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Bob Bigelow's Full Court Press, continued

 

Bigelow’s philosophy of youth sports is rooted where he is, in his hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb north of Boston. Today, the six-feet, six-inch (“I’ve shrunk an inch since Penn,” he laughs) member of the Big Five Hall of Fame lives “about a mile” from where he grew up, with his wife, Nancy Jannarone, Tufts University women’s swim coach, and their two sons, David, 14, and Stephen, nine, both of whom have played youth sports since first grade. Even during his NBA career (1975-1979) Bigelow never strayed far from Winchester. During off seasons (and summers at Penn) he always went home to conduct basketball clinics in and around town. After retiring from professional basketball in 1979 he bought a house in town, moving “Nancy in and two roommates out” when they got married in 1984.

Bigelow admits that his was a typical “Ozzie and Harriet” childhood. His father, Bob, practiced law and his mother, Kay, was a “stay-at-home-mom.” The second of four children—he has an older sister and two younger brothers—Bigelow grew up playing backyard and playground sports with the other kids in the neighborhood without leagues, drafts, schedules, practices, or fancy uniforms.

“You headed for a backyard park or vacant lot. Mysteriously and inevitably, everyone found his or her way to the game,” he recalls. “The games themselves were spontaneous and fun. They had no beginning and no real end, except when the chilling reality of darkness set in or your mother called you home for dinner.” The sports he played were dictated by the seasons. “In the fall, we’d play kickball or baseball until the day it got too cold and then someone would run inside and grab a football,” he reminisces. In the winter, he played street hockey or went sledding. In the spring, they would rediscover baseball until it got too hot. Then everyone went swimming.

It was, he realizes, a kinder and gentler time. “On the playgrounds and in the backyards of my youth we made our own rules and sometimes our own baskets and bases. We got muddy, we got tired, but we never got burned out. If we got hurt, we went home,” he says. “We didn’t have parents screaming at us to pay attention. No coaches growled that we should have cut to the basket, taken the shot, faked the pass, or executed the fancy play that was rehearsed ad nauseum at the last practice.”

There was no search for “talent” to put together an elite or select team. “When I was 10, I was the same uncoordinated kid as the uncoordinated kid who lived down the street,” he recalls. “My parents let me play with my pals and I never gave the NBA a second thought.” In fact, Bigelow never played an “organized” game of basketball until he was 14 years old and a freshman in high school.

By the end of his junior year in high school, he caught the eye of Penn basketball coach Dick Harter Ed’53. “Our team had done well in the Eastern Massachusetts tournament,” Bigelow remembers. “And I was the best player on the team.” Bigelow was also a good student, whose college decision came down to three schools: Penn, Dartmouth, and Duke. He chose Penn, he admits, because, “it was the best of the three in basketball.” In 1971, he points out, Penn was the third-ranked team in the country. Ironically, Bigelow never played for the coach who recruited him. Harter went to the University of Oregon and was replaced by Chuck Daly, previously an assistant coach at Boston College—who, as it turns out, had also been recruiting Bigelow.

When Bigelow was a freshman, “Corky” Calhoun W’72 and Bobby Morse C’72 were on their way to establishing the decade of the 1970s as one of the most successful in the history of Quaker basketball. Bigelow helped contribute to that history during his varsity years (1973-75) when his team won three consecutive Ivy League championships and three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. For the 1974-75 season, Bigelow led his team in field-goal percentage and earned first-team, All Big-5 honors as well as the award for Most Improved Player. “I have nothing but wonderful memories of Penn,” he says. “I’ve been in a lot of basketball arenas, and the Palestra, in terms of its size, is one of the most impressive and by far the loudest.”

Bigelow went from setting records for the Red and Blue to “pretty much sitting on the bench” during his first two seasons in the NBA. But for a 21-year old bachelor, the opportunity to defer half of his four-year $400,000 salary for twice the length of the contract beat, as he puts it, “signing with Gillette.” In the middle of his third season with Kansas City, the league cut the number of players on a team from 12 to 11, and Bigelow was sent packing. He came back to Winchester and “played with the Celtics for 10 days.” The next season, the San Diego Clippers picked him up. Although the 1978-79 season was probably his most satisfying in the NBA (“I got the most playing time and had the most fun,” he remembers), at the end of it he decided “it was better not to be there than to be there.”

He retired to Winchester and tried his hand at “various careers,” including coaching (he spent two years as an assistant basketball coach at Tufts University, where he met his wife in 1982), business (he earned an MBA from Babson College in 1983 and helped found a service-quality company called the MarComm Group), and sports management (he ran a lot of basketball camps and conducted a lot of basketball clinics). Seven years ago, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association hired him as a Wellness Consultant to travel to schools throughout the state and speak about the medical risks of smokeless tobacco. “My wife can’t believe I get paid for talking,” he jokes.

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“We got muddy, we got tired, but we never got burned out. If we got hurt, we went home.”

 
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