In springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball, in the home of Vince and Peg Del Negro on Fountain Street, Sundays are always given over to the Heavenly Father and macaroni.
For as long as Vince and Peg have been married, and that has been some 30 years now, Peg has put the sauce on simmer before the family leaves for 11 o'clock Mass. After Mass, as his daughters, Theresa and Nina, set the table, Vince will strip off his dress shirt and, as is his custom, slip into the kitchen, snitch a piece of fresh bread (when his only son, Vinny, is home from college, he will have fetched it from the bakery, just as Vince did years ago for his father, Carmine) and dunk it in Peg's sauce. Then he'll take it into the den and turn on the television, and if the game on TV is any good, Vince's undershirt will get soiled a sweet red.
This weekly ritual occurs as unfailingly as the Sabbath itself. When Christmas falls on a Sunday, the Del Negros eat macaroni first, and then the turkey. If one of the kids asks how long it is until the family vacation begins, Vince or Peg will reply, "We go to the Cape in three macaronis." Macaroni, the marker of time, is forgone only on those Sundays when the Del Negro family is off watching Vinny play basketball for North Carolina State.
It's just such a Sunday, in March of 1987 in the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and Vinny is teetering on the sideline with only 35 seconds left to play in the game. He's clutching the ball, standing on one foot, about to fall out of bounds.
N.C. State has little business being in this championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament—and even less leading North Carolina 66-65. The Wolfpack's record for the season is a forgettable 19-14; to beat the Tar Heels, the nation's second-ranked team, would be a grand form of redemption. Yet now Vinny and teammate Bennie Bolton have crossed each other up on a simple inbounds play, and Vinny has chased the ball down at the sideline, where he is wobbling and falling as North Carolina's Dave Popson closes in. He can do only one thing.
Vinny takes aim at one of Popson's legs and fires, hoping the ball will ricochet out of bounds off Popson and into N.C. State's possession again. But he altogether misses Popson, and after one bounce the Tar Heels' Jeff Lebo fields the ball as if Vinny had planned it that way. In an instant Lebo finds teammate Kenny Smith, who flashes to the basket and banks in a layup to give North Carolina a 67-66 lead.
Vinny's father once made a mistake passing a basketball, and it changed his life. Vince Del Negro, Vince the Prince, later just Vin to distinguish him from Vinny, grew to be 6'5" and wiry, just as his boy would one day. But Vince was robust earlier, and he was tougher sooner.
A hotheaded kid raised in Springfield's hardscrabble North End, he was schooled on the suffocating second-floor court of the local Boys' Club. He learned there to run and rebound and score in an array of ways and in a style that today would have a sort of quaintness to it. His set shot from the corner was unerring, his knack under the offensive glass such that it would catch taller men by surprise. Best of all, he had a sweet roundhouse hook he could toss in with either hand.
Vince was a star in high school and then in the Army, and in the fall of 1958 he and his bride, Peg, set out for Booneville, Miss., site of Northeast Mississippi Junior College. They were amazed by the people of the Mississippi hills, where county law banned booze and the locals patronized the speakeasies "just down the road a piece." The fascination was mutual, for Vince was a basketball Barnum, as exciting a one-man show as anyone in those parts had ever seen.
And those folks showed their appreciation. For filling the gym, Vince would find cash under the scorebook in the coach's office after games. During the action he would hear a professor yell, "The higher you jump, the higher your grade will go!" Peg would get free meat from the butcher, and bottles of French perfume appeared in the mail at their home—an apartment, complete with maid, paid for by a stipend from the school. He was Vee-inco the Pree-once in the inflection of the locals and nothing less than royalty in their minds. "I was peacocking," Vin remembers. "I was the Yankee king of that little town. Those people had never seen a guy dunk before. Or heard a guy talk so fast."