EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2013

A city hoop marathon which never ended

40 years ago, a group of Haverhill teenagers played for 206 straight hours

Memory Lane
Tom Vartabedian

---- — In 1973, a small group of Haverhill teenagers got together for a novel mission.

They spent their February vacation entering the Guinness Book of World Records and being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

Twenty-five boys set out to meet a rather unusual goal and didn’t rest until 206 hours had passed. For nine straight days, these players dribbled up and down the Haverhill YWCA gym non-stop. They played in shifts, going home for sleep and a meal when it was their time off the court.

The irony of it all was that none of them played high school or college ball at the time, yet they made a collective shot that was heard around the world.

Among them was Vinny Ouellette, who today directs the Council on Aging, Recreation Department and Human Services.

There was another reason for the marathon game. The boys also set out to raise a few bucks for the Neighborhood Youth Corps.

It’s a story that has survived 40 years. For whenever any two of those players meet in the street, they say, “Remember when?” And the flame of passion continues to burn as bright as ever.

Many of them hailed from St. George’s and St. James churches. They were people like Larry Coombs, the Sylvios (John and Marco), Joe Muldowney, Jeff Smith, Steve Lucier, Rich Brooks, Razmig Babolian and Chris Hayes.

Joe St. Jean and Rich Bilodeau coached the lot and a guy named Dufresne kept score. Ten guys were on the court at all times. I should know the final score because I was covering the story for the Haverhill Gazette at the time, but somehow misplaced my file when I changed houses. Pity! Suffice it to say it was well into the thousands, since most of the shots were layups.

The final basket in the 206th hour was taken by Mickey Grover for obvious reasons. He talked the others into pursuing the record, which was held by a group from Amesbury at 105 hours. But then fate intervened. While the Haverhill hoopsters were pursuing that record, they caught wind that a group from California checked in at 203 hours and held the record momentarily.

Grover broke the news to his teammates and they decided to double their standard and go for the record. Back and forth they went, one basket after another.

One of their most fervent fans was state Sen. Jake Rurak. He showed up every day with sandwiches and snacks for the players.

Mayor George Katsaros and other elected officials, would stop by to wish the boys well.

And there were others like sports guru Mike Schena, who hopped aboard the bandwagon. When the deal was sealed and the record set, he presented each of the 25 participants with a gold-plated silver dollar. I still have mine as official reporter, which makes me $1 richer than Ouellette.

“We were kids,’’ he said. “You get $1, you spend $1. Maybe I should have saved it.”

The ball used in the game held center court, so to speak, at the Basketball Hall of Fame for a quarter century, autographed by the players. Many of them took the trip to the hall in Springfield just to see their names in the showcase.

Then one day, the ball disappeared mysteriously.

“Apparently, new curators came aboard and made room for other artifacts, so the basketball wound up inside a closet somewhere,” Ouellette said. “Mickey (Grover) wanted the ball back and kept after them until they complied.”

Ouellette’s most vivid recollection of the marathon came one day when Channel 5 stopped by to record the event. There was Don Gillis and crew inside the bandbox gym with an arsenal of cameras.

“I wasn’t shy when it came to some outside jump shots,” Ouellette snickered. “Heck, when my shift ended, I rushed home and saw myself on television.”

If anything kept them going, it was pure adrenaline.

Lots of sleep deprivation. No injuries. Some terrific shots made. And no foul shots. An infraction was quickly followed by an out-of-bounds play.

The local AmVets organization gave them the red carpet treatment with a dinner and trophies. A letter of congratulations arrived from President Richard Nixon. Accolades came from everywhere. They were the toast of the town.

As Ouellette so aptly put it, “I have those memories bonding with a bunch of guys. I don’t have all the memorabilia. But I do have the friendships that were established. When we meet in the street, we rekindle those days.”

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette.