130th Anniversary of Basketball Exploring the people, past and present, who have shaped the history of basketball at Springfield College

By Irene Rotondo

Graduate student James Naismith hammered two peach baskets into the ten foot high railing of Springfield College’s Judd Gymnasium exactly 130 years ago.

It was not his intention to make waves with this action, or even to gain personal credit for his idea; Naismith was teaching physical education at the College, and was met by his students with the usual winter depression humanity tends to face in the colder, darker months.

He needed something to fire up his students and burn their energy, some kind of physical activity or game that would really interest them.

And so, he put up those peach baskets and wrote up some rules and told his students how to play. He called it “basket ball.”

Not only did his students love it, but they brought the game to their friends, who brought it to other YMCA organizations and schools. Naismith’s original 13 rules were printed in a College magazine that was mailed to YMCAs across the country, and because of the College’s international student body, word of the new winter game spread globally. By 1905, not even 15 years after its creation, basketball was recognized as a permanent winter sport in high schools and colleges across the United States.

About 62 years after basketball’s inception, Dr. Ed Bilik walked onto Springfield College’s campus as an undergraduate student. He came with the intentions of completing a pre-med major and playing basketball and baseball, but found his studies difficult to keep up with alongside being a two-sport athlete.

Bilik changed his major to physical education and continued his athletic career. He played for Coach Ed Steitz on the basketball court, and enjoyed a varsity career on the team until he graduated with a physical education degree in 1957.

After graduating, Bilik’s lifelong commitment to the game was just getting started. He went to teach physical education at Seton Catholic High School right after graduating, and was able to formulate three basketball teams for the school. He coached the freshman, junior varsity, and varsity teams while also teaching a variety of academic classes.

“I taught more than physical education there -- I taught chemistry, I taught general business, I taught algebra,” remembered Bilik.

“I coached three teams, and that was quite an experience because I worked with the Sisters of Charity. They were wonderful, and I learned how to be dedicated, because they were definitely dedicated people... and that helped me in terms of going on and carrying on my career at Springfield College.”

Bilik ended up returning to Springfield College two years after graduating. His former basketball coach, Ed Steitz, was looking for an assistant golf coach and an assistant basketball coach. Bilik accepted Steitz’s offer and remained his assistant up until Steitz retired in 1966. After that, Bilik took over as head basketball coach.

Bilik led the Springfield College’s men’s basketball team to 18 winning seasons in his 20 years as head coach. He attributed his team’s success not only to his own personal athletic knowledge and skills, but to the character of the men he had on the court.

“We depended upon motivated individuals, we felt that there’s a certain way to play the game, and to play the game with class,” said Bilik.

“We played basketball with integrity, and the game was very important to not only the coaches but to the players. Because of its meaningfulness, we felt that we had to do something to give back to the game,” he finished.

One of Bilik’s proudest moments came from watching current coach Charlie Brock develop as an undergraduate student on Bilik’s varsity basketball team.

Brock discovered Springfield College on a whim back in the early 1970s after visiting the University of Massachusetts. His intentions were to play basketball in college and pursue a physical education degree, and after getting a taste of the atmosphere on Springfield’s campus, Brock decided to attend.

Bilik fondly recalled Brock’s undergraduate years, even offering that Brock used to wear a leather jacket and drive a motorcycle.

“We were very interested in him… probably the best way to describe him from a popular movie at that time would be, ‘rebel without a cause’... he had a different lifestyle. And eventually, because of his involvement with basketball, all that changed,” said Bilik.

“He developed to where he was going to be, or have an impact, as one of the most outstanding players we’ve ever had at Springfield. Unfortunately, injuries sometimes take their toll, but I’ve never been prouder of a person than I am of Coach Brock,” he reminisced.

Brock’s career-ending injury came right after a winning Dartmouth game his senior year; Brock had had an incredibly strong game, racking up over 20 points for the team. It was all brought to an abrupt end after blowing out his knee, and he was forced to sit and watch his team practice and play from the bench.

“It’s one of those things that’s terrible, but when it happened, I set myself aside a little bit,” said Brock of his injury.

