It’s never too late to mark and quantify the impact of Ernie DiGregorio. Not in New England. Not when the subject is college basketball. Yet here’s the immediate news peg, the reason to contemplate Ernie D and his attendant rabbit hole early in 2024: It was 50 years ago this week that DiGregorio set the NBA rookie record for assists in a game: 25, for the old Buffalo Braves, during a 120-119 win over the hapless Trailblazers, in Portland, on New Year’s Day 1974.

This particular moment in NBA history, in and of itself, packs enough meaningful hoops serendipity to justify an entire 30 for 30 documentary:
• Ernie D led the Association in assists that 1973-74 season, his first. He led the league in free throw percentage, too.
• The Trailblazers were indeed terrible enough to earn the no. 1 pick in the June 1974 draft. They took a guy named Bill Walton.
• The Braves coach that record-setting January night? Dr. Jack Ramsey, who left for Portland the summer of 1976, whereupon he and Walton immediately led the Blazers to their only NBA championship.
• After acquiring Nate Archibald in September 1977, Buffalo let DiGregorio go — to the Lakers, who waived him halfway through the season. Boston signed him but didn’t offer a new deal. Just like that, Ernie D’s NBA run was over.
• That same summer, Buffalo owner John Y. Brown Jr. swapped franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin, who promptly moved the Braves to San Diego.
• A year later, the newly christened Clippers signed Walton, meaning Ernie D missed playing with The Big Redhead by only a couple Degrees of NBA Separation.

Consensus NCAA Player of the Year in 1973, at Providence College. NBA Rookie of the Year in 1974. Out of the league by the summer of 1978.

Today, that sounds like an epic tale of crash and burn. Yet the mid-1970s did represent the most turbulent period in NBA history. The league had battled the ABA for talent and eyeballs the previous 10 years, before absorbing its competitor prior to the 1976-77 season. Free agency was instituted at roughly the same time. Many on-court careers were cut short or otherwise doomed by the ensuing roster consolidations, by franchise-swapping owners, by drugs, by a decidedly incoherent league promotional strategy. In the pre-cable age, television networks weren’t at all convinced the NBA would ever prove marketable as a major sporting enterprise. One reason why: The newly merged league was far more Black (the pre-merger NBA was so lily white, there was meaningful playing time for not one but two Van Arsdales!). Would middle America ever watch something so “urban”? Ultimately, yes; it would. But as late as June 1980, two full years after Magic and Larry showed up, CBS was still showing NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. EST, on tape delay.

It’s no coincidence that college basketball first planted its own flag during the Seventies, this period of marked NBA chaos/weakness. In this sliver of broadcasting daylight, especially, college hoops created a viable toehold in the culture. And it was the college game where Ernie D would prove a far more influential figure.


A lot of folks, especially New Englanders of a certain age, remember that Ernie D was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1974. Fewer folks remember that his PC running mate and fellow Providence native, Marvin Barnes, was the ABA Rookie of the Year 12 months later. A powerful college basketball ferment was loose in the land during the mid-1970s, and Providence College, more than any other regional entity, localized the phenomenon. Behold, our second news hook: Ernie D has a new memoir, Star with a Broken Heart, which details his game-changing relationship with Barnes and their coach at PC, another native Rhode Islander named Dave Gavitt.

The Friars had always boasted a solid, winning program. It even produced a handful of superb individual players the decade prior: Jimmy Walker ’68, Lenny Wilkins ’61, John Thompson ’64, and Johnny Egan ’61, who arguably started this parade.

It was PC’s Final Four appearance in 1973 — achieved with help from yet another future NBA talent, shooting guard Kevin Stacom (a transfer from Holy Cross) — that took things up a notch. After DiGregorio turned pro, the Friars went 28-4 before losing to eventual NCAA champion NC State in the Elite 8. Still another future NBA player, Joey Hassett, arrived that season. All-American Bruce “Soup” Campbell, a lanky-lefthanded big man, showed up a year later. Check out the Providence win totals from 1972-78: 27, 28, 20, 21, 24, 24. Those victories produced four NCAA tournament berths in six years, plus final and semifinal appearances in a pair of National Invitational Tournaments. Gavitt today is most often recognized as a TV visionary, the fellow who dreamed up and essentially founded the Big East Conference. But he could really coach, too. And recruit. His teams also had the habit (and misfortune) of going out of tournaments to world-beating teams on the upswing: NC State and David Thomson in 1974; Michigan State in ‘78, when Magic was a freshman; Kentucky in ’76, two years before they won it all with Jack Givens and Rick Robey.

