Chuck Aleksinas and the incredible season of 1976-1977 on the hardwood.
MORRIS – He was just a guy attending a high school basketball game. Not. The towering figure standing near the court prior to Torrington High’s Division III state tournament quarterfinal game against Amistad at Wilby High’s Reggie O’Brien Gym in Waterbury demanded attention and you could see the stares, particularly from the younger set, and hear the whispers from those who knew – “Hey that’s Chuck. Chuck’s here.”
It wasn’t exactly a new thing. Chuck Alekinas has always demanded attention. At 6-feet-10 inches that has carried anywhere from 248 pounds as a high school senior to 305 pounds in his mid-20s, and somewhere in between at 60-years old, he kind of sticks out in a crowd. You don’t miss guys who can rest their armpits on the top of your head.
As a big man in a much smaller world, Alekinas has never gone unnoticed unless a seeing-eye dog is in the equation. But size alone has only been part of the attraction. What he did with a basketball in his hands took the attention to a whole other level.
A national champion at Kentucky (1977-78) evidenced by a ring that takes two people to lift, two solid seasons at UConn where he shot 59 percent, a year with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA and an admirable seven-year stint in Spain speak volumes about being big-time not just big.
But never did he attract more attention than during the 1976-77 season, his senior year at Wamogo High School. There has never been a season like it, certainly not in the area and the state.
He was `Big A’, the Morris Mountain, Goliath in a world where there was no David hanging around with a sling. There was no game plan to stop him and no opponent capable of guarding him. Getting out of his way was much more preferable than getting in his way and getting in his way didn’t mean much anyway. Like the fly swatter dominates the fly, Chuck dominated the court and its inhabitants in different uniforms.
Forty-two years since Alekinas stepped on a high school basketball court, 1,000 points is still a coveted milestone, a mark of excellence, an accomplishment that will get you that precious spot on the banner for all to see forever. Well, prepare to be somewhat humbled.
Alekinas scored 1,916 points during his career without playing his freshman year, second all-time in the Berkshire League behind Litchfield High’s Dave Vigeant (2,191) while averaging 31.3 points. He pulled down 18.4 rebounds and shot 69 percent.
It is a career of Herculean numbers. But the senior year, oh that senior year, it was off the charts. Alekinas scored 960 points his senior year. Don’t rub your eyes, you see right – 960 points in one season. He averaged 40.1 points a game while shooting 71 percent, averaged 19 rebounds and five blocks a game. He set 13 high school records and at one point hit 19 straight foul shots in the state tournament.
There were two games over 50 points, 12 games over 40 points, and 23 games over 30 points. Only once was Alekinas held below 30 points, scoring just 23 points against Brookfield on a night when he didn’t feel well and played just half the game.
Alekinas’ overwhelming presence and performance took a decidedly average team to a 16-8 record and the Class S state semifinals before St. Thomas Aquinas with future NBA player Rod Foster finally slowed Wamogo’s guards down just enough to limit the amount of touches Alekinas got and hold on for a 66-63 win at New Haven Coliseum.
In a golden basketball resume, the season still rings mighty special, right at the top of it all.
“In college I won a national championship and I was on a starting team against Michael Jordan but of all that my senior year at Wamogo is the most memorable,” said Alekinas who still resides in Morris.
Alekinas entered his senior season with immense expectations placed on him and the added pressure of being pursued by a slew of the nation’s best colleges. He embraced and thrived on it all.
“I had a pretty good junior year (27 points, 14 rebounds a game) and there were a lot of expectations but I figured it would be the same as the year before,” said Alekinas. “I didn’t figure I would have to score 40 a game but that is the way it worked out. The recruiting part helped me. Every day I just wanted to go to school. Every day (coach Bob Hazen) had 30 or 40 letters from colleges wanting to recruit me and there five or six coaches at every game. It just made me play harder.”
Tough luck for the rest of Wamogo’s opponents who had to figure out how to deal with this behemoth with the soft touch that the league had never seen the likes of. You had to think differently with Alekinas on the court and everything became relative as then Thomaston High coach Jim Quinn remembered after splitting with the Warriors.
Thomaston beat the Warriors, 84-74, the first time around with Alekinas knocking down 34 points. Wamogo extracted revenge in the rematch, 70-65, with Alekinas dropping in 45 points to go with 16 rebounds.
“We played Wamogo extremely tough. We tried to triple team Chuck every time he got the ball and have bodies so close to him that he couldn’t pivot without going through you and maybe we would get a charge,” said Quinn. “The idea was to let everybody else shoot. Chuck was just too big. We didn’t care if anybody else scored.”
Alekinas averaged 39.5 points in the two games so how effective was the strategy? As Quinn noted everything was relative.
“When Chuck scored 34, we won and when he scored 45, we lost,’ added Quinn. “It wasn’t about stopping him. You couldn’t do that. It was about holding him to a reasonable number.”
Thomaston’s Wayne Hurlbert, a rugged 6-foot-1, almost 200 pounds at the time, could hold his own against most. This was a different world.
“I think I had two black eyes after the first game because when Chuck would bring his arms up my head was about level with his shoulders,” laughed Hurlbert. “I just tried to body him but he was so big. I’ve got my battle scars.”
Terryville, which won the BL title that season with an outstanding guard in Ray Zukowski, also split with the Warriors, dropping the first game, 76-72, in front of 1,000 people at Wamogo when Alekinas went wild with 50 points, 27 rebounds and five blocks, and winning the rematch, 76-57. Alekinas had 34 in the rematch.
