Basketball Tryouts and The Cut
As I had mentioned earlier, the Summer of 1987 was one where I learned that my status in the South Plainfield Boys Basketball program was somewhat of a perilous one. First, Coach Lubreski had decided on going with a smaller roster, and then he began to take more of a serious look at the younger players coming up.
I did not really play much at all in the Westfield Summer League. I would get a little more time in games played against South Plainfield Adult League teams at the PAL and the High School. I also did not attend the Eastern Team Camp with the team at Trenton State College, which is now The College of New Jersey. Then, in the fall, I decided to play soccer, which I had never done before.
I wanted to try another sport though since my chances of playing basketball my senior year appeared remote. I also had some friends from class and marching band on the soccer team including basketball teammate Erik Miller, who was an even better soccer player. I was going to start out with the JV team since they needed bodies, but I really did not mind. Drew Smith, who was the varsity soccer coach at the time, graduated from SPHS with my older sister, Terese in 1984.
Basically, I felt by this point that if everything worked out with soccer, and I was able to scratch out a varsity letter, that I would forgo my senior year in basketball, and focus on other things. At least with soccer I felt that I was wanted. So, I traveled with the team for its season opener against Spotswood, which SPHS won. Then, I went to the team practice the next day after marching band practice. It would be the only time I would practice with the team that year.
I had done well for most of the practice, which took place at the soccer field at Riley School. Then, we began to scrimmage the full length of the field after doing some drills and playing at one end with the JV while the varsity played at the other end. During the scrimmage I was defending my goal when a ball got into the penalty box area. I tried to get the ball to clear it out when I was upended by our goal keeper. I came down funny on my ankle, and sprained it pretty bad.
At first it seemed as if it might have been broken, but X-rays at the hospital were negative. However, according to the Athletic Trainer, Mr. Middleton, I had ruptured a capsule of fluid that surrounded the ankle, which had caused tremendous swelling. It looked like a golf ball had grown on my ankle. To make matters worse, I was not able to get back to school during the Jewish Holidays to meet up with the trainer to start re-hab since my older brother would not drive me up to school.
By the time I got to see Mr. Middleton again the following Friday, the ankle had not really improved much. It was still quite swollen. Nevertheless, we did manage to finally get started on a treatment plan. It took me about a month or so before I was close to fully recovered. I did not even participate with the marching band at football games against Madison Central and North Brunswick at Jost Field. Associate band director, Joe Simon called me at home, and tried to get me to come, but I just did not want to have to go crazy trying to get around on crutches.
Eventually, I did return to play cymbals for the SPHS Marching Band the following week on the road at J.F. Kennedy. However, I stayed on the sidelines, and did march with the rest of the band. The following day, we competed in a Band Festival up in Pompton Lakes, and at first I really did not want to march, but had worn different shoes, and got a pep talk from Greg Young, our Tri-Tom player, who also was a goalie for our varsity soccer team. I played and marched, and got through the competition alright and did well.
So, from there, I decided not to return to play soccer, focus on rehabilitation, and get ready for basketball tryouts the day after Thanksgiving. I knew that the odds were stacked against me, but I felt that basketball was really all I had played in school, and I had to give it one more shot. I began to come to open gyms late in October, and Billy Cochrane was there playing with the team. I did not play much right away though since Lubreski was reluctant to put me in since he felt I was still hobbling a bit on my ankle.
I really wanted to play though, and eventually got in, but still struggled with my shot. The last two sessions of open gym, I did play somewhat better through, and I felt a bit more optimistic about my chances, but I still felt a fear that I was not going to make the team. So, the day after Thanksgiving comes along, and football season ended with South Plainfield defeating Sayreville on Turkey Day. The first day of tryouts, and I felt I needed to have as much energy as I could to put in a good first day to help my chances.