Providence College in the Seventies wasn’t just a great team. It was a phenomenon. And what do Americans do with phenomena? They put them on TV, so as to recognize and monetize them.

When I was growing up during the 1970s, in suburban Boston, we consumed an increasing number of national college basketball games on Saturday afternoons, via our local NBC affiliate. Yet our trusty aerials also picked up WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence, which broadcast a dozen PC home games each year — live from the Civic Center. Behind the microphone for those tilts? Only future Celtics legend Mike Gorman. That’s where he got his start. Across town, WPRI followed suit: The programmers at Channel 12 adopted the University of Rhode Island just in time to catch another program on the rise. Jack Kraft’s 1978 team, led by future pro Sly Williams, made the NCAA tournament at PC’s direct expense. Unlucky URI drew eventual finalist Duke in the opening round, but the Rams went down swinging, 63-62.

These win totals and tournament results remain impressive, but TV stations got on board because even regular-season games drew eyeballs. Channel 12 likely picked up URI games just for the home date vs. Providence — a sure-fire rating and ad-sales bonanza.


This nascent sports media dynamic extended down the food chain to UHF stations in Greater Boston, as well. For those of you who don’t recall the pre-cable era, UHF or ultra-high frequency stations represented the smaller, independent channels numbered 14 and up — so as not to compete, in terms of band width, with the larger, network-affiliated VHF (very high frequency) stations, which numbered 2 through 13 from market to market. TBS was originally UHF Channel 17 in Atlanta before Ted Turner bought it, during the 1970s; he turned it into a super station via satellite. But his was the exception. In the 1970s, UHF stations were generally the low-budget home of cartoons, B movies, Elliot Ness and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island. Because local sports programming was not all that expensive to produce, Boston Red Sox and Bruins games were broadcast by WSBK Channel 38. The Celtics could be found on WLVI Channel 56.

UHF band reception behaved differently from VHF reception. It was more susceptible to environmental interference (read: static). However, because UHF signals were less susceptible to diffraction effects, the signal traveled better over longer distances. That brief, technical disquisition is all to say, we were able to watch a ton of college basketball, during the 1970s, on WSMW Channel 27 out of Worcester, where the immortal Bob Fouracre broadcast Holy Cross football and basketball games, candlepin bowling and Assumption hoops “live from the Laska Gymnasium!” Never heard of Assumption College? Well, neither had I — not until Fouracre and his magnificent collection of toupés introduced me. The Greyhounds proved a Division II juggernaut during the Me Decade, behind the immortal Billy Wurm, big man John Grochowalski (drafted by the Bulls but who instead played 8 years in Italy) and point guard Jimmy Boylan, who led the Greyhounds to a Division II Final Four in 1974, before transferring to D1 Marquette, where he started on Al Maguire’s 1977 national championship team.

I recognize that my love and memories of college basketball during the 1970s are perhaps a bit rarefied, the stuff of a sports writer/junkie in the making. My mom recently showed me a clipping from our Unitarian Church youth-group newsletter, wherein I “reported” on Notre Dame ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974. The image of an exultant, ball-flinging John Shumate (a future Buffalo Braves teammate of Ernie D and Marvin Barnes) may never leave me. I parlayed this interest not into any sort of riches, but rather a subscription to Dick Weiss’ Eastern Basketball magazine, then a profession.

Looking back, I would also submit that Dave Gavitt could not have conceived of something like the Big East Conference had he not watched this astonishing proliferation of televised college basketball, earlier in the 1970s, in his own backyard. When ESPN launched in 1979, desperate for live sports content, Gavitt was there with a ready-made solution (if you haven’t watched the 30 for 30 doc, “Requiem for the Big East,” it’s worth the ESPN+ subscription all by itself). I would also assert that while Gavitt’s mind was shown to be extraordinarily keen and inventive, this Westerly, R.I. native would likely have spent 25 successful but relatively uneventful years coaching the Providence College Friars — were it not for Ernie DiGregorio.