La Salle

Always voyaging, never arriving: How La Salle helped me become a writer

Pages from lsa alumni magazine 2015 Final-rw1_HR

As published in the La Salle Alumni Magazine, Winter 2015.

Brother Eugene raised his arm like a basketball referee calling a foul. He was clutching a stack of papers – our first book reports in freshman English. And then Eugene let our stapled, loose-leaf musings drop to the floor – SLAP! – and all pre-class chatter ceased.

“Garbage!” he shouted.

It was not an auspicious start for an aspiring writer like me. But it was instructive. Turns out many of us had misspelled “separate” in our analysis of the John Knowles classic, A Separate Peace. From that day forward, I paged through my American Heritage Dictionary more often.

Brother Eugene’s class was just one of many experiences at La Salle that helped set me on the path to becoming a copywriter and Op-Ed columnist. Three months after graduating from college with an English degree, I landed my first ad agency job and have been writing for a living ever since.

At La Salle, I glimpsed the importance of editing from my AP U.S. history teacher, John Carpenter. He dissected my essay on Reconstruction as if it were a frog in biology class. With a red pen as his scalpel, Mr. Carpenter cut my first three paragraphs. “Here’s where you should start,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page. “Everything above is fluff.”

I tested my hand at journalism through the Maroon & White, our school newspaper. My first assignment? A report on improvements made to the school building over the summer of 1976. I think I wrote about fresh paint, refurbished desks, and fluorescent lighting. I told myself Woodward and Bernstein had similar beginnings.

Classmate and friend Jim Phelan demonstrated the power of message repetition, a technique I have employed for clients many times. A huge fan of the band Black Sabbath, Jim graffitied the school with the lead singer’s name – OZZY in lavatory stalls, OZZY on cafeteria trays, OZZY beneath the bleachers, OZZY inside my locker, somehow. I’m surprised I didn’t find OZZY scrawled on my diploma at graduation.

English teacher A.J. Ramsey was especially supportive, overseeing my independent study in creative writing junior year. Mr. Ramsey introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf. He read my essays, short stories, and poems with patience and gentle criticism. And he revealed to me the fundamental truth about getting good at this craft: write every day.

In May of my senior year, I was among ten or so students who wrote and read speeches to be considered for our class’s valedictory address. Three weeks later, I delivered my speech during our graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was my biggest writing milestone to date.

Earlier that day, I had received a gift from Mr. Ramsey: a leather-bound edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first page was inscribed:

John: To teach and to have you learn – to share and to have you accept beauty – it has been a pleasure, and a life. We (you, and I, and the rest of us) are the university, once described “like a sailing ship always voyaging, never arriving.” Bon voyage, dear shipmate! – Ramsey


My thrill of victory and agony of defeat


As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”


Playing Football When You Can’t Find Grass

City Games, Part 1

On Sunday afternoons during football season, I’d go to my best friend Chris Riccio’s house to watch the Giants game on TV, though we rarely made it past the first quarter. Sure, the Giants lost more than they won in the early ’70s, but that’s not what drove us from the television. Watching football made us want to play football. Question was, where?

We lived in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the typical house sits on a small lot – not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you can say “Pete Rozelle.” Sometimes we’d head up to La Salle, but the Brothers usually sent us packing, too. Forgive us our trespasses? Forget it.

So we always ended up back on Rankin Avenue for touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole, Billy and George against Chris and me. Rankin was perfect for street football – no tree obstructions, only the occasional car, and streetlights that let us play through dusk. The macadam roadbed tore up your hands and knees when you fell, but we didn’t care. Just rub the loose gravel out and get back to the two-man huddle… Chris is Fran Tarkenton and I’m Ron Johnson. “Go out to the manhole cover and turn,” Tark tells me. “I’ll pump fake, and then you go long for the bomb.”

Basketball is known as “The City Game” and rightfully so: it’s more suited to the urban hardscape than football or baseball. As I grew older, basketball would indeed consume most of my athletic energies. But back in the fall of 1970, as I sped past the telephone pole and looked back for Chris’s pass, playing touch football on Rankin Avenue was the best game in town.

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