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The Power of Suggestion

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Vinnie Del Negro

Back in 1978, when I was a waiter at Emily Shaw’s, a 5 star restaurant, in Pound Ridge New York, my two Venezuelan busboys, Manuel and Ernesto, and I devised a plan by which they would bring me bottles of wine from the wine cellar to present to our guests. What we learned is that presenting the bottles to the guests was a great deal more successful than handing them the wine list. There is something very alluring about the sight of ice cold condensation on a bottle of Pouily Fuisse. Within a week, our wine sales tripled.

Yesterday, during the Cardinals’ Kingsbury Chronicle podcast, Kingsbury was asked whether he was a San Antonio Spurs fan while growing up in that part of Texas. He started beaming about his love for the Spurs and lauded three of his boyhood idols: David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Vinny Del Negro.

I found it fascinating that he included Del Negro because it just so happens that a few years after my year waiting tables at Emily Shaws, I was the JV and assistant Varsity basketball coach at Trinity-Pawling School when our team, led by Mo Vaughn (future American League MVP) took on Suffield Academy led by Vinny Del Negro in the 1983 New England Prep School Championships.

My mentor and legendary coach at TP, Miles Hubbard, and I were amazed that Dennis Kinne, Suffield’s long-time coach, had abandoned his traditional motion offense in order to clear one side of the floor for Del Negro, who would either create his own shot or draw double teams so he could flip passes to open teammates.

On that day, Del Negro scored 28 points and delivered 15 assists and we lost by 5. Del Negro went on to lead Suffield to the New England championship.

A few weeks later Coach Hubbard and I we were at a coaching clinic and ran in to Dennis Kinne. At lunch, he told us a story that I will never forget. Kinne was hot, steaming mad. And this is what he said:

Kinne said that he had been pushing Vinny to sign with the Cincinnati Bearcats, the only major Division 1 offer he received. Back then the Bearcats were not one of the better Division 1 programs. But...one day Vinny gets a phone call from a guy who says he’s Jimmy Valvano of North Carolina St. Of course, Vinny thought it was a prank. Only this guy keeps calling him “paisan” and tells him they have one scholarship left and he would like to come up to the Del Negro residence in Springfield (MA) to have a good, long talk.

It was not a prank. That was THE Jimmy V, who was still freshly beaming about the Wolfpack’s stunning NCAA Championship win over Houston on Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating put-back off of Dereck Whittienburg’s desperation 30 foot airball.

Coach Kinne said that the Del Negros invited him to attend the meeting at their home with Valvano and two of his NC State assistants, which began with a delicious four course Italian dinner served by Vinny’s mom.

After dinner, Jimmy V asked everyone to convene in the living room because he and his assistants had cooked up a treat of their own. Once seated, one of the assistants pulled out a boom box out of a duffel bag and popped in a cassette tape.

The next thing they heard was the voice of legendary broadcaster, Curt Gowdy, who said amidst the din of a raucous crowd, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen to the 1985 ACC Championship game featuring the Wolf Pack of North Carolina State versus the Tar Heels of North Carolina. And now for the starting lineups....starting at guard for the Wolf Pack, a 6-3” freshman from Springfield Massachusetts, Vinny Del Negro (echo Del Negro Del Negro)....”

This was succeeded by a number of highlighted plays in the game which culminated with Gowdy saying the following: “With 10 seconds on the clock the Wolfpack takes its final timeout. Down by 1, one would imagine that Valvano is drawing up an play to get Lorenzo Charles the ball at the low post. Let’s see what they’ve got. The ball come in to Del Negro, he dribbles to his right, the Tar Heels are overplaying Lorenzo Charles on the right block, Del Negro has no clear entry pass, he reverses his dribble, he drives into the paint, there are two seconds left, he pulls up, he shoots---IT’S GOOD!!! THE WOLFPACK HAVE WON THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP!!!”

At this point, Jimmy V leaps out of his chair, races over to Vinny, hoists him up, starts shaking his shoulders and screams over and over, “YOU DID IT!!! WE WON THE ACC!!! YOU DID IT, PAISAN!!! YOU DID IT, VINNY!!!

Having just heard this from Coach Kinne, Coach Hubbard and I sat there with our jaws agape---and then Kinne said, “What a crock of bull dung.”

Kinne continued, “Valvano has a roster chock-full of McDonalds’ All-Americans. Vinny’s only chance of playing there is during scrub time. And yet Vinny bought Valvano’s stinking bait... hook, line and sinker.”

When Street and Smith’s 1984-1985 College Basketball magazine came out, I bolted down to the store to buy it. The last line of the North Carolina St. page said, “Vince Del Negro, a freshman guard from Springfield, MA, is not expected to play.”

Months later, a week before Christmas, Coach Hubbard and I went to Madison Square Garden to watch the ECAC Holiday Tournament and wouldn’t you know, NC State was matched up in the nightcap versus All-American guard Chris Mullin and St. John’s.

From the outset, the Wolfpack were having difficulties guarding Chris Mullin who was curling off screens and hitting open jumpers or driving the lane for scores. Seven minutes into the game, much to Coach Hubbard’s and my surprise and delight, Valvano called down the bench and summoned Vinny to report to the scorer’s table. And Vinny was a nice spark---he slowed Mullin a little and he made a few nice plays in transition.

By his sophomore year, Vinny was starting. And---get this---at the ACC Tournament his junior year, Vinny was named Tournament MVP after sinking the game winning basket for the #6 seed Wolfpack in the waning seconds versus #1 seed North Carolina. The final score: North Carolina State 68, North Carolina 67. The upset win was the Wolfpack’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament in a year where they had only gone 6-8 in conference play.

As a senior in 1988, Vinny Del Negro was 1st Team All-ACC.

The power of suggestion.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear Kliff Kingsbury mention Vinny Del Negro as one of his childhood idols. Del Negro was never a superstar NBA player. But as a steady and creative point guard, he helped the Spurs in the 1990s build toward a string of Western Conference and NBA Championships.

In essence, Kingsbury understands the value of a steady and creative player at the point, just as he places a premium value on his QBs being steady and creative distributors of the football to the team’s playmakers.

What also strikes me very profoundly about Kingsbury as a coach, is his penchant for connecting with his players, finding what it is that makes them tick, adapting his schemes to their strengths and, most of all, maintaining a boyish fascination and love for the game---the kind of fascination that keep the game fun---and the kind of love that keeps childhood dreams alive.

As a side note---you might find it interesting to know that there is a player from Springfield, MA who graduated from Suffield Academy in this year’s NFL Draft. He is DT Christian Wilkins from Clemson (ACC), a two year captain who helped to lead the Tigers to 4 ACC Championships and 2 NCAA Championships. Hey, Christian, man, YOU DID IT!