julia Edwards next door about the incessant pounding—Vin indulged them all.
On Tuesday nights, 12-year-old Vinny set up and took down the bingo game at Holy Name Grammar School; the principal compensated him with $5 and a key to the gym. Vin persuaded Ciro's Restaurant to sponsor a local youth team, on which Vinny would be Skinny Vinny, the youngest kid and one of only two white players; Ciro's went 132-1 over three years and created a severe space problem in the restaurant trophy case. Vin was ticketed for speeding all over New England as he drove Vinny and his teammates to games. Sometimes there were two a night.
Vinny's passion for the game seemed limitless. By the summer after his freshman year at Springfield's Cathedral High, he ran a regular circuit. He would hit South End Community Center in the morning, eat pizza at the Red Rose for lunch and then tool by the Jewish Community Center for more ball. He would head home for a quick bite and taper off with a pickup game at Dunbar Community Center, a tiny church turned rec center just steps from the site of the YMCA where Dr. James Naismith invented basketball. And whenever Vinny played an organized game, summer league or otherwise, Vin was there to watch. "It's funny how my father separated himself from playing, but not the game," says Vinny. Vin also took on his son one-on-one in the driveway, at least until that summer when Vinny won for the first time and Vin never wanted to play again.