Thursday, March 23, 2017
Connecticut Post Online

30 years later, still a classic

February 01, 2002

It may have been the most ineffective timeout in Bridgeport history. Barry McLeod didn't miss free throws.

And he certainly wasn't going to clank this one, not with this game on the line.

Not with his reputation and place in Bridgeport basketball lore hanging in the balance.

It was exactly 30 years ago tonight inside the old Sacred Heart University gymnasium that Notre Dame of Bridgeport defeated Kolbe 93-92.

That 1972 classic is still regarded by many as the greatest game ever played in these parts.

Close to 2,000 fans piled into a gym that was only supposed to fit 1,500 to watch a game that featured three players -- McLeod and Frank Oleynick of Notre Dame and the incomparable Walter Luckett of Kolbe -- who were future NBA draft picks.

Dozens of college scouts and coaches filled the stands, including former Providence coach and Big East founder Dave Gavitt, who would lead the Friars to the Final Four the next winter.

McLeod was the hero.

With the score tied 90-90, the current Bridgeport Central boys basketball coach stood at the top of the key, calmly keeping alive his dribble as the final seconds ticked.

"I remember our coach (Lenny Lee) saying, Whatever you do, don't foul,' " recalls Luckett, widely considered the best player to ever come out of Bridgeport.

McLeod eventually found an opening just to the right of the key, sliced into the lane, and despite a foul by Jerry Flynn of Kolbe, the resilient McLeod hit an off-balance running hook shot with six seconds left.

Kolbe took a timeout to rattle McLeod.

That was a hopeless cause.

McLeod, with the same empty glare he often wears today on the bench, drained the foul shot for a three-point lead.

"Barry was ice," Luckett says. "I don't think I ever saw him miss a free throw. We used to call him Bronson,' like Charles Bronson in the movies. He just had no expression."

"I would have bet my life that he would make that free throw," adds Oleynick, McLeod's best friend and cousin.

Luckett, who finished that game with 48 points and shot a remarkable 20-of-24 from the field, made a 40-foot jumper at the buzzer for Kolbe.

But this was 1972, and Luckett's amazing basket was worth only two points.

That winter was a "Golden Age" for basketball in Bridgeport and Luckett was the "Golden Boy."

His photos and accomplishments graced the pages of the old Bridgeport Post on a daily basis.

He scored 2,691 points in his career, still the most among four-year players in state history, and he was tabbed as one of the top five players in the country his senior year.

But this would be McLeod's moment. He finished the game with 29 points and Oleynick added 20. Together, the cousins had one point more than the unstoppable Luckett.

"The only way we were going to get any notoriety or publicity was to win that game," McLeod says. "If we lost that game, we knew everyone would bury us. So that made the stakes pretty high."

McLeod, now 48, is one of Bridgeport's most complex athletic figures.

He grew up in a modest house on the North End, the son of Ed, a Bridgeport machinist, and Fran McLeod.

Along with Oleynick, he fell in love with basketball, and soon became a regular player with the more talented kids on the West Side.

The basketball lives of McLeod, Luckett and Oleynick were so intriguing, there was even a 1979 book, "Chase the Game," that chronicled their journey.

The author, Fairfield native Pat Jordan, spent nearly five years narrating their every move from the playgrounds, to high school gyms and eventually college.

Jordan, like many others, was struck both by McLeod's brilliant game and what seemed to be a perpetual unhappiness.

He even referred to McLeod as an "unsmiling youth" early in the book.

"Barry was always like that," says Bassick coach Harrison Taylor, who actually coached McLeod and Oleynick in the Bridgeport church league in the late 1960s.

"He never smiled. Some people considered him nuts because he didn't have much to say. But I got a totally different impression because I've known him since he was a young boy."

McLeod's talent as a basketball player was undeniable.

Ironically, Bridgeport's current crop of players has no idea that the grumpy guy coaching Central was one of the best this city has ever seen.

Not that McLeod cares, but his story is lost to an entire generation.

He averaged 25 points per game his senior year at Notre Dame. At barely 6-feet in high school, he was a brilliant ballhandler, a relentless defender, had a gorgeous jump shot and could dunk with either hand.

"Barry was the ultimate warrior," Taylor says. "When Barry came to play, he took it as a job. He wasn't coming on the court to make himself look bad. He worked at everything and he hated to lose."

In one of the more descriptive passages in "Chase the Game," Jordan seemed awestruck by McLeod's performance in that historic game against Kolbe:

"McLeod played a beautiful game. He single-handedly broke Kolbe's full-court press with such nonchalance, dribbling behind his back and through his legs, that from the stands, he appeared to be threading his way through a row of folding chairs at practice."

McLeod would play Division I basketball at Centenary, a small school in Shreveport, La.

Along with his more famous teammate, former NBA great Robert Parish, the school went 69-12 in McLeod's three years as the starting point guard.

But Centenary, which broke a few rules in its recruitment of Parish, got smacked with six years worth of probation, making it national outcasts and preventing the team from ever playing in the NCAA tournament.

McLeod was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the first pick of the seventh round in the 1976 NBA draft.

The previous year, Oleynick and Luckett left school after their junior seasons.

Oleynick, who starred at the University of Seattle, was the 12th player selected in the first round.

Luckett, who was a standout at Ohio University and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a freshman, was the ninth player taken in Round 2.

Luckett lives in Hamden and works for the Unilever Corp. in Trumbull. Oleynick now lives in Bridgeport and runs a number of successful youth basketball camps across the country.

Only Oleynick would play a regular season game in the NBA. He played the 1975-76 and 1976-77 seasons with the Supersonics, coached by legend Bill Russell, averaging 5.0 points in 102 games.

Chicago released McLeod during the 1976 exhibition season, a moment that still stings to this day.

After being cut, he never regained that intense drive to make the league.

"I didn't put forth the effort I should have," McLeod says. "I could have gone to Detroit, but I was a little immature about it. I was 21 years old, and for the first time in my life someone told me I wasn't good enough. I didn't handle it probably as well as I should have."

Life as a basketball player was never the same for McLeod.

That undying love for the game that got him out of Bridgeport was vividly revealed in this quote by McLeod in Jordan's book:

"It's not a game for me, it's a way of life. That's why when I have to stop playing, I'll miss it more than my cousin or Walter. It's the only time I'm me."

McLeod, admittedly not a top student in high school, did receive a degree in physical education from Centenary, and has been coaching and teaching at Central the last 10 years.

Some outsiders view him as temperamental or even unfriendly. But McLeod doesn't live in their world.

The intimidating glare that made him such a ruthless player has also made him a misunderstood personality on the bench.

You sometimes wonder if he even enjoys his time directing carefree teen-agers.

"My wife asks the same thing," McLeod says. "I had my day, it's over. I just want them to do the best they can and give them a chance in life. There's a lot of things you can learn in basketball that will help you in life.

"I think I can help the kids," McLeod adds. "I know what it takes to get to college and have a successful career. I've been in gyms from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Springfield, Mass. I know what (basketball) can do for you."

If you catch McLeod at the right moment, you might see one of his wry smiles or rare laughs.

But these are sides of himself he rarely reveals.

"He's one of those guys when you get to know him, you love him," Oleynick says. "He just doesn't let everyone get to know him."

Still, basketball has never been a hobby to Barry McLeod. And while his playing days are over, those emotions have only barely subsided.

Remember, 30 years ago, that game and that free throw were his life.

David Agostino covers high schools."