Auriemma recalls Providence basketball legend

By Carl Adamec

Providence College’s Alumni Hall wasn’t always the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s favorite place to play, though the Huskies have won eight straight there since their last loss to the Friars in the 1993 Big East tournament semifinals.

With the impending defection of the Catholic 7 from the Big East, tonight’s meeting could be UConn’s final visit to PC’s on-campus facility that, with renovations, now holds around 1,800. The Huskies are at the .500 mark, 11-11, in the building.

For UConn coach Geno Auriemma, it’s not about the building in Providence. The gymnasium at Alumni Hall is named in honor of Joe Mullaney, the legendary Providence men’s basketball coach. One of Auriemma’s longtime friends is Joe Mullaney Jr., the former head women’s coach at PC and St. John’s and now an assistant coach to Harry Perretta at Villanova.

“I would go visit Joe at one of his games or somewhere and he would always make it a point to introduce me to his dad,” Auriemma said. “All those guys are a special group that had a lasting influence on coaches.”

Joe Mullaney Sr. won a national championship as a player in 1947 at Holy Cross and had a short NBA career with the Boston Celtics. He worked for the FBI before returning to basketball as the coach at Norwich University in Vermont.

He had two stints at Providence (1955-69, 1981-85) and compiled a record of 319-164. He led the Friars to the 1961 and 1963 National Invitation Tournament championships, when winning the NIT was a huge deal. Mullaney also took the Friars to the NCAA tournament three times and the NIT four other times before moving to the professional ranks. Only UCLA and Kentucky had better winning percentages than Mullaney’s PC teams of the 1960s. He coached six All-Americans: John Egan (1959, 61), Lenny Wilkens (1960), Jim Hadnot (1961-62), Vin Ernst (1962-63), John Thompson (1964), and Jimmy Walker (1965-67).

He was replaced by his assistant and protégé at Providence, Dave Gavitt, who would go on to be enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in the same 2006 class as Auriemma.

“Who didn’t know about Providence basketball no matter where you lived?” Auriemma said. “I knew about it when I was living in Philadelphia because at the time there weren’t a lot of great Eastern programs. Providence, though, was one of them. And Coach Mullaney certainly was one of the reasons for that as was Dee Rowe here at UConn and Dave Gavitt, Bob Cousy at Boston College, Chuck Daly …”

Mullaney left Providence in 1969 to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. In his first season, the Lakers faced the New York Knicks in NBA Finals. The Knicks won a deciding Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on May 8, 1970, 113-99, a game that made New York Hall of Fame center Willis Reed a legend. Reed had injured his leg in Game 5 of the series and missed Game 6. He limped onto the court for Game 7 and made two early baskets as the Knicks rolled to their first NBA title.

But it’s Game 3 at The Forum in Los Angeles that Auriemma recalls from that series. The Knicks took a two-point lead on Dave DeBusschere’s basket with three seconds left. Wilt Chamberlain inbounded the ball to Jerry West, who made a 60-foot shot (there was no 3-point line in the NBA at the time) to force overtime. The Knicks, though, would eventually pull out the win.

“Joe always has great memories of his dad coaching that team,” Auriemma said. “That’s the one conversation we had, Harry Perretta, myself, and Joe. We were all trying to figure out where we were the night Jerry West made that shot. Everyone’s saying we were here, there … Joe Jr. goes, ‘Yeah. I was behind the Lakers bench.’ We laugh our rear ends off. That’s a special time.”

Mullaney would coach another year with the Lakers before moving on to the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, Utah Stars, Memphis Sounds, and Spirits of St. Louis. He had one more year in the NBA with the Buffalo Braves before returning to the college ranks with Brown in 1978. He rejoined the Friars but could not recapture the magic from the 1960s and he retired in 1985.

He passed away on March 8, 2000. A year later, the Alumni Hall gymnasium was named in his honor.

“He was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Auriemma said, “a real gentleman.”