Luckett the pride of Shehan Center, where it all began for basketball star
Connecticut Post Article
BRIDGEPORT — The two men had started talking. They were not friends, not even casual acquaintances, just a couple of fathers shooting the breeze while their boys played Little League. The one man, Angelo Noccioli, was a city fireman and the father of six. The other man worked construction. He had four boys. His name was Walter Luckett Sr. That day, the two fathers talked about work. And life. And raising families. Luckett's sons were all good athletes, especially the oldest, Walter Jr. But all the boys needed some structure. And some discipline. Nocciolo gave Luckett a name: George Fasolo. Fasolo was in charge of the Cardinal Shehan Center. It was over on Main Street, not too far from Harral Avenue and the Green Apartments, where the Lucketts lived. Fasolo was no-nonsense. If you didn't follow his rules, you didn't hang around. It sounded like the perfect place for a boy who needed a little direction. "This was a nice place to come to," Walter Luckett Jr. said. "You felt safe. I lived up the hill and you could come here after school and play. It provided a lot of direction that I needed at the time. If you came here with the right attitude, you could get a lot out of this place & Mr. Fasolo wanted people who had goals in mind." It is a warm October morning and Luckett is back at the Shehan Center, posing for a few pictures. He stops and pauses for a minute, looking down at a spot on the floor. "I used to love to shoot from there," he said, pointing to an area near the baseline, some 21, 22 feet away from the hoop. "I knew every spot on this floor." Luckett smiles. A broad, knowing smile. The memories are flooding back into his head. He recalls days when he would come here after school and shoot for hours. Days when, as a member of the Kolbe High School team, he would light it up and the place would be packed with people to see him. Days when, his basketball career long over, he would come back and help kids, kids like him, who need a little direction. A little discipline. If you could put together a highlight reel of Walter Luckett's basketball career, it would be filled with moments that would take your breath away. In four years at Kolbe, Luckett scored 2,691 points, the most points — ever — by anyone in New England. His career high school average was 31.1 points. As a senior, he averaged 39.5 points, 16 rebounds and 13 assists. As an eighth-grader, playing for the Shehan Center, he scored 59 points against a junior varsity team. As a sophomore at Kolbe, he scored 53 against a varsity squad. And, as a junior in college he scored 28 points against a professional team led by Dr. J, Julius Erving. But what Luckett is most remembered for is the 48 points he scored in what many still call the greatest high school game in city history on Feb. 1, 1972. Kolbe faced Notre Dame of Bridgeport in the SHU Gymnasium and a standing-room-only crowd squeezed into the 1,200-seat gym to see Notre Dame win 93-92. "It was a **** of a game," said Luckett, who is 53 years old. And while the memories of so many years ago are still fresh in Luckett's mind, they are even more alive in the minds of his peers. On Monday night, the man who has given so much to this city gets a little something in return as Luckett will be inducted into the Fairfield County Sports Commission Hall of Fame along with Bobby Valentine, Mo Vaughn, Joan Joyce, Porky Vieira and Ray Barry. Giving back "This is an incredible honor, but when I look back at all the things I've accomplished, I can't say I did it alone," Luckett says, referring to his wife of 32 years, Valita. "My wife is my best friend. I couldn't imagine how life would be without her. She's been the biggest impact in my life." And since his basketball career ended, Luckett's done his best to make an impact on the lives of young adults, much as Fasolo made an impact on him. He spent close to 25 years working for Unilever Home and Personal Care as a manager of community relations and corporate contributions, helping young people develop into solid employees. He has been on the school board at Kolbe, been on the board of directors at the Shehan Center, and worked with his good friend — and former Notre Dame opponent — Frank Oleynick at various Lighthouse projects, which were clinics sponsored by the city school system. "Walter's always had a feeling of giving back and he cares deeply about the Center and Kolbe, because I think he looks at them as one. He went to high school there and he played here, so this is home for him," said Shehan Center executive director Terry O'Connor. "Walter was never about Walter. All the stories I've ever heard about Walter Luckett said that he was a great person and they were all true. He's always cared about his community. He always felt that he was lucky enough to have played at the Cardinal Shehan Center. That tells you what kind of person he is." "I feel proud for Walter because he achieved so much under a lot of difficult circumstances," said Fasolo, 80, who was the executive director of the Shehan Center from 1960-1990. "He's got a great sense of responsibility. He knows what the Center meant to him, and he's trying to pass that on to the other kids that are there now. I'm glad to see that." Luckett played for Fasolo from the fifth through eighth grades, leading the Shehan Center to a 101-29 record in those four years. He scored those 2,691 points at Kolbe, leading them to