In order to give myself some energy, I decided to have a pretty good breakfast, which was a tremendous mistake on my part. I struggled through the first practice with the running of suicides, and doing defensive slides and drills. I felt like I was going to throw up. The idea of having a hearty breakfast had completely backfired on me. Joe Campagna noticed my struggles, and mentioned that I was a nice shade of green, and told me to think of raw eggs. Meanwhile, Mike Carlucci talked about the idea of just having a light breakfast in order to handle the intensity of the double session practices.
However, it was another thing that Carlucci said to me before tryouts began that day that has always made me wonder and chuckle when I think about it. As we were warming up in the upstairs gym, Carlucci came up to me and said that he was wondering what I was doing here. In other words, he was kind of surprised that I had come out for the team that year. Prior to the school year ending in June, his buddy that we would go on to run in track with, Romal Tune, said that I was not going to make the team. The funny thing about Mike and Romal was that they were both quitters.
Tune had come in from California at the beginning of junior year, and looked to be a really nice addition for us for the 1986-87 season. However, Lubreski had him and me go down to the JV to start the season. In addition, Tune battled groin injuries in the pre-season, and eventually quit. Tune wound up on track, and made a name for himself there. Carlucci, who had always been more of a selfish kind of player by always wanting to take chances, and take shots that were ill-advised, and when he missed, he often lingered in the backcourt to try and make up for it with a quick steal, but was called for a foul instead.
His mentality on the court was a liability for our team in middle school. Carlucci was our Achilles heel. One time, in 8th grade, when we played Solomon and Schechter in Cranford, our middle school team had to battle for a close win because not only was Billy Cochrane unable to play, but also due to the fact that Carlucci drew four personal fouls in the first half alone. Coach Terry Allen had to break the glass due to the emergency and inserted 7th graders Rodney Harrison and Pete Leonardis to save the day. Mike was always a risk taker. Not better example of that occurred prior to our first round game in the 1984 Dunellen March of Dimes Tournament against Middlesex.
Carlucci and Miller were very close friends during that time, and in high school. They were in the band that won the Battle of the Bands my senior year. Well, prior to the Middlesex game, they were playing a spirited game of rock, paper, scissors, and Erik kept winning, but Mike continued to go for double or nothing. At one point, Erik owed Mike 64 slaps on his hand, and they would be hard slaps. Carlucci’s hand was already quite red, but once more he went double or nothing, and won. Mike was always disgruntled with playing time, and having to play second fiddle to guys like Billy.
Now, during the middle of junior season, the terrible winter of 1986-87, when the team was struggling to get its first win of the Lubreski era, Carlucci quit. In light of that, do you see the irony in what he said to me? Mike had a lot more to play for than I did, and yet I had stuck it out as the only junior on a 6-17 JV team while he, Erik Miller, Billy, and a number of other juniors were either fully playing varsity, or were tweeners between JV and varsity. Despite his flaws, he was way more talented than me at basketball. And, he quits and then has the nerve to ask me what I’m doing here at senior year tryouts?
Despite the struggles I had during the first day of tryouts, particularly in the first practice, I managed to hang on, and persevere through it. I did not through up, and also did not walk off during a drill. I also lasted longer than another kid that tried out. Russell Siminoff, who ended up being our manager and statistician could not make it through tryouts. About midway through the first practice, Russ gave up. Siminoff cried uncle. He also was another who has kidded me a lot in the years since about my playing senior year. Still lasted through all of tryouts though. Russ can’t take that away from me. Nevertheless, the first day of tryouts definitely hurt my chances of making the team.
I went through the second day of double sessions, and did better, but things did not look good for me. Sophomores like Jimmy Smith, and juniors like John Tupponce looked solid and were more impressive than I was. In the end, Lubreski saw things the same way, and when he made out the list of varsity and JV players for the season, I was not on it. I came down the following Monday I believe to view the list, and when I did not see my name on it, I came back down and looked again. It saddened me, but in a way it was not like I did not expect it to happen. Still, it hurt because I just wanted to be on the team that year.