I never would have guessed that one of my favorite basketball coaches would be a dentist. I also would have never guessed that this dentist-coach would present me with one of the most pivotal moments in not just my career — but in my life.
In 1985 Dr. Michael Gallivan started the first AAU team in the Albany-Troy area for the most serious