Those of us awash in sports still revel in the shapes and forms of our childhoods: Your first dalliance with Friday Night Lights, the bewitching, romantic, illuminative reminders in the distance that it’s game night. Or maybe the feelings of juxtaposition that the hot, sweaty, passion pit of a gym gave us in the cold of winter.
It felt bigger than life sometimes, clearly belying the fact that it was still local sports. Yet the feelings never change. They actually get better, reminding you why you like this stuff in the first place.
Speaking of bigger than life: Never forget the first time I saw Vito Montelli. His reputation was bigger than life. But then … this is the guy? Him? He didn’t look much like a basketball coach, burly, balding and bespectacled. This is the guy we’re not supposed to like because he wins all those games? This is The Villain?
The Villain who turned out to be a really nice guy.
Primer: I grew up in Middletown — a great sports town — and attended Xavier High. In those days, we competed in the greatest basketball league in the history of this state: The All-Connecticut Conference, a compilation of Catholic schools with coaches who are of legend.
They were bigger than life to this mostly sheltered high school kid, anyway. And none bigger than Montelli, who coached St. Joseph of Trumbull for 50 years. He won 878 games and 11 state championships. St. Joe’s always had what looked and felt like more Division I players than UConn.
Montelli is the subject of a newly published book, “God, Family and Basketball,” his biography written by my old friend Chris Elsberry. Els worked at the Connecticut (formerly Bridgeport) Post for nearly 35 years. Few ever cranked out copy better and faster. We’ve spent more postgames in more gin mills than we’d care to admit, places named Calhoun’s and McSorley’s that contributed to both our waistlines.
And now one of the good guys can call himself an author.
“Vito always thought about writing his memoirs,” Elsberry said earlier this week. “He wrote down a ton of stuff about everything and everyone that influenced his life. He was talking to (former Post writer) Rachel Rice about it one day. She said, ‘I got the perfect guy for you.’ We met in his living room. He showed me literally buckets of scrapbooks and stories. It’s legendary stuff. His father came over here when he was 16 from Italy. No English, no nothing. They settled in Bristol and created a new life.”
Montelli began coaching baseball at Notre Dame of Bridgeport in 1958. A priest he knew was about to become the principal at St. Joe’s and hired him. St. Joe’s had no baseball field at the time, so Montelli began coaching basketball. He did it for the next 50 years.
Montelli was in our corner of the world many times. St. Bernard was part of the ACC in those days with East Catholic, St. Thomas Aquinas, South Catholic, Xavier, St. Paul, Northwest Catholic, Notre Dame of West Haven and Fairfield Prep. Some of the best coaches in state history: Joe Reilly, Bill Cardarelli, Rich Pagliuca and Gary Palladino, among others.
In the old days, I would write Xavier sports as a correspondent for the Middletown Press. I was the student manager of the basketball team during the games (almost got a technical one night, too) and then had to wear the journalism hat after.
The first time I interviewed Montelli, I was a sophomore and petrified. He turned out to be approachable and insightful. By the time I was a senior, he saw me coming and said, “are you still here? What are you, 40?”
I always rooted for St. Joe’s after that. And it wasn’t easy rooting for a team that kicked us in the ascot routinely.
The book, out since mid-October, already has many accolades, including a tweet from John Calipari.
“The feedback has been overwhelming,” Elsberry said.
If you have an affinity for high school basketball in our state — or just appreciate anyone who could do something well for 50 years — you’ll love this. It’s available at Amazon or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“One thing I learned,” Elsberry said, “once you got on Vito’s good side, you were there forever.”
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro