Connecting the dots — Fitchburg to the Knicks


Life is a long, lasting litany of links. Connect the dots and find the connection between people and events past, present and future. Recently, I discovered my connection to the New York Knicks.

The story begins in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1977, when a young coach, fresh out of Fitchburg State College, led Notre Dame High School to a 26-2 record and a state championship.

That coach was Jim Todd, below right. And as a sportswriter with the Fitchburg Sentinel & Leominster Enterprise, I wrote about Todd and his Notre Dame Crusaders.

Within a few years, both Jim and I moved on. I took my talents to South Florida and a slot position with the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

Todd worked as head coach at Fitchburg State, and later as an assistant at Columbia University for his Notre Dame predecessor, Arthur “Buddy” Mahar.

Then, 30 years ago this week, I moved north to take a communications position with IBM in the Mid-Hudson Valley.

Marist connection
And shortly after arriving in New York, I bumped into Jim Todd at Marist College. Jim was an assistant at Marist, where he coached future NBA center Rik Smits and helped lead the Red Foxes to their first NCAA appearance.

Todd coached at Salem State in Mass. from 1987-96 and led the team to eight NCAA Division III NCAA tournament appearances. He then went to the NBA as assistant coach with the Bucks and Clippers. On Feb. 3, 2000, he succeeded Chris Ford as head coach of the Clippers.

Less than a month later, I went to a Knicks game at Madison Square. That afternoon the Knicks beat the Clippers and new head coach Jim Todd, whose team finished the season 4-33.

Todd later was an assistant with the Raptors, Hawks and Kings. And on St. Patrick’s Day, 2012, Knicks coach Mike Woodson added Todd to his staff.

“Jim adds a lot of experience to our staff,” said Woodson. “We started together 16 years ago in Milwaukee, and then our paths didn’t cross for a long time. He went in one direction and I went in another, and we could never hook back up.

“Then when I had the opportunity to bring him to Atlanta, I jumped on it because of the fact that he has a great mind for the game. That’s why he’s here with me in New York. I’ve been pretty successful with Jim in terms of winning, and he brings a wealth of experience.”

The Knicks finished strong last year before losing to the Heat in the playoffs. And this year they’re off to one of the best starts in team history. The last two times the Knicks started a season 8-1, they went on to win the NBA Championship.

11 greatest moments in pro football history

NFL’s greatest moment: Johnny Unitas passes the Colts past the Giants in the 1958 championship game. The game was watched by a national television audience and signified the rise of professional football.

A panel of football writers, historians and other experts recently selected the 11 greatest moments in pro football history for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary book. The only criterion was that the moment had to have an enduring impact on the game.

The top three moments occurred during a three-year period in the late 50s and early 60s, led by the Colts-Giants championship game in 1958. The league’s founding and pro football’s first marquee star were ranked fourth and fifth respectively. And the final four moments took place during a four-year span that began with the AFL/NFL merger and ended with the advent of Monday Night Football in 1970.

The beauty of these lists is that fans can easily come up with dozens of other candidates. You could make a strong argument for  moments like the rules changes in 1933 that opened up the forward pass, the Immaculate Reception in 1972 and the Giants Super Bowl victory over the unbeaten Patriots in  2008.

11 players on a side, 11 top events; Here’s the list:

1. The 1958 NFL Championship Game — The Colts beat the Giants 23-17 in sudden death overtime in what is often referred to as  “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Soon after, pro football exploded on the American scene.

2. The formation of the American Football League, 1959 — Lamar Hunt, a 26-year-old Texas oil man, along with eight original owners. announced plans for a new professional football league, the AFL, to begin play in 1960.

3. Pete Rozelle named commissioner, 1960 — After 23 ballots failed to produce a new leader following the death of long-time czar Bert Bell, NFL owners selected the relatively unknown GM of the Rams. Rozelle, right,  became the visionary behind the Super Bowl.

4. The formation of the National Football League, 1920 — The league’s organizational meeting was held in the showroom of Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hays Hupmobile dealership. The American Professional Football Association quickly became the NFL.

5. Red Grange turns pro, 1925 — The Bears signed the nation’s biggest star, who made his pro debut five days after his final collegiate game at the University of Illinois. Several weeks later, Grange drew 70,000 fans to a game against the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York.

6. The first NFL draft, 1936 — Bert Bell’s innovative idea to help the weaker teams in the league was instituted, and Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger was the first pick. Selected by the Philadelphia Eagles and traded to the Bears, Berwanger decided not to play

7. The reintegration of pro football, 1946 — Pro football had a color barrier from 1934-46, when the  Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and the Browns signed Marion Motley, left, and Bill Willis — a year before Jackie Robinson’s debut in Brooklyn.

8. Monday Night Football, 1970 — The first Monday night game, between the Browns and the Jets, televised on ABC,  kicked off a weekly tradition and changed the viewing habits of a nation.

9. Super Bowl III, 1969 — In one of the greatest upsets in sports history, Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed victory, then delivered in a 16-7 win over the Colts that put the AFL on the map.

10. The Ice Bowl, 1967 — The Packers beat the Cowboys 21-17  in arctic-like conditions in the Green Bay in the last game that Vince Lombardi ever coached at Lambeau Field.

11. The AFL/NFL merger, 1966 — The two rival leagues announced a phased merger, which called for an annual world championship game (later known as the Super Bowl) and full integration by 1970.