February 1, 2022
“The great hills of the South Country they stand along the sea; and it’s there,
walking in the high woods that I would wish to be,
and the men that were boys when I was a boy walking along with me.”
The South Country
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a small bar named Killeen’s Tavern located on a side street in Astoria, Queens. The tavern’s history dates back to about 1934 (my birth year). It was owned by a burly Irishman. The whole place was no bigger than 30 ft. by 15 ft., half of it designed like a half-moon bar, and the other half consisting of a few tables, a juke box, a telephone booth, a toilet that was always clogged up, and a kitchen (required by law) that didn’t work. Beer was 12 cents a glass, and a shot of rye was 45 cents. The local crowd had its colorful characters. Damon Runyon would have loved this place. There was “Buster” the late-night singer who crooned Sweet Leylani, Lorraine the Dancer, “Cuz” the night bartender, “Oil Pan” Tom, the landlord Pete the Russian, Freddie “Spook” Stegman – the greatest sport birddog this side of the Mississippi.
Then there was the day bartender – Pat Killeen himself. An impressive 6′ 1″ and burly 275-lb. man with a thick Irish brogue, who, when angry, would roll his black cigar from one end of his mouth to the other. Yes, he could intimidate if necessary. But he was a fair and open-minded individual, always with the best intentions at heart. And then there was dapper George Connelly – the Sunday bartender of 30 years who many believe James Cagney copied his mannerisms from.
Who were the other inhabitants of the Tavern? Here are some of their names: Scratch, Buddy, Gaylord (your author), Big Dan, The Whale, Jimmy the Greek, Steve the Greek, Weegie, The Rat, Vince the Prince, The Grey Fox, The Scavenger, The Buff, The Snake, The Brat, Tuto, Tex, Superman, The Hawk, Marty Cool, The Phantom, The Bant, The Weedier, Big Fitz, Red, Joey Hot Dog, Sparksy, Dixie, Jake the Weightlifter (all 95 lbs. of him), Bugsy, Louie the Lob, the Dolly Sisters, Filthy Phil, Tony Guido, etc.
Among these notables was a younger contingent known as the Boys of Killeen’s. They were the children of working-class parents who endured the Great Depression and survived the harsh times of that era. Although better off than their parents, the Boys of Killeen’s was a group that appreciated good times, and were not nearly as security conscious as their parents. It was a group that ultimately went on to succeed in the workplace, no doubt influenced by their New York City and Killeen’s experiences.
It has been written that most Long Islanders are displaced New Yorkers. For certain, many in the reading audience have their roots in Queens and Brooklyn, if not Manhattan and the Bronx. The displacement process occurred at different times for different individuals and groups, but for some, despite the emigration to Long Island, the ties of friendship and companionship remain as strong today as it did nearly a century ago.
Rhetorically speaking, it seems like it happened eons ago. But in real time, it all started nearly 70 years ago. There was a group of guys that had just exited their teenage years and were brought together by a common love: basketball. They were headquartered in Astoria, Queens. What follows is a tale of their pilgrimage through time over the last half century plus.
In the late part of 1954, a group of youngsters 17, 18 and 19 years of age decided to rent the empty storage room next to Killeen’s. The Phantom, later Special FBI Agent Ernie Haridopolos, was the instigator for the club and first dubbed it the Parkside Nationals. The room was 20 ft X 15 ft and contained a Coke machine, a 7-ft bar, one card table, a fumigated sofa and six chairs. The bathroom (ugh!) was shared with the adjacent deli. Things soon improved as up went sheetrock, a tile floor, and a phonograph. This was followed with a monthly $50 split-even raffle to pay the $35 rent and for parties (approximately twice a month).
During the early 1950’s, and prior to the massive TV sports agenda available today, Sunnyside Gardens (located of course in Sunnyside, Queens) annually hosted an Open Basketball Tournament that featured all the great amateur stars of that era. The young teenagers who patronized Killeen’s Tavern, located on 24th Street off Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria regularly paid the one-dollar admission fee to see their basketball heroes perform. And then, as if blessed by a magic wand, these same youngsters became basketball stars in their own right.
