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Ernie D: Providence College and Rhode Island icon tells his untold story – John Cardullo

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by John Cardullo, contributing writer

Star with a BROKEN HEART, an autobiography by Providence College basketball icon, Ernie DiGregorio takes us back to when Providence College basketball became one of College Basketball’s top dog and all the ups and downs that went along with it.

It doesn’t seem like it has been over 50 years ago that the Providence College Basketball team took the state by storm and solidified the basketball program its place on the national stage. In order to appreciate what the small college that is nestled in the center of Rhode Island’s capital city achieved on the national stage, we will have to travel back in time to where it all began.

Providence College was a rather small school, that had an all-male enrollment. Hiring the great Joe Mullaney as its basketball coach changed the direction of both the basketball program and the school in ways that neither could imagine at the time. Mullaney was a master basketball coach and he and his assistant coach, a young Dave Gavitt, built Providence College into a regional power. Recruiting players like Lenny Wilkens, Jimmy Hadnot, Mike Readon, John Thompson (yes, that John Thompson!), and a basketball superstar named Jimmy Walker. The Providence College “Braintrust” with the blessing of the school’s administrators went on a mission to propel the team to the top level of College Basketball.

During the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s Mullaney and Gavitt first began their journey by scheduling the traditional Eastern powerhouses in their regular season. Playing teams such as Villenova, St. John’s University, and Seton Hall, landed the Friars into the National Invitational Tournament that was held at the end of the season. Unlike today’s basketball landscape, the N.I.T. was held in the basketball mecca, Madison Square Garden, and in many ways winning the tournament was a program changer, and Providence College won it twice. In 1961 and 1963 Providence College was on top of the basketball world.

Providence College’s run brought us to Ernie DiGregorio and his book, growing up in North Providence, Rhode Island. Ernie played baseball and basketball. He decided early on that he wanted to play basketball, he wanted to play in high school, and he wanted to play at Providence College, and he wanted to play in the NBA. But for Ernie D, it wasn’t a dream that all dreams are made of, it was his obsession, it was his motivation it was what he worked on every day, in the rain, in the snow, in the heat of the summer. Basketball 16-18 hours a day, every day!

The book tells the story how this “undersized” player worked himself to be one of the country’s best point guards who would lead his team in scoring, assists, and free throw percentage. And, leading his teams against National College powerhouses like Maryland, Indiana, USC, and the mighty UCLA. The Providence College team played anyone, anywhere, at any time. Led by DiGregorio, Providence College became one of the country’s basketball “powerhouses”, themselves.

Marvin Barnes and the team

The book also tells the story of his and his teammate, Marvin Barnes, relationship. DiGregorio, a white player from North Providence, and Barnes, a black player from Providence’s west end.  How Dave Gavitt who was their head coach, created an environment where color or social status was insignificant, and all was focused on them as men and individuals. All while the social climate at the time was very volatile. At a time when race riots were happening across the country, protesting the Vietnam war was gripping the country, and when America’s youth at that time didn’t trust the government, and the Age of Aquarius was upon us.

During this time, Providence College made the decision to go co-ed, it was a true time of change for the school. The book tells the story about how one of the country’s greatest basketball coaches had his team rise above what was happening all around them. It tells the story of the vision Gavitt had as the mastermind behind creating the Big East Conference, taking care of his beloved Providence College, making them a cornerstone of the Big East Conference. Before moving on to running the Boston Celtics.

It takes us on the journey of Ernie D’s professional career playing for the Buffalo Braves after being drafted by the Braves who was in the NBA and the Kentucky who was in the ABA. His dream was always to play in the NBA, and he went to Buffalo.  His promising start in Buffalo included Ernie being named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, leading Buffalo to the NBA playoffs and leading the league in free throw percentage and assists, until an injury and misfortune in changes in ownership and a unexpected NBA/ABA merge sent Ernie to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers before heading to the Boston Celtics.

All the while helping his friend Marvin Barnes cope with his demons both on and off the court. The book touches on losing his mentor, Dave Gavitt, and the tragic death of his “brother” Marvin Barnes. “Addiction is a terrible thing, once it gets hold of you, its hard to get away from it, it seems that it is always lurking, and can strike without warning.” DiGregorio said. “Marvin was fun to be around, he was full of life. He was a true character; I miss him every day!”

Sitting down with Ernie to discuss what he did after his NBA career was over. “I was the celebrity host at the Foxwoods Resort and Casino for 18 years.”  He went on to say. “I went on to coach my old high school basketball team, the North Providence Cougars, and the Rhode Island School of the Deaf. I had my own summer basketball camp for many years.”

Asked what the future looks like for Ernie D, he said that he is excited that the book has been read by so many people and it had such a powerful effect on them. Many people in the movie industry have told him that there should be an opportunity to make this story into a movie.

The book which is self-published is sold exclusively at the Providence College bookstore, and can be personalized and autographed by Ernie. You’ll be guided how to purchase the book. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to scholarships for students from Providence and North Providence.

This wizard, who could do magic with the basketball in his youth looks as if he can still take the court for a pickup Game to this day. Nowadays he enjoys spending time with his family and watching his grandchildren playing all sorts of Sports.  He loves playing Golf, promoting his book and working on the potential of a movie about the book.

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John Cardullo, sportswriter. John is a lifelong Rhode Islander. His sports experience is extensive, as a player, coach and sponsor of youth and high school sports. He has been the Public Address Announcer for the CCRI Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams. Both the Cranston East and Cranston West football, Cranston East Boys and Girls basketball for 12 years before moving onto the Central, Juanita Sanchez and Mt. Pleasant football teams. Also, Central HS Boys and Girls Basketball, Scituate High School Boys and Girls Basketball, Johnston High School Girls Basketball, Boys Volleyball, Girls Softball, Boys and Girls Soccer teams, and CLCF football.

John has been involved in Men’s softball for 61 years, starting as a batboy for his father’s team in 1964. He moved to the teams scorekeeper then became a player in 1975, and created the men’s team, Players Corner Pub, that went on to win 20 State Championships in their 35 year history. In the 1990’s he published the statewide softball magazine “The Fielders Choice” which was dedicated to all topics related to adult softball. As a feature writer, John and the publication won several media awards. In 2019 he was elected and inducted into the Rhode Island Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame which he also helped create. John is a softball umpire in Warwick, Rhode Island.

In his spare time John golfs with his life long friends on a weekly basis in season. After retiring from the printing Industry after a 45-year career, he now writes specialty sports columns for RINewsToday.com.

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