When Gary Walters showed up in Schenectady back in 1970 to take over the Union College men’s basketball program, he had some very impressive credentials. Jim Tedisco, however, the team’s star player and hometown hero, wasn’t so sure he was right man for the job.
“We had a meeting when he got here and the first thing he says is, ‘Tedisco’s gonna take less shots and we’re gonna win more games,’” remembered New York State’s Senator from the 49th District. “I didn’t like him too much.”
Tedisco, a good storyteller these days, may have been joking during our conversation last week. But if he did have any initial hesitancy about Walters, who only a few years earlier was playing his college ball at Princeton with Bill Bradley, it faded quickly. Union went on to have a stellar season, going 16-3 under Walters to rebound from a 7-15 record with Chris Schmid at the helm the year before.. Union’s finest hour during the 70-71 season was probably winning the Capital District Basketball Tournament, which happened 50 years ago this week in front of 2,800 fans at UAlbany’s University Gym. It was a time when basketball was king in Schenectady as well as the entire Capital Region. That particular holiday week between Christmas and New Years had a number of exciting options for hoop fans, beyond just the college event that along with Union included Siena, UAlbany (then known as Albany State) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Adding to the interest was the fact that all four college teams were filled with players from the Capital Region.
High school gymnasiums were also packed that season, and while Linton and Mont Pleasant both took a back seat to Ticky Burden’s Philip Schuyler team in the Class A League that year, both schools had great programs and standout players, including Dave Modest at Linton and Jim Mitchell and Willie Hundley at Pleasant. That week the Blue Devils and the Red Raiders were competing in the Schenectady Holiday Festival at Linton, and that field included a superb Catholic Central team led by Gary Holle. Not to forget the Suburban Council, Colonie High was in action that week on its way to a 20-1 season behind senior guard Paul Mason.
If that wasn’t enough to satisfy the most enthusiastic fan, we had former Linton great Barry Kramer (more about him in January) resuming his basketball career with a local semi-pro team, the Schaefer Brewers. But let’s get back to Union.
Tedisco, a junior and an Academic All-American pick from the season before, was a 5-8 guard who could jump through the ceiling, dribble around and through the defense and shoot the ball from three-point range before the three-point shot existed. His career average of 25 points a game at Union would have undoubtedly been higher if many of his two-point shots had counted as three-point goals.
“The Capital District Tournament was a big tournament, and basketball was everything to people back then,” remembered Tedisco, who grew up in Rotterdam and played high school ball at Bishop Gibbons. “A lot has changed since then, especially the shoes. The sneakers I was wearing back then would now be called a concrete shoe. I can’t believe I was able to dunk the ball. And the shorts we wore were like speedo basketball shorts. Now they’re wearing things like culottes.”
While Tedisco was a First Team “Small American” (for players under 6-0) his junior and senior seasons and Union improved to a school record 19-3 his senior year, he’ll be the first to tell you he was far from a one-man team. Rounding out the starting lineup in 1970-71 was senior guard Dave Shames of Huntington High School on Long Island and a front line that included Linton’s Mike Doyle, Colonie’s Geoff Walker and Catholic Central’s Tom Bacher. All three were sophomores, a year behind Tedisco, and all three were right around 6-foot-3. They were a hearty bunch but seldom got into foul trouble as Walters used his bench sparingly in his first year.
“We had those three local guys on the front line that knew how to play basketball,” said Tedisco. “We really gelled together, and we kept on getting better and Walters was right. I ended up loving the guy. I ended up not scoring as much, but we won a lot more games.”
In the Capital District Tournament, Union defeated Siena, 83-73, behind Tedisco’s 26 points. Bacher had 23 points, Doyle 19 and Walker added nine. The next night in the championship game, Union’s other four starters came up big as Tedisco, who still earned tournament MVP honors, had a bad-shooting night and only scored 11 points, his lowest total of the season. Shames led the team with 18 points, while the front line of Doyle, Bacher and Walker were all in doubles figures and combined for 33 rebounds.
“That was a great tournament with a lot of local guys,” remembered Tedisco. “RPI had a great program back then, and Albany and Siena became Division I programs.”
Along with the absence of a three-point shot, there was no 24-second shot clock.
“We’d get up by five points late in the game, and the coach would say, ‘get the ball to Tedisco and let him dribble.’ So I would dribble around and eventually get fouled or throw the ball inside to one of the other guys for an easy layup.”
Two of Union’s three losses that year came when an opponent hit a shot at the buzzer (Binghamton and Wesleyan), and the third loss was at Williams College in February of 1971, 92-85. In that game, Tedisco scored 38 points.
Despite being well under six fee tall, Tedisco drew looks from many Division I schools. A visit to Syracuse earned him a guided tour by Orangemen fullback Larry Csonka, who went on to play for the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.
“I was going to go to Syracuse, and I had offers from North Carolina, Niagara and St. Bonaventure,” said Tedisco. “But I went out to Syracuse, had Larry Csonka show me around, and it was a great place. The campus was nice but it felt too big for me.”
So, he stayed home and played Division III ball for Union, which was then coached by Schmid.
“He was the best recruiter I ever saw and I fell in love with him,” said Tedisco. “I’d get up at 7 a.m. to go to school back in high school and he’d be at the kitchen table having breakfast with my mother. He was a great guy.”
Union’s 1970-71 season was capped by Tedisco being named ECAC Player of the Year and Walters earning Coach of the Year honors by the New York State Sportswriters Association. The next year’s team went 19-3, but was upset by UAlbany in the Capital District event.
Walters, who had started coaching at Middlebury in 1969, left Union after the 72-73 season for an assistant’s job with his alma mater. He was also head coach at Dartmouth and Providence before returning to Princeton as an administrator from 1994-2014.
Union has had a number of fine teams, including the 1971-72 team that went 19-3 and included future Princeton coach Bill Carmody and former Linton great Chuck Abba. But the best team ever – and this can be debated on many fronts – might very well be the 70-71 team from 50 years ago. It was definitely a year to remember.
One of the few disappointments about that year was that the Dutchmen failed to get a post-season berth to the NCAA Tournament, which at the time was broken up into a University Division and a College Division. To the surprise of just about everyone in upstate New York, Union didn’t get an invitation,
The Gazette’s Cecil “Butch” Walker, then a sportswriter covering Union and later the sports editor, was and remains a man not given to hyperbole, and typically would keep his own opinions off the pages of the newspaper. But in a story about Union getting overlooked by the selection, Walker summed up his piece this way.
“If you’re now wondering about the criteria and logic used in selecting teams for the NCAA tourney, join the club.”