“Instead of being in the game, I was watching because I had no choice. I think that may have been the time when I started appreciating what went on with teaching and coaching; up until that point, I had had absolutely no thought of coaching basketball, in any way, shape, or form,” he added.

After graduating in 1976, Brock had a year-long hiatus traveling through New England and taking on odd-jobs until Bilik called him back to the College. Bilik needed an assistant basketball coach, and Brock would be able to pursue his Master’s degree in physical education through the graduate fellowship program at Springfield.

Brock was able to get his degree by 1980, and secured his first job as a head coach at Drew University in 1980. From there, he went on to coach at other colleges and universities, including Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and Trinity University in Texas. By the time the head basketball coaching position opened back up at Springfield College, it was 1998.

Bilik, the Athletics Director at the time, again called Brock back to Springfield and encouraged him to take the position. Brock is now in his 23rd year as men’s head basketball coach at Springfield, and he would not have it any other way.

“It was a great move, and it was really good to go elsewhere and coach in different parts of the country for 28 years or so. It was a great move to come back to Springfield and sort of come home, if you will, and coach,” said Brock.

“I never thought I’d be here 23 years, I didn’t really think about it one way or the other. We, as coaches, kind of function on a one-day basis, but it’s been wonderful,” he continued.

Not only does Springfield College boast a terrific men’s head basketball coach, but the women’s team is led by an equally revered and fearless woman. Naomi Graves, who got her Master’s degree from Springfield in 1985, is in her 30th year of being the head women’s basketball coach at Springfield College.

For Graves, basketball was not as easy to slip into as it was for her male counterparts. There were no programs for women to play basketball when she was in elementary school, and though she began playing for a recreational league in sixth grade and had a background in it at home, there were no AAU programs for women.

“It was more like I loved the game, but there weren't any avenues to learn the game. You just played in a backyard, like some people still do sports,” said Graves.

“In high school -- my high school was seventh through twelfth grade -- so, in seventh grade I really took up the game. And even then, the coaching was very different. Coach Brock’s experience and mine are night and day. We just didn’t have a lot of opportunities to learn, so most of the people that taught me the game were men, men who saw that I had some talent and wanted me to be good, and women’s sports were just starting; it was a little before Title IX. And I was eager to learn, so people taught me good things,” she continued.

Title IX was established in 1972, and afforded Graves the ability to gain a scholarship to play women’s basketball in college. Without Title IX, Graves’ career with basketball could have looked extremely different.

Graves attended the University of Rhode Island in the late 1970s and early 80s, where she studied adaptive physical education for students K-12. She remembers her athletic career as somewhat tumultuous, especially because she was part of the first female scholarship class for women’s basketball at URI.

“I’m going to be honest-- we couldn’t get prime time practice, couldn’t get in the training room. It was a lot of stuff that was still having to be worked out,” said Graves.

“By the time I was a senior, things were more equitable, and that’s a good thing,” she added.

After Graves graduated as captain of the women’s team, with URI Female Athlete of the Year honors and as an All-American in 1982, she knew her affiliation with basketball could not just end there. She stayed at URI for one year as an assistant basketball coach, and ended up at Springfield College to pursue her Master’s in physical education to graduate in 1985.

With Master’s degree in hand and an impressive college athletic career behind her, Graves acquired her first job as head women’s basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, with a starting salary of just $15,000 a year.

Graves stated, “There weren’t a lot of women jobs, I’m going to be honest. Talk about equity? So, whatever you could get, you took. I worked two jobs, and I stayed in coaching because I liked it, and I caught the coaching bug. The only job I wanted to come back to was at Springfield, so I waited for it to open.”

She finally made her way home in 1991 to lead the women’s basketball team to greatness. A self-proclaimed #BleedMaroon supporter, Graves has always strived to make the women on her team all-around standouts. She has been named NEWMAC Coach of the Year multiple times, and has had 26 of her players named to NEWMAC All-Conference honors.

