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42 Vincent Del Negro

Vincent Del Negro
Hometown (Last School)
Springfield, MA
December 2, 2020

Vincent Del Negro, Sr., was born on March 27, 1936, in Springfield, Massachusetts to Carmine Sr. and Madeline (Coughlin).

Del Negro, “Big Vin” was a star athlete and Boys Club legend growing up. He graduated from Springfield Trade High School in 1955 before enlisting to serve his country in the United States Army, where he not only drilled as a soldier, but also starred on his base’s basketball and baseball teams.

After his service, he accepted a scholarship to continue his education and play basketball at Northeast Mississippi Junior College. He immediately broke out as a JUCO star at Northeast Mississippi, averaging more than 35 points per game in his first six games. In his second season, as team captain, Vin led the nation in scoring, averaging 33.4 points per game and was named first-team All-American.

From Sports Illustrated, January 18, 1988, an article about Del Negro and his son of the same name:

“Vinny’s father once made a mistake passing a basketball, and it changed his life. Vince Del Negro, Vince the Prince, later just Vin to distinguish him from Vinny, grew to be 6’5” and wiry, just as his boy would one day. But Vince was robust earlier, and he was tougher sooner.

A hotheaded kid raised in Springfield’s hardscrabble North End, he was schooled on the suffocating second-floor court of the local Boys’ Club. He learned there to run and rebound and score in an array of ways and in a style that today would have a sort of quaintness to it. His set shot from the corner was unerring, his knack under the offensive glass such that it would catch taller men by surprise. Best of all, he had a sweet roundhouse hook he could toss in with either hand.

Vince was a star in high school and then in the Army, and in the fall of 1958 he and his bride, Peg, set out for Booneville, Miss., site of Northeast Mississippi Junior College. They were amazed by the people of the Mississippi hills, where county law banned booze and the locals patronized the speakeasies “just down the road a piece.” The fascination was mutual, for Vince was a basketball Barnum, as exciting a one-man show as anyone in those parts had ever seen.

And those folks showed their appreciation. For filling the gym, Vince would find cash under the scorebook in the coach’s office after games. During the action he would hear a professor yell, “The higher you jump, the higher your grade will go!” Peg would get free meat from the butcher, and bottles of French perfume appeared in the mail at their home—an apartment, complete with maid, paid for by a stipend from the school. He was Vee-inco the Pree-once in the inflection of the locals and nothing less than royalty in their minds. “I was peacocking,” Vin remembers. “I was the Yankee king of that little town. Those people had never seen a guy dunk before. Or heard a guy talk so fast.”

For two seasons Vince was a junior college All-America and the nation’s leading juco scorer. After the first year, Peg returned to Springfield, where she didn’t have to travel 40 miles to find a Catholic church. But her husband stayed through the 1959-60 season. As Vince was piling up a 33.0-points-a-game average, Memphis State coach Bob Vanatta started sending his assistants around.

Vanatta had helped steer Vince to Northeast Mississippi. He hadn’t signed him only because Memphis State had run out of scholarships. It was understood that Vince would put in two seasons of juco ball and then join the Tigers. But Vince began putting Vanatta’s recruiters off. By now he had fielded four or five calls from alumni of the University of Kentucky, and soon the Northeast Mississippi coach, Bonner Arnold, was talking up the Wildcats.

Then one night Vince caught a second wind against Itawamba J.C., got his hook shot cooking and finished with 49 points as two Kentucky scouts watched from the stands. “Afterward they were telling me I could be the next Cliff Hagan,” Vin says, “and I’m believing it, thinking, ‘I’m six-five. Cliff Hagan’s only six-four.’ And I had all the hooks, too. Then I got a letter from [Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s chief assistant] Harry Lancaster, and I’m thinking, ‘Kentucky wants me!’ Back then, Kentucky was the penthouse.”

Booneville would not ordinarily have been on Rupp’s itinerary, but that March the Baron arranged to come speak to the local Rotary Club. Several weeks later, in the three-game North-South Junior College All-America Classic in Coffeyville, Kans., Vince led all scorers. Kentucky flew him straight from Coffeyville to the Lexington campus for an intoxicating two-day visit. He was met at the airport by a local alumnus, an Italian-American doctor who would later become his sugar daddy. He had his picture taken with Rupp, was fitted for a new suit and treated to a lavish dinner at a local country club. During dessert, a phone right behind the table rang.

