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Malden today, tomorrow and yesterday: ‘YMCA Basketball Glory Days’ (the abbreviated history redux)

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  By far the most requested article over the years was my 2011 homage to that round-ball haven, the old YMCA, and that bandbox of a gym we played so much ball in. I call it “The Malden YMCA’s Basketball Glory Days: An Abbreviated History.” I’ve cleaned it up a bit, included an additional name or two, and added a postscript. So here it is once again for your reading pleasure in honor of all those who competed on that hardwood floor – during that period, after that period and, of course, before that period.

  The games began in the late 1970s and continued in some form or another until the mid-2000s. They took place at the old Malden YMCA, formerly a magnificent brick structure on Pleasant Street (built sometime during the Middle Ages) where today sits a public parking lot shadowed by the nondescript D.O.E. building. It was the very same court your father and your grandfather would have played on if they played basketball in Malden within the last 100 years or so. The ceiling was very high, the lights were very dim and the court was very small and surrounded by paneled walls – some with padding, much without – which to the savvy Y player often used to his advantage. The games were “four on four″ due to the tiny dimensions of the court. In the summer it was sweltering hot. In the winter it was frigidly cold. But we showed up night after night, week after week, three, sometimes four, times a week to get our workout in (our hoop fix) and to fill out our social schedule for the week.

  Weekday games (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) started at 5 p.m. (Saturdays at 2). If you were not in the gym at 5 exactly, you were not included in the team-making process, which meant you waited possibly an hour or more for the next round of teams to be picked, which really ticked a lot of people off! On any given night, there were 25-35 guys deep against the wall. You would rush home from work or school and bounce into the Y. Through the lobby, down the stairs, snake the locker room, then up another set of stairs. You would throw your gym gear on in the locker room (or maybe be suited up already), but if your timing was slightly off, the wait for the next round was very painful. That was how intense hoop was in those days. I personally saw a young man put a hole in the hardwood wall after he stepped into the gym and realized he’d missed the first cattle call by minutes.

  The players came in all shapes and sizes, the talented and the not-so-talented. All were welcome, of course, but if you were of the not-so-talented category, it was best if you knew the social “pecking” order on your team lest you incur the wrath of the more talented or less forgiving members. Woe be it to the man who took an ill-conceived shot or let his guy score, thus preventing said team from continuing to “keep the court.”

  Often “talent” was a relative term at the Y. A good full-court (“five on five″) player did not necessarily equate to a good Y player (“four on four”) and vice versa. It was a different game at the Y. “Gym rats” like Johnny Novak, Kenny Mieczkowski, Eric Dannenberg, Mike Morelli, Franny Barthelmes, Richie Gianatassio and Jon and Keith Brickman could hold their own against the more talented cats in the gym because they knew every dead spot on the floor; they knew exactly where to hit the backboard for a soft bank shot (nobody dunked in those days); and they knew enough not to get caught in the corners where you often got mugged – nowhere to turn with a balcony two feet above your head.

  But in the end, it was hoop skills that kept you on the court, and the team with the most gifted players usually dominated for the night – unless, of course, you were (the late, great) Paul Abare. “Tall Paul” would take one outstanding player, like Melrose guy and 1960s UMass Hoop standout (former teammate of Julius “Dr. J” Irving) Billy Greeley, along with a couple of not so outstanding players, like Mario Cantone and Frank Liqure, and still dominate all night. Paul (and Greels) were that good!

  We had outstanding college players like John Furlong (Salem State), Danny Meyers (Merrimack), Bill Dacey (also Merrimack), Sam Azkenasey (UNH), Cliff Cioffi (Curry), Mike Philpot and Rod “Puggy” Forbes (both Boston State). Malden High School standout hoopsters like Dave, Norman and Mark Pashoian, Arthur Carbone, former MHS Principal Dana Brown, Joe Bartoszewicz, Tommy Blanchard, Dave (GBL All-Star) Slaine, the late great Steve Powell, Bobby “Babs” Trodden, Dave Boyle, Bruce Vining, Dave Matthews, Johnny and Mike D’Orlando, Gary, Steve and Jack Freker, Malden Recreation Director Joe Levine, John Stanasek, Kenny Fulgham, Shawn Brickman, Tommy Hoffman, Gary Lee, Cliff and Bert Cioffi, Bobby Jones, Eddie Thompson, Tommy Stein, Greg Phaneuf, Mike Vona, Dougie, Phil and Gregory Rogers and Mark “Bunza” Burns. Regulars were gifted athletes like Tommy Cunha, former Mayor Richie Howard, Johnny and Edward Wilcox, Tommy Kelly, Leslie Hume, Gus Murray, Boston Globecolumnist Kevin Cullen, Chucky Cavallaro Sr. and Jr., Bobby LeBlanc, John Preziosa, Glenn Patterson, Mike Cook, Ricky Solano, Gary Cherone, Joe Strum, Richie, Danny and Gerry Lynch, Joey Hult, Larry Goldstein, Howie Rodenhiser, Mitch Cohen, Jon Crannell, Mark Foley, Jimmy and Tommy Restuccia, Jimmy and Billy Coleman, Warren Walcott, Chris Bennett, Mike DeBenedictis, George Antonakos, Larry Kinnon, Scotty “Scooter” Byrnes, Mike McCauley, Jimmy Geider, Robbie Buckley, John “Squid” Squidino, Mike and Chris Serino, Tommy Doucette, Jimmy Kelly, Billy Hoole, Frankie and Billy Curley, Paul Lee, Kevin, Billy and Steve Nolan, Johnny Salmon, Franny Sbraccia, Benny Talbot, Joey Frauton, Kevin and Billy Trodden, Gary “Chicky” Parcellin, future MPD Ptl. Kevin “KMac” McKenna, Paul Rogers, Dave, Mike and Paul “Flash” Norton, Dave and Mike Morelli, Mike and Dave Boyle, the Errico brothers Chris and Greg, Steve Prendable, Dave Angelo, Joe and Dave Bouley, Mark “Choppa” Chopelas, Steve Caiazzo, Dave and Bobby Moulton, Tony “Pippin” Howard, Vance Ferratusco, Ronny McCarthy, Andy Slavin, Joe Pagano, Teddy Grifkin, John “Doc” Doherty, Sean Gilligan, Tony Jesi, Don “Gipper” Nally, Joe “Cooch” Cucinotta, Jackie Guerin, Mike Ploumbidis, Jimmy “Moe” Molinari, Vinny “The Wizard” Pagliccia, Jack McCarthy, Timmy Carey, Jimmy Mirley, Tracy Doolin, and Joe Victor. To name a few.