“When I came back to Springfield, I really wanted to put women’s basketball on the map. I wanted to let them know that women can play too, and if you research Naismith-- I did this with my Humanics lecture-- he believed in participation, and he had a very interesting philosophy about playing; it’s so different than it is now,” began Graves.

“But what’s amazing is sometimes he’d use his wife, and I think he loved that. There was a side to him that wasn’t like, ‘Only boys play,’ and I think if he was around today, I’d hope that he’d want to see the women play,” she stated.

Current students that play under Graves are fully aware of what their coach is bringing to the table for them, and appreciative of the lengths she will go for their team. First-year Riley Robinson stated that Graves was an integral part of her decision on which college she should attend, for her academic studies and for her athletic career.

“Coach Graves was very welcoming, and right off the first interview, she talked about the culture and how everyone was as a team,” said Robinson.

“I just liked how she ran everything and what she wanted from her players. It just fit my type of personality,” she added.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s experience playing as a first-year has been a whirlwind of ups and downs, highs and lows. Her experience is synonymous with every college athlete’s story at the moment: the women’s basketball team was only given a single game this season, and the men’s team had none, all due to COVID-19.

Though it’s been a difficult year, Robinson says she has high hopes for her sophomore season.

“I’m just looking forward to actually having a season that’s like the past times,” she said.

“Obviously, this year was tough on everybody. Next season I want to know what it feels like to actually be on a court without a mask or play in more than one game, or play in a conference or championship game,” she continued.

Junior Grace Dzindolet, a leading force on the women’s team, said that this year was unlike any other she has played so far. With more experience than some of her teammates, Dzindolet knows what it is like to be on a winning team, and wants that back.

“I think mentally we’re in a better headspace, knowing that we haven’t cancelled a practice in the spring and we’ve been going since January,” said Dzindolet of this year’s season.

“We’ve really gotten to know the girls a lot better, and we’ve been able to just build different relationships that a lot of other schools aren’t able to build. We’re able to work on our skills, and at least learn some plays so that people are more prepared for next year. I think it’s been weird, but we definitely rely on each other and push each other; at the end of the day, we’re happy that everyone’s healthy and able to play this one game, that’s kind of all we needed and asked for,” she stated.

Men’s team players, junior Daryl Costa and senior Harper Niven, have similar sentiments to those on the women’s team. They are grateful for the time they did have to play this year, but are hungry for much more.

Niven said, “Last year it was like, ‘I can’t wait for this game, can’t wait for this game,’ and now it’s just enjoying being with the guys and practicing together, enjoying the time we do get to spend together. Even though we didn’t get to play any games, we did get three months to practice together, which is better than not having any time together.”

Costa agreed, looking forward to the future: “Coach was like, ‘Alright, let’s just focus our minds on next year. If games come, games come, but let’s just focus on next year. Whatever we’re doing now, we’re preparing for next year.’ It works out well, because the freshmen have no college experience. We’re building them up for next year, so all is going to be well.”

Though every player from both teams has different expectations and experiences for their seasons, their common ground is that they were meant to play for the Birthplace. Costa said that this is something the men on his team hold in especially high regard.

“I think as a team, we take pride in being at the birthplace of basketball; a lot of our group chats are called ‘Birthplace Boys’ because that’s who we are,” Costa shared.

“So I think it’s cool to represent basketball, and where it’s from, where it’s created, I think it’s pretty cool.”

Bilik, when watching Coach Brock’s team play in the NCAA Division III Final Four Tournament in 2018, wanted to know if the students who came to Springfield College when he was a coach were the same sparked individuals. He was not disappointed by the caliber of both athlete and student he saw present.

“I told Coach Brock, ‘Those players are still motivated.’ I mean, they were still the exact same-- the DNA of those players weren’t any different from the DNA of the players that played for me at Springfield College. They were exactly the same,” stated Bilik.

Despite the lack of competition during the 2020-2021 basketball season, the 130th anniversary of the invention of basketball by James Naismith is still a feat to be celebrated, if only for how powerful the individuals who make up the game at Springfield College are.

Created By
Irene Rotondo