a state title in his junior year. In three seasons at Ohio University, Luckett scored 1,651 points before leaving early for the 1975 NBA draft, going in the second round to the Detroit Pistons. But Luckett never played in the NBA. He suffered a knee injury before his senior year, and as a result, arthritis ravaged the joint — he would need bags of ice after every game to try and ease the pain. He tried, though, to play and live the NBA dream. "We all went down to see him in a preseason exhibition game in 1975 with the Pistons at the New Haven Coliseum," said Phil Nastu, who played basketball at Bassick against Luckett and spent parts of three seasons as a pitcher with the San Francisco Giants. "He played with (Dave) Bing and (Bob) Lanier, with the injury. It was amazing how much slower he was, but still, it was a proud thing for us to see him." Deciding to stop playing the game he loved was the toughest thing Walter Luckett ever had to do. "Basketball was over and business really helped me," he said. "The discipline, the training, the going out and promoting youth development and education, it took me down a different path." Chasing the game His previous path, however, led Luckett to the North End Boys Club, where he met Oleynick, who would later star at Notre Dame with his cousin, Barry McLeod. The three would play for hours on end. Basketball was their lives, so much so that it was the subject of a 1979 book titled "Chase the Game." "The Boys Club ... that was our Saturday morning ... all day thing. We played 3-on-3, it took 15 points to win, and if you lost, you might as well go home because there were five, six, seven teams waiting to play the next game," said Oleynick, who was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1975 NBA draft and played two seasons. "Barry, Walter and I. All we did was play in those days. We were the exception to the rule. You don't go to the NBA or get a college scholarship playing for recreation. All three of us were extremely driven. That was our life, playing ball." "You could see the potential from the first time he picked up a basketball, he was just a natural, really," Fasolo added about Luckett. "The thing that was great about Walter was he was left-handed and there weren't too many left-handed players. It was very hard to guard him, he was doing everything from the wrong side. He had tremendous natural ability." And that ability was put on display that Feb, 1, 1972, night. According to the Feb. 2 edition of the Bridgeport Telegram, "a capacity-plus crowd of 2,500 emotionally drained fans" watched as Notre Dame won 93-92." Luckett took 24 field-goal attempts in the game. He made 20. In the third quarter alone, with the Lancers ahead by 13 at halftime, he took 11 shots and made nine as Kolbe took the lead. But with McLeod scoring 29, including a three-point play with six seconds left that put ND ahead 93-90, and Oleynick adding 20, Notre Dame held on to win as Luckett nailed a 35-footer at the buzzer just to make the ending all the more electric. "We all expected Walter to play like that," Oleynick said. "We knew it was going to come down to me and McLeod outscoring him and we did by one point and we won by a point." "That Kolbe-ND game, everyone was talking about it," Nastu said. "We (Bassick) had to play (Bullard Havens) Tech that night and we all wanted to go to that game and watch. We didn't want to play Tech." "People still talk about it today," Luckett said. "Looking back on it, that was one **** of a game. Weeks went by afterwards and people were still talking about it. Do you know how many college coaches were there? I think everyone was more impressed not only with the game itself but who was there. (Providence coach) Dave Gavitt and Marvin Barnes were there. So was (Indiana coach) Bobby Knight. Everyone was more impressed with who was there. Even I was: 'Gee, there's Dave Gavitt, I've got to really play.'" Finding his niche And while he played and learned about discipline and structure at the Shehan Center, Luckett also learned about maturity and responsibility. "When Walter first came into the Shehan Center, he was probably a 12-year-old boy, and the first thing I noticed about him was he had a pair of sneakers on, and one sneaker was green and the other sneaker was purple," Fasolo said. "He didn't even have the same sneakers to wear. He was an angry young man, really. He was just a kid trying to find his niche." He found it, all right. "The Shehan Center is a major vehicle that affected my life," Luckett said. "This was a home away from home. I embraced it." He also embraced the relationships and the friendships he made during those playing days. In high school, Luckett and Oleynick were intense rivals on the court, but today, they are close friends. "Our friendship never stopped. It's been a lifelong friendship and it always will be," Oleynick aid. "It's not how many points you score, those days are over. He's one of my best friends. We've shared a lot of things." The stories, too, will never die. They will simply get better with age. Like Luckett. "Most of the people you talk to say he was the best player they ever saw," O'Connor said. "Now, you might get some arguments about Calvin (Murphy), but when you think of all the great players that came through here, Charles Smith, Chris (Smith), Wes (Matthews) and Bags (John Bagley), a lot of people still think Walter was the best." He just might have been.
Contact Chris Elsberry at firstname.lastname@example.org