A few times each year, for the past 10 years, I've had the privilege of going to lunch with John Ricco and a bunch of other old-time Rochester sports legends at Antonetta's, a great Italian restaurant on the city's west side where the portions are beyond generous and the sauce reminiscent of the kind mama used to make.
The party has included the likes of Johnny Antonelli, Sammy Urzetta, Carmen Basilio, Ron Mack and Al Cervi. And I've thoroughly enjoyed every one of the get-togethers because the stories and jokes told by these men who made sports history are every bit as delicious as the food.
One of the funniest and most opinionated tale-tellers was Cervi, the Basketball Hall of Famer who once played for the old Rochester Royals and later coached the Syracuse Nationals to their only NBA championship in 1955. (Yes, folks. Rochester and Syracuse once had NBA teams.)
Al would regale us about the pioneering days of pro basketball, when money was in short supply and the travel mostly on sooty locomotives. He was known as "Digger," for his willingness to do the dirty work and shut down the opposition's high scorer, and for his daring drives through the lane.
Al was not a fan of the modern game. He believed current players were too lackadaisical on defense and too selfish on offense. I remember at one of the lunches, Al told me that he would have been able to put the clamps on Michael Jordan. He was dead serious and extremely passionate about it. I wasn't about to argue.
Sadly, Al passed away yesterday at age 92. I am so privileged that I had an opportunity to get to know him. Our lunches won't be nearly as lively without Digger holding court.
In memory of Al, I'm rerunning an essay I wrote in my previous incarnation as a sports columnist. It ran after Cervi was included with scores of other basketball players on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Rest in peace, my friend. And thanks for the memories.
Standing tall in hoops history
Al Cervi gazes at the tiny picture on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and chuckles. There he is, in a white Rochester Royals uniform with blue trim, holding a basketball in the palm of his right hand while standing between current NBA star Allen Iverson and oldtimer Slater Martin.
“That's definitely my face, but that doesn't look like my body," the spry 90-year-old says from the family room of his Brighton home. "I think they put my head on somebody else's body."
Not that Cervi's complaining.
The Basketball Hall of Famer realizes that being pictured on the cover of SI is a big deal, even if his noggin might have been computer-generated onto another player’s body.
And it's an even bigger deal for someone who last played in 1953, a year before the magazine was launched.
"I was shocked when my neighbor brought a copy of it to me," says Cervi, who was named the best 5-foot-11 player in professional basketball history by the magazine. "I thought it was some kind of a joke when I first heard about it because I haven't laced them up in 54 years."
As part of its 2007 NBA Preview issue, SI decided to have some fun and pick an all-time, all-size team. The digitally enhanced lineup photo on the cover and centerspread begins big (7-7 Manute Bol) and ends small (5-3 Muggsy Bogues). It includes 28 players, past and present. Among the selections are three women 5-8 Ann Meyers, 5-6 Dawn Staley and 5-4 Suzie McConnell.
"It's kind of a goofy idea, but it is nice to be remembered," said Cervi, who divided his pro playing career with the Royals, Buffalo Bisons and Syracuse Nationals. "It feels great because I thought people had forgotten about us old-timers."
In fact, Cervi still receives close to 20 autograph requests a month, some from as faraway as Japan.
"People see that I'm a Hall of Famer who's still alive and kicking and they find my address and write," he says. "I think it's a result of the Internet. I get all sorts of things to sign photographs, cards, basketballs, old uniforms. You name it."
And he'll no doubt soon be receiving numerous copies of Sports Illustrated now that he's a "cover boy."
It's good to see Cervi receive the recognition because he was one of the pioneers who laid the foundation for the success the NBA currently enjoys.
A Buffalo native who earned All-City honors in basketball and baseball, Cervi began his pro hoops career with the Bisons in 1937, making 15 bucks a game. Rochester Seagrams owner Les Harrison, who later would coach the Royals to an NBA title, was so impressed with Cervi that he lured him away from Buffalo.
After serving in the Armed Forces for five years during World War II, Cervi returned to Rochester and won a scoring title and MVP honors while leading the Royals to the National Basketball League title in 1947.
Nicknamed "Digger" because of his tenacious defense and his slashing drives to the basket, Cervi would earn All-Pro honors five times and league coach-of-the-year honors five times.
One of his finest moments occurred in 1955, when he coached the Nats to their one and only NBA crown.In 1962, The Sporting News named Cervi the best backcourt player during professional basketball's early era. Despite his numerous achievements as a player and coach, he wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1984.
For more than 30 years, Cervi and the late Al Masino held a popular summer youth basketball camp, first in the Adirondacks and later in the Finger Lakes region. He still follows the NBA, but he doesn't care much for the current game.
"It was more of a team game when we played, and there was a tremendous emphasis on fundamentals and defense," he says. "You have a lot of great athletes out there today, but so many of them seem to be playing for themselves."
One of the nice things about this unexpected dose of publicity is that it has given Cervi a chance to reminisce about his good, old days.
"I'm thinking about making a comeback," he says, grinning mischievously.