Zukowski, who now lives in Florida, remembers how much fun preparing for Alekinas was.
“It was great getting ready for the game because you knew it was going to be a battle. Chuck certainly brought it,” he said. “What stuck out was his ability and his demeanor on the court. Always a gentleman. Our coaches would bring in noodles and the broom to simulate his long arms. The second time around we used our speed and stamina. We knew if we ran, we had a chance.”
The Kangaroos head coach Art Hamm had the best team but no answers for the big guy on the other side.
“You just double-teamed him and hoped he would miss,” said Hamm. “He was just unstoppable. Even on free throws, he would miss and get the rebound and score. You just let the other kids try to beat you. Chuck was just so big.”
And no team had the size to contend with the Wamogo giant.
“I had a 5-foot-11 guy in front of him and a 5-foot-11 guy behind him, “former Gilbert School coach Mike Gamari said. “They asked me what they should do and I said just stand there. He looked at them and said, `What are these, a couple of gnomes.’ “
Alekinas never really cared what teams did against him because it didn’t really matter.
“They should have put one guy on me and tried to stop everybody else,” said Alekinas. “I was going to score 40 or 45 points anyway and with one guy on me I wasn’t going to score much more than that.”
Hardly a self-absorbed thought, just fact as the numbers bear out and opposing teams knew it. And Hazen relays years later, it could have been worse.
“If I had just posted Chuck up on the block and told my team to throw it to him every time down, we wouldn’t have gotten beat at all,” said Hazen. “He wasn’t defensible. But you have to take care of everybody on the team. We couldn’t just give him the ball all the time and Chuck understood that. We had four other players on the team and I wanted to get everyone involved.
The other players on the team enjoyed the experience of playing with Chuck. They always knew they had somebody to go to. They understood who he was and what he meant to the team. They were supportive.”
After torturing the Berkshire League in which the Warriors finished 10-4, Alekinas put it all on display in the state tournament. Whatever opponents knew and thought, they were about to get a reality check.
In the opener against Immaculate in front of a standing room only crowd at Nonnewaug, he overpowered the Mustangs with 49 points and 15 rebounds. in a 68-64 victory. Just a warmup.
The second round saw Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall and scouts from Providence, North Carolina State and UConn as part of the crowd at Bloomfield High School and they weren’t disappointed. Against No. 4 Parish Hill, Alekinas hit 17-of-20 shots and finished with 44 points and 17 rebounds in a 62-54 win.
No. 5 Lyman Memorial brought its 21-3 record and 77 points a game average up against the Warriors in the quarterfinals at Bulkeley High School. Alekinas had not practiced since the Parish Hill victory three days earlier due to a bad cold and had a hard time breathing.
It didn’t matter and then Lyman coach Dave Light added some fuel to the Wamogo fire when he called them a “one-man team.” Certainly, there was an element of truth to the sentiment but exception was taken. The Warriors might have been mainly Chuck but they weren’t all Chuck.
Just to prove the point, Greg Robinson scored a crucial layup and two foul shots from Russ Longley were instrumental in helping the Warriors to a 64-60 overtime victory. As for Alekinas. Despite the missed practices and breathing issues he tossed in 35 points on 17-of-21 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds.
To this day, Alekinas will tell you his teammates never got enough credit. Robinson, Longeley, Tim Breakell and Marc McLeod all did their part.
“I didn’t beat Immaculate or the other teams by myself, they all contributed and had good games,” said Alekinas. “They have never been given the credit they deserve. Somebody had to get the ball up court, somebody had to guard Rod Foster. Maybe they weren’t overly talented but they played together.”
The semifinals Aquinas and Foster were up next with a spot in the state finals awaiting the winner. The dream died hard but the career ended in glory. St. Thomas had no answer for Alekinas. He scored 22 points in the first half and Wamogo led, 28-24.
But in the second half a swarming defense forced turnovers and Wamogo trailed late, 51-42. There was one last surge when an Alekinas basket cut the deficit to 53-50. But it wasn’t enough as Aquinas hung on for a 66-63 victory.
Alekinas finished with 43 points and 20 rebounds and competed one of the great tournament runs ever, averaging 42.7 points and 16 rebounds.
What many don’t know is that Alekinas played his senior year with mono and was sick before the game. His father had to help him out of the shower after the game. How good was he this night? After the game the University of Richmond coach wanted to sign him on the spot. But he had no more visits under college rules and Kentucky would eventually win out.
“We had a bunch of vo-ag players on the team and to play St. Thomas Aquinas and Rod Foster with a chance to win is a credit to them,” said Alekinas. “To me it was one of the most David and Goliath games that could have been played. It would have been unbelievable to win.”
More than four decades later Alekinas still remembers the packed houses, the rugged opponents like Vigeant, Zukowski , and Southbury’s Dave Metcalfe to name a few. He remembers college coaches cramming into those packed gyms to get a look and he remembers teammates that did what they had to do.
He remembers a lot of fouls not being called (big-man’s lament) and being surrounded by half a town on most nights. And he remembers a four-game tournament run that was nothing short of awesome.
And like so many of us he remembers all those 50, 40 and 30-point nights in a 960-point season. How can you not. It was a season not seen before or since when the big man stood over and ruled all over all in his way.
Unstoppable, unmatched and unforgettable. The 1976-77 high school basketball season belonged to the big man from Morris. Simply put one of the greatest seasons ever.