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By John Cardullo, sportswriter
The program began as an idea to utilize the city’s
school gyms on Saturday mornings. It was spearheaded by Cranston’s legendary Coach
Ed Stebbins and Cranston Recreation Director Settimo Ricci, who was the city’s
recreation director from 1953 to 1968. The concept was simple, to open the city’s
school gyms and instruct boys in the game of basketball. Back in those days
there were no league sports for girls so basically it was a true “boys club”
for many years, but that was going to change in a big way many years down the line.
The original plan was on Saturday mornings from 8:00
am to 10:30 am boys in grades 4th thru 9th grades will
come in and get basic instructions in the game of basketball. The age groups
were divided into two groups where they would be taught the game from the
ground up and then each week play games against each other to apply those
lessons on the court. Then, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm the high school age boys
and the adults would come in and break up into two groups and play games, for
this group there was no instruction period just pick-up games.
The program took place in schools across the city,
Park View Jr. High, Cranston Senior High (later to be renamed Cranston High School
East), Hugh B. Bain Jr. High, and the Gladstone Street School. Schools would be
added to the mix, but they had to be built first – they were Western Hill Jr.
High and Cranston West High School. These schools were selected for several
reasons, they were regionally spread out through the city and they had two
gymnasiums and was able to accommodate the number of children that would attend
each Saturday morning, which grew every year.
The attendees would be separated into teams for their
age group and play each other. But Ed Stebbins was a firm believer that competition
was good for the body and spirit so he and each of the participating instructors
came up with an idea to reward those boys who came each week and drilled and
scrimmaged. They created an inter-city tournament where all the schools would
play each other once in an end of the season City Recreational Tournament.
As the program went from Stebbins to Joseph
Venttitullo very little changed, and the program was popular and continued to
run successfully. The attendance numbers continued to grow, and the Saturday
morning basketball program was something the city’s youth came to look forward
to. Boys became accustomed to begin playing basketball the Saturday after
Thanksgiving and running right through to the fourth Saturday of March (when
the shift went into the baseball season).
As the years went by, the people that were involved with
this program read like a Who’s Who in the City of Cranston. The Recreation
Directors who followed Settimo all believed in the program; John Sosia, Dennis
DeJesus (who not only attended the program in his youth but became an
instructor at Park View as well), Barry Fontaine, Bob Clarkin and current
Recreation Director Tony Libertore, all saw the value in the program and
continued to make it the cornerstone of their winter recreation program.
Tapping instructors like CCRI’s legendary men’s basketball coach Vincent Cullen
and high school coaches like Joseph Evans, Herb Nicholas, Lou Gelsomino, Walt
Campbell and future high school coaches, Paul Silvia, Jim Morretti, John Maio,
Keith Croft, Richard D’Iorio, and yes the author of this column, John Cardullo,
to name a few.
As the years passed, the program continued to evolve
but held true to its roots, to teach and instruct children in the game of
basketball from the ground up. The attendance numbers held strong and in the
late 1980s the program opened up for girls to come in and learn the game of
basketball. The ladies didn’t just slowly come in – they poured in. Shirley
McGunnegal was the first girl to break the barrier only to be followed by Sue
Burns, Tracy Quinn and Cassie Venus to name a few. They all began their love of
basketball in the Saturday morning program and took their games to a level that
was only a dream at one time for girls. All three went on to play high school
basketball and each scored 1,000 points in their career and went to play at
some level of college.
Cassie Venus who played for Scituate High School recently
said, “if it wasn’t for the Saturday morning basketball program, I may have not
played basketball beyond that program. It was intimidating to play boys every
week but it made me a better player and I think playing the boys and the
encouragement that I received from the instructors, and the boys, made me more
determined to play at the high school level”.
Sue Burns, a Cranston East Lady Bolt star, and the
first girl ever to go to Park View’s Saturday morning program agreed, “I was
not given any special treatment; I practiced with the boys and played against
them. My instructor at Park View then worked with me after my age group went
home. I think because of this I was able to go on to play at a higher level.”
As the years passed, you could see the impact the program has had on girls’
basketball in the city. Currently all four of Cranston’s middle schools have
become successful programs, and in the 2018-19 season Hope Highlands, Huge B.
Bain, Park View, and Western Hills made the state middle school play-off’s
tournament and Western Hills made the finals. Most of the players on each of
those teams had their first experience in basketball at the Saturday morning
The program today is as strong as ever, the numbers of
children coming out to learn and play basketball the Saturday after Thanksgiving
is as traditional as the football games themselves. As one parent observed, “when
I brought my son the first week, he wouldn’t let go of my arm and reluctantly participated
in the drills and the games. By the third week he virtually jumped out of the
car while it was moving; he was so excited to get into the gym and play
basketball.” Another parent noted, “the instructors are great, they make
learning the game fun. It is no big secret why this program has been so
successful for all these years; it’s all about the children. It’s very
affordable and the children are the number one priority.”
It’s safe to say that Cranston Saturday Morning Basketball
will continue going for many years to come. Not too bad for an idea that was just
to keep children moving in the winter months.