In late Spring of 1955, they came to the conclusion that “hell, we can play with these guys.” And were they ever so right. They enlisted the help of one of their own with limited basketball ability, (yours truly) with directions to field a team for the upcoming summer tournaments. I was baptized coach and the Killeen’s Tavern dynasty was set in motion. I got Pat Killeen, owner of Killeen’s Tavern, to sponsor the team and made the necessary arrangements to enter the team in the various tournaments. The Killeen’s team was officially born.
All the pieces were put into place when the recruiting process started that would effectively mold the team into a winner over the next dozen years. The talent was primarily gathered locally from Astoria that included Marty Collins (Elon), Steve Afendis (High Point), Joe Montana and John Caso (St. John’s), Bo Erias (Niagara and later Minneapolis Lakers), Don Ryan (Atlantic Christian), Richie Bennett (Bryant High School), Tom Rice (School of Hard Knocks), and Wally DiMasi (Providence). Key amongst this group was Danny Doyle (Belmont Abbey and later the Detroit Pistons). The first year also saw additions to the local mix that included Dennis Costigan (Hofstra), Ivan Kovacs (St. John’s), York Larese (North Carolina), Timmy Shea and George Blaney (Holy Cross), Nick Gaetani(Brooklyn College), Kevin Loughery (St. Johns), Tom Fitzmaurice (St. Bonaventure), Brendan Malone(former Knick assistant coach), Al Filardi (NYU), and the Quarto brothers —Frank (Manhattan College) and Vinnie (Adelphi). All, at one time or other, for over a ten-year period, wore the $2.00 blue T-shirt and $1.50 white shorts that marked them as The Boys of Killeen’s.
Summers came and went, but from 1955 to 1965, summers in New York featured tough basketball. All the Killeen’s Boys came home from school to the Big Apple to sharpen their game on the blacktop. Legendary tales of summer activities about Rockaway Beaches 108th Street Basketball courts – sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the McGuire and Fitzgerald bars to the north – have remained some of this area’s proud historical moments in time. Later came graduation, and winter brought on the Star Journal, Long Island Press, CYO and YMCA leagues, plus the Haverstraw, New City, Jersey City, and the famous Don Bosco Tournaments. It was truly an exciting era. The Boys of Killeen’s were an integral part of that era. The one player who will always be remembered is the aforementioned Danny Doyle. He was a Killeen’s star for many reasons, but Doyle may have said it best with, “I probably was the most heralded player on the team, but was probably the third or fourth highest scorer. In a very real sense, this was a team without a star, and yet every player on the team was a star.”
Over the years, The Boys convened annually in January at my house. When this ritual started over 40 years ago, there was a robust group of over 30 attendees. A few more were added along the way, but the relentless passage of time has taken its toll on The Boys. There was a time when attendance was viewed as mandatory, even if one were sick or located elsewhere. However, the number of attendees reached 10 two years ago and was decreasing at an exponential rate. Enter Covid-19 and, unfortunately, the ritual ended as The Boys now have but a handful of curtain calls remaining.
I still keep in close contact with the remaining members of The Boys. A problem with The Boys is that a large number have unfortunately left us. Memories of youth, earlier love, Killeens Tavern, the basketball team, etc., now find The Boys often attempting to relive what Hilaire Belloc (in the preamble) was referring to with “it’s there . . . that I would wish to be, and the men that were boys when I was a boy walking along with me.” No matter; it was a great ride for all of us as the life and times of The Boys prepare to ride off into the sunset.
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Here are this month’s three offensive suggestions from the upcoming second edition of my “BASKETBALL COACHING 101” book.
- An assistant (coach) who specializes in developing offenses and / or offensive strategies would help.
- Practice dribbling with both hands. In effect, the player should be just as capable driving or dribbling left as well as right.
- Practice taking layups when dribbling toward the basket at top speed.