A Seat in the Bleachers: An examination of Capital Region basketball history goes into overtime

Connecticut players celebrate after the men's national championship college basketball game against San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, in Houston. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Connecticut players celebrate after the men's national championship college basketball game against San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament on Monday, in Houston. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

SEAT IN THE BLEACHERS – Block or charge?

It’s a fine line in basketball, a tough call between an offensive player making a move and a defender establishing position.

In light of Amsterdam’s Andre Jackson Jr. reaching the Final Four with the UConn Huskies by beating Gonzaga last week, I wrote an article that appeared in last Wednesday’s Daily Gazette offering a glance at other area players who had previously made it to the Final Four.

I attempted to qualify it with a dividing line between the modern-day NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the era spanning its inception in 1939 to the late-1970s.

The tournament was substantially different in the early decades from what it became in 1985, when the field was expanded to 64 teams. Likewise, reaching the Final Four, through hyper-branding and breathless media coverage, had evolved into something different, a quasi-championship unto itself.

So I limited my catalogue to players from 1980 to present, including Sam Perkins, Greg Koubek, Scott Cherry, James Thomas and Craig Forth.

I should probably stop trying to paraphrase my own words at this point. There’s a great quote from E.B. White that sort of applies: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.” I don’t want to kill any frogs.

Point is, I planted my feet on that spot.

It was the Gazette readers’ ball.

There was contact.

And thus I received a bunch of emails pointing out that there had been other Capital Region players who made the national semifinals, and I’ll happily share them now (if we missed anybody else, my email is at the bottom).

I did use 1963 Linton High grad Pat Riley (1966 Kentucky Wildcats) last week as an example of a pre-modern Final Four appearance, but leaving out Dick Grubar warrants a technical foul.

The first shot against my inbox-and-one defense came from my friend George Nigriny, who was “disappointed” that I had left out Grubar, for which I will gladly buy George a beer at 20 North the next time we run into each other.

Grubar grew up in Rotterdam, graduated from Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons in 1965 and played for Dean Smith at North Carolina, which reached the Final Four in all three seasons that Grubar was on the varsity, 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1968, the Tar Heels lost in the national championship game to John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and Lew Alcindor, as UCLA was well in the midst of establishing a dynasty.

“Dean Smith wanted him badly because he was an exceptional passer,” said Don Blaha, Grubar’s coach at Gibbons, in a 2021 Gazette story. “He loved what he saw in Dick as a player and as a person. You couldn’t play [varsity] as a freshman back then, but Smith said, ‘He’ll start his first game as a sophomore and every game after that,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”

Philip Schuyler High School, which merged with Albany High in 1974, sent a package deal to the 1970 Final Four.

Milton Horne and Lonnie Lefevre were classmates who played for Lou Henson on a New Mexico State team that averaged 90.6 points per game (well before the 3-point line was established) and lost to … again, UCLA.

My research wormhole took a detour to the third-place game that year (they used to have those), where the Aggies beat a St. Bonaventure team that included Bob Lanier and co-captain Bill Kalbaugh, Jr., the son of the longtime RPI head coach.

Horne and Lefevre eventually transferred to Centenary, and Horne played on the 1972-73 team there that included a freshman named Robert Parish.

Next up on our all-time Final Four roster is Tim Kolodziej.

He was a junior on the 1962-63 Amsterdam High team known as the “Fabulous Five” that had a 30-game winning streak over two seasons and swept Class A League and Section II championships.

As a sophomore at Duke, Kolodziej appeared in six games during the 1965-66 season, when the Blue Devils beat a Syracuse team with Dave Bing and Jim Boeheim on the roster in the regional final to reach the Final Four, where Duke lost to Riley and Kentucky.

One reader also reminded that Bethlehem star Anita Kaplan made the Final Four in the women’s tournament, with Stanford.

As a freshman in 1992, Kaplan won a national championship, defeating Virginia 66-65 in the national semifinals when Dawn Staley missed a desperate 26-footer at the buzzer. Kaplan got to the Final Four again as a senior in 1995, when the Cardinal lost in the semis to a UConn team led by Rebecca Lobo.

I’ve been working in this market since not long after the NCAA men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams, and have always considered it a basketball town more than any other sport.

That belief was reinforced when I got all those emails last week.

People are protective about their basketball history around here.

When you see somebody like the Albany Academy graduate Andre Jackson Jr. win a national championship on Monday, and the thrill and joy it creates throughout the region, you understand why.

But you also see it in the way people engage with the past.

That history isn’t a dusty trophy under a tarp in the basement of the gym, or a snippet of basketball net framed behind glass, it’s a living, breathing thing.

Block or charge?

I scraped myself off the floor, and did not argue the call.

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: -Sports-, College Sports, High School Sports, Sports

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