  We also had our legends, some not so much for their hoop prowess but more so for their mere presence and personality in the gym. (Disclaimer: These guys could also play some.) Guys such as Dan “Leo” Norton, Earl “The Pearl” McAllister (“right here!”), Donny Misler, the beloved late Peter Plachowicz and Jeff Hurley. These guys made the game fun, for the most part, unless you had to endure the sometimes caustic running commentary of the game being played that Jeff provided from the balcony in the gym, which could be damn annoying!

  After the games, most guys would hit the steam room, the whirlpool or/and the sauna, where the discussion usually centered around where to replenish all the bodily fluids lost during said games. There were three constants in Malden in those days: potholes, the best pizza at the Highland Café and a plethora of bars to drink adult beverages. The 99 on Dartmouth Street was a popular spot if you didn’t want to travel far. Max’s on Salem Street was a Malden institution at the time and was also a crowd-pleaser. Cai’s Food & Spirits was the go-to for many, first on Pearl Street (the spot where the old Tricca’s used to be) then when they moved to Exchange Street. Steve Caiazzo (with his little brother, Dave) owned Cai’s and was the first, to my knowledge, to use the term “Businessman’s Workout” (which he later perfected to an art form). The R&R Lounge on Broadway was a fun place for a few Miller High Lifes (Dennis or Mike Trodden behind the stick and sometimes Ray Mahoney). The Highland Café had the best bartenders in Malden (the late Paul Gennetti and Pete Trabucco being two) as well as Jimmy Cahill, Dave Angelo and Richie Morando. The Dockside had just arrived on the scene and was a great place to catch the Celts or the Sox game. My Honey Fitz was within walking distance of the Y and was one of the few bars in the area to serve Guinness on tap. Mike’s Café on Highland Avenue was the quintessential “shot & beer” joint minus any ambiance whatsoever (or ash trays for that matter). The Centre Bar & Grille (later Richard’s Pub) was also within walking distance of the Y, and what it lacked in ambiance it more than made up for in “character.” The Roadside (now the 621 Tavern & Grill) owned and operated by one of Malden’s best families (the DeVincentis) isstill very popular today. The lounge at Anthony’s on Canal Street had the most attractive bartenders in the city (Mary, Maureen, Janice, Linda and Jeannie) and was bumping in those days. Jessell’s Grille on Eastern Avenue was always an adventure. Also popular were the Elks, the Eagles, HIBOs, the Legion, the Irish American, the East Side AA, the Italian American Citizens Club and the I.T.A.M.S. on Oakland Street.

  “This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end” – for most of us Y hoopsters, those days are a distant memory. The new Y on Mountain Avenue is a fine building, with state-of-the-art equipment, managed wonderfully and brought into the 21st century skillfully by former CEO Brian Cox – but it ain’t the old Y. For many the bruising hoop games of yesteryear have been replaced by “low impact” activities or none at all – activities such as the multitude of treadmills available these days, the lap or therapy pool, “pickle ball” or possibly by some of the newfangled commercial gym equipment provided by one of the many corporate “health clubs” popping up all over the place like weeds on the sidewalks of Salem Street during the summer. The kind of place you walk into a complete stranger and walk out a complete stranger. The Y was a time and a place for those of us who partook. Friends (and some enemies) were made, and (for the most part) the best of times were had – lifelong fond memories that will die hard amongst those of us who were lucky enough to be around during those halcyon Y hoop days.

  Postscript: About the photo, John Preziosa says: “One of the best things about the Y.M.C.A. and the Y three on three tournament was the buildup and watching everyone form their ‘Big 3’ (or four with alternate). Warren Wolcott and I were inseparable at the time, so we were an automatic. I added a wild card pick for our third acquiring Paul Rogers who at the time was living in Malden and attending Bunker Hill C.C. (we were teammates at B.H.C.C., but first met at the Y.M.C.A.). We played and beat the defending champs in the first round at the buzzer with Paul hitting a jumper off the glass as time expired. After that, we were lucky enough to advance through some very tough players. I remember we had time in between semis and finals so we walked to the old Riley’s and filled up on Jr. Beef and fries. We celebrated late into the night with adult sodas and juice at My Honey Fitz with the same guys we just competed against. It was good to be young and know you were a part of something special with guys you respected and grew up with. When I refer to the ‘Old Malden,’ be clear that it’s memories like this I’m referring to. Not the demographic or financial state of the city! Amen.”

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