“It’s the Herald,” someone said. “They want to know if Del Negro’s signed.”

He hadn’t yet, but he could hardly refuse now. Lancaster pulled a letter of intent from his coat pocket and took Vince into another room. Memphis State never had a chance.

Vince began the 1960-61 season as the first-string center, and by early January the Wildcats were 6-3 and scheduled to play Georgia Tech on national television. The regular Wednesday intrasquad scrimmage, complete with a team of Southeastern Conference officials, was Rupp’s idea of a shakedown, and Vince was feeling like a colt, up to the challenge. Folks back in Springfield would get to see him play on Saturday. He was still learning Rupp’s system, but he hadn’t been playing poorly. He was wearing a blue jersey, emblematic of the starters, as he tore down a defensive rebound.

“I took the ball up the middle, because I could dribble, for a big guy,” Vin says now. “We had a three-on-two break with Billy Ray Lickert, our All-America candidate, on the left wing.”

Vince flicked a behind-the-back pass (“being from the North End, following Bob Cousy and all….”) that went off Lickert’s hands and out of bounds. Rupp blew his whistle.

“Del Negro!” he thundered. “Put on a white shirt!”

“F——you,” yelled Vince. Rupp at first pretended not to have heard and turned to one of the officials. “What did he say?” asked the incredulous coach. The ref repeated it faithfully as Vince stormed off toward the locker room with Lickert in pursuit, trying to talk sense to him.

“I came back to the court, but I’d lost the mind game,” Vin says. “I was going through the motions. When I got in against Georgia Tech, there were maybe seven minutes left, and I played no more than four of them. We won, but I really got torn up in the brain. I was thinking national TV, a top team, people back home watching. When you’re young, you think of those things.”

Over the following weeks Vince cut classes and stayed out late drinking. He got in and played well against Tulane and Tennessee, but still he was despondent and losing weight. One night, just before the return game with Georgia Tech, he roused Dick Parsons, his roommate and the Wildcats’ captain. Vince told him he’d had enough; he was leaving. “Dick tried to talk me out of it,” Vin says. “He told me I’d be back, that I shouldn’t be down. I told him, ‘Please, take me to the airport and don’t tell anyone until the morning. Just let me get out of town.’ “

That night Vince airlifted his shaken ego back to Springfield. Years would pass before he picked up a basketball again.”

Vin put basketball behind him to focus on starting a family with his wife Peg. He began his career at Liberty Package store in Springfield. In 1970, he opened Vin’s Package Store across from the Springfield Armory’s Water Shops. He then opened his first bar “Vin’s Gym” not far from where basketball was founded 80 years earlier. For more than a decade, Vin’s Gym was the unofficial campus bar of Springfield College, and a place remembered fondly by alumni of that era. He also owned the 5th Alarm on Worthington Street.

By the 1980s, Vin had sold his business interests to be more involved in helping Peg raise their three teenage children. It was at this time that Vin dusted off his basketball skills, as son Vinny was beginning to show signs of being a basketball star in his own right. Vin was present when Vinny was named MVP of the 1987 ACC Basketball Tournament, again when he was drafted by Bill Russell into the NBA in 1988, and as a trusted and valued mentor throughout Vinny’s playing and coaching career.

Vin’s star perhaps shined brightest beginning in 1992 when he began his last career: that of loving and doting grandfather. For the last three decades of his life, Vin was a constant presence at basketball, hockey, volleyball, baseball, lacrosse, swim meets, and soccer games; recitals, plays and talent shows; and host to countless daytrips, sleepovers, and family vacations.

Front Row: (l to r) Herky Rupp, Doug Pendygraft, Jim McDonald, Bill Lickert, Roy Roberts Roger Newman Middle Row: Head Coach Adolph Rupp, Pat Doyle, Larry Pursiful, Dickie Parsons, Scotty Baesler, Bernie Butts, Assistant Coach Harry Lancaster Back Row: Trainer Sam Pressman, Assistant Coach Doug Hines, Vincent Del Negro, George Atkins, Ned Jennings, Harry Hurd, Allen Feldhaus, Carroll Burchett, Assistant Coach Ted Lenhardt, Manager Hunter Durham

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