The place where it began is now the southwest corner of the Winchester Square Shopping Plaza in Springfield, Mass. The fall air of a late afternoon is nippy, the way it might have been in 1891 when Dr. James A. Naismith started his game, but the gaudy lights of Dunkin' Donuts and Stop and Shop do not pick up his peach basket. There are, in fact, no peach baskets around or many people who would note their absence. Nor are the baskets that mean something half a mile down the road at Springfield College, for whose winter wellbeing Dr. Naismith invented basketball. Those—the important baskets—are at American International College, three blocks from Springfield College, and they became important when a band of lithe athletes assembled by Coach Bill Callahan began stuffing them with balls so often and so expertly that even people at rival Springfield were beginning to say that AIC might just be playing some of the finest small college basketball in the country.
That is quite an admission for the former School of Christian Workers, for whom Dr. Naismith molded the first basketball team. Springfield still rates among the world's finest institutions of physical culture, and it does things like sending its basketball squad on a round-the-world goodwill tour, gathering the old grads at the Olympics in Mexico City for an old-fashioned YMCA-style luncheon and then placing half of its athletic staff on one Olympic committee or another for 1972. American International, by contrast, is a small liberal-arts college that was founded in 1885 to educate immigrants, a distinction that everybody might have forgotten by now were it not for the presence on the basketball team of a sandy-haired Greek center named George Kastrinakis. People think he looks Polish.
So what have the AIC Yellow Jackets been doing to the Chiefs of Springfield lately? The answer is beating them in six of the last seven years. AIC, which until 1965 was usually 3-21 (its record against Springfield was 6-29), has been 79-23 the last four years. Last season the Yellow Jackets won 21 of 25 and finished third in the NCAA College Division tournament, Bill Callahan was named small college coach-of-the-year and Greg Hill was first-team small-college All-America. This season the team should be every bit as good. Three starters including Hill are back, there are two excellent sophomores and the team is deep. Although there is plenty of competition—Southwest Missouri State, Ashland of Ohio, Alcorn A&M, Puget Sound, Gannon, Bellarmine, Tennessee State, Eastern New Mexico and, as usual, Evansville appear to be the best of the other small colleges—AIC could land on the top of them all come March.
So recent is American's rise to prominence that even Bobby Rutherford, a quick, flashy guard and one of the team's stars who grew up across the street from AIC, never heard of the school's basketball prowess before he went there. "We had to use any gym we could get, a junior high, maybe the Armory," recalls Callahan. "Everything went through the district school board and we had to play our games at the Springfield College Fieldhouse." Callahan fixed that situation late in 1965 when he talked AIC into building Butova Gymnasium and granting full athletic scholarships. Next he landed Henry Payne, Springfield's most widely sought athlete, and hired Hilton White, a highly successful black coach in New York City's recreational leagues, as his top assistant.
Interest began to build. Hill, one of White's former pupils, transferred from Owen Junior College in Memphis, a school with no gym and only three basketballs, and discovered AIC was paradise by comparison. Hill could shoot—63% for a 20.6 average last year—and the 1,800 students began calling him "Captain Nice" and following the team everywhere.
For the NCAA finals last March many of the students hitchhiked to Evansville, Ind. through a heavy snowstorm and with very little money in their pockets. AIC lost its semifinal game to Kentucky Wesleyan, the tournament winner, 83-82 in overtime when Rutherford missed a free throw after the game had ended. The loss was not entirely a heartbreaker. "At least," says Rutherford when reminded of that ghastly letdown, "people know now who we are."
This fall Mike Tranghese, publicity assistant, was hurriedly checking on the first season-ticket sale while Callahan worked to polish his two sophomores, 6'6" Kastrinakis and 6'4" Mike White. They will have to offset the unexpected loss of 6'11" Al Carter and defensive whiz Curtis Mitchell, two starters who elected to sit out the season because of illness and family problems. White's credentials are already impressive, however. The New Yorker chose AIC over offers from such major basketball schools as Davidson, Colorado, Jacksonville and Loyola of Chicago, primarily because of the presence of Hilton White. As a freshman he scored 71 points in one game—against, alas, Springfield.
Along with Hill and Rutherford (whom Callahan has praised as "the quickest player I've ever had and one of the quickest I have ever seen at any level") returns Alan Bush, a 5'7" fireplug who occasionally can dunk the ball. The responsibility for leading the team back to Evansville and possibly the championship rests chiefly with these three and the two sophomores, Kastrinakis and White.
Callahan, who punctuates practices with a lot of "atsababies" and "waytagos," is a firm believer in run-and-gun basketball ("the kids will do that better than anything if you let them") and mixed, pressuring defenses. He also serves as assistant athletic director and tennis coach and probably is the best set shooter in the city of Springfield. Recently he found himself being boosted quite seriously for mayor but he quickly asked out. "I'm not a real 100% politician like most Irish," he says.
Maybe not, but he is the driving force behind an athletic program that has brought in Art Ditmar, who won 72 games in the major leagues, to coach baseball, and Glenn Dumont, considered by some the best back in New England football. And American's hockey team is defending ECAC college-division champion.