BRONX, N.Y.--Harvard's first-year basketball coach Francis Xavier McLaughlin learned his basketball in the playgrounds along Katonah Avenue in the Bronx.
When the young McLaughlin was not playing for St. Barnabas grammar school, he was spending summer vacation at Jack Donohue's basketball camp in Saugertes, N.Y. One of the other precocious basketball prodigies enrolled at the camp was Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, whom Donohue later coached at Power Memorial.
"Kareem used to come to my playground and I used to go to Kareem's," McLaughlin said yesterday, while reclining in his hotel suite overlooking Central Park.
It was a case of Auld Lang Syne when McLaughlin returned to the Bronx Saturday night with the Harvard basketball team to play Fordham in Rose Hill Gymnasium, ten minutes away from his old home in Woodlawn. McLaughlin played basketball for the Rams from 1965-69 after graduating from Fordham Prep, a Jesuit high school that his older brothers Walter and Jackie attended before him. Walter also attended Fordham on one of the school's last football scholarships.
McLaughlin returned to Rose Hill in the fall of 1970 to become an assistant coach under Richard "Digger" Phelps. The Digger's father worked as an undertaker. McLaughlin's father was a New York City policeman, who worked his way up to the rank of detective in the Bronx district attorney's office.
The two young coaches were about as innocuous as a pair of sprightly young tarantulas, as they led the Rams to a 26-3 season and a ninth-place ranking in the nation's polls.
Saturday's game didn't exactly evoke memories of those days of wine and roses when the Rams, led by Charlie Yelverton, Kenny Charles and Billy Maynard, beat Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden before a bersek capacity crowd.
A week later the bubble burst when the Rams lost to Marquette again in the Garden by five points after the game went into overtime. In the post-season NCAA tourney Fordham lost to Villanova. The Wildcats went on to lose to UCLA in the finals, but were later declared ineligible because Howard Porter had already received money to turn professional.
On Saturday the Crimson squandered a 13-point second-half lead as the cagers did not do themselves proud, losing, 72-65. The loss was especially rankling for McLaughlin, whose friends and family were on hand for the game. But he said before the game, "We want to win, but I'm more concerned about our team giving 100 per cent. That's all I want the people at Fordham to know."
McLaughlin attributes much of his success as a coach to the inroads he made early in his life in the New York basketball scene. "I've been very lucky through my life meeting people, and it's really come back to help me," he says.
His junior and senior years at Fordham, the Rams were invited to the post-season NIT tournament, the showcase of New York basketball. Even before his collegiate days he met Willis Reed, Bobby Knight, Kevin Loughery, and New York Knicks general manager Eddie Donovan at Donohue's summer clinic, not to mention Jabbar.
McLaughlin only coached at Fordham one season before departing with Phelps to Notre Dame, where he coached six years before coming to Cambridge. The Fighting Irish went 6-20 McLaughlin's first year in South Bend, but the next year they beat Marquette in the NIT finals. During 1973-74 the Irish snapped UCLA's 81-game winning streak.
In his six-year tenure, the game that stands out most in McLaughlin's mind was Notre Dame's victory over Indiana before the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in the state.
McLaughlin doesn't intend simply to follow in Phelps's footsteps now that he's at the helm himself. "I admire Digger, but I'm going to be myself," he says.
"We're going to have our own program. I think students and alumni should be able to rally around their athletic teams. For me, it's a tremendous honor to be associated with Harvard," McLaughlin says.