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It was the summer of 1974, perhaps Ernie DiGregorio's best summer ever, and he was sitting by the outdoor tennis courts at Providence College. A reporter had stopped by, not to dig but merely to chat, to enjoy the sun and see what Ernie D was thinking. Ernie D was thinking about basketball, of course.
"You know," he said, "nobody gets up at six in the morning to play ball. But I did. When I was 12 my mind was made up that I was going to play pro ball. TV did it to me, I think—watching all those Providence fans go crazy. I started practicing nine, 10 hours a day. By myself. In the heat, the rain, the snow, with gloves on. And I loved it. You couldn't have made me stop."
He leaned back against the fence, amused by the image of that dedicated kid, by the lightness and simplicity of the fact that he had become the starting point guard for the Buffalo Braves of the NBA. Not quite six feet tall, chunky, slow, with short arms, stubby fingers and no jumping ability, Ernie D must have realized early on that he had no business excelling at basketball, a game for sequoias, for antelopes. What had kept him going all those years, the reporter wondered.
Ernie said, "Well, I remember the last day of class my sophomore year in high school. It was 95 out and everybody was going to the beach at Narragansett. They said, 'Come on, Ernie, you're gonna turn into a basketball.' But I went to the court over at the grade school by myself, as usual, sweating like hell. I started smiling because I knew, I knew right then, I'd put in so many hours there just couldn't be anybody better than me."
And for a long time he was right. He was all-state at North Providence High in his junior year while leading his team to the Rhode Island Class B state championship. At St. Thomas More school in Colchester, Conn., where he next enrolled to improve his grades, he was the star on a team that won the New England prep school championship. At Providence he made first-team All-America as a senior and guided the Friars to the semifinals of the 1973 NCAA championships. He was voted the Joe Lapchick Award as the best college senior in America and then went off to excel on the U.S. All-Star team that whipped the visiting 1972 Olympic champion Soviet team four games to two. "If we had him," said the Russian coach, "we wouldn't lose any games."
The pros were wild for the little court magician with the Bob Cousy accent and stature, and they bid hard for his services. The ABA offered the most, feeling Ernie could help bring the league respectability and a big network TV contract, but he signed with the Braves for about $2 million for five years.
The contract was a stunner, at the time one of the largest ever in all sports. And after his first season, Ernie appeared to be worth the investment. He averaged 15.2 points per game for Buffalo and led the league in assists (8.2 per game) and free-throw percentage (90.2)—the first time anyone had been No. 1 in both those categories since Oscar Robertson in 1964. As a playmaking crowd pleaser, Ernie sparked the Braves to their first winning season ever and their first berth in the NBA playoffs. He was voted Rookie of the Year for 1973-74.
Ernie D's world seemed bright as he sat by the tennis courts the following summer, as dazzling and charmed as one of his no-look, behind-the-head, cross-court passes. Oh, some critics were grumbling that he couldn't play big-time defense—a writer in L.A. was the first to come up with the "Ernie No D" moniker—but, after all, he was only 22, and he would learn. And anyway, nobody since Cousy had dribbled and passed and dealt the ball the way Ernie did.
Now it is 6½ years later, and Ernie D, an NBA reject with nothing better to do, is sitting at the end of the press table at the Providence Civic Center, watching the Providence basketball team warm up for a game against the University of Massachusetts. He is wearing corduroys, a pullover shirt and white high-top basketball shoes. His jet-black hair is brushed straight back in the style popularized by John Travolta during his disco phase.
This is where Ernie sits for all the Providence home games. He gets in free; all the ushers and guards and school officials know him and let him by with a nod or a handshake. For the last year or so, Ernie has spent a lot of time on the Providence campus, most of it in the old gym at Alumni Hall, his "home away from home," where he plays pickup games with friends or shoots alone. Several years ago the Providence athletic department gave him his own key to the gym.