Dave Gavitt, basketball coach of the Providence College Friars, was acting as a photographer's assistant. His prize sophomore forward, Marvin Barnes, was having his picture taken in front of the school's main gates, but a tree branch was casting a shadow over the scene. Gavitt obligingly bent the branch out of the way and just then a passing bread truck stopped. The driver leaned out and yelled: "Hey, Gavitt, if it's for Barnes, chop down the tree."
That is the way with the vicarious alumni of Providence, the jewelry makers, the barbers, the bartenders in this heavily Catholic industrial city. They have always been slightly wild for the talented basketball teams assembled by the little school run by the Dominican Fathers, the teams that featured such imports as Lenny Wilkens from Brooklyn, Vinnie Ernst from Jersey City, Johnny Egan from Hartford and Jimmy Walker from Boston. But this year they are almost beside themselves. The Friars are not only good again; their two big stars, Marvin B. and Ernie D., are local products. Barnes is a 6'9" re-bounder from black South Providence whose high school team won two state titles. Ernie DiGregorio, a tricky ball-handling genie whom somebody let out of a bottle of Soave Bolla, comes from North Providence where he is idolized by all those DeLorenzos, DiCarlos and DeSimones who seem to take up half the city's telephone directory. After a slow start, the two have led their well-balanced team to a 14-2 record, to a position challenging Penn for supremacy in the East and, last Saturday night, to a ragged 77-67 victory over downstate rival Rhode Island.
DiGregorio's home is not far from his school and his horizons do not stretch much beyond Pawtucket and Woonsocket. He was such a local hero in high school that his cult even threw a testimonial dinner for him
and his dad gave him a new Corvette.
"Here was a kid with a Corvette who didn't even know where Boston was," said Gavitt. "Then he found out the car wasn't big enough to drive him and his buddies to various places for two-on-two pickup games, so he decided to trade it in on a four-seat Thunderbird."
The Friars had no trouble recruiting DiGregorio, and Chris Clark, radio and TV voice of the team, quickly figured out that at the tempo at which Ernie played, the name DiGregorio was going to be a serious hazard to smooth broadcasting. He started calling him Ernie D. Now even the license plates on the T-Bird say ERNIE D.
Barnes might have got away to Cincinnati if it had not been for a storm. He boarded a plane for the first time in his life to fly there for a campus visit. After bobbing and weaving around the Ohio skies for a while, the plane had to detour to Baltimore. Barnes got off and immediately flew home to Providence. He never did make it to Cincinnati.
He did get out with the rest of the Friars this season to Los Angeles, however. After arriving he went to Gavitt and asked if he and some teammates could rent a car and go touring.
"Marvin," asked the coach, "did you come out here to beat Southern Cal or have a ball?"
"I came out here to beat Southern Cal and then have a ball," answered Marvin B.
It turned out that he managed to combine the two. He took down 17 rebounds and Ernie D. scored 27 points (20 in the first half) as Providence upset the Trojans 70-66. An ecumenical euphoria set in at home. No longer were the Italians along Atwells Avenue complaining that Barnes shot too much. No longer were the blacks in South Providence complaining that Ernie D. seldom fed their man. And the ill feeling that for a while clouded the Friars' future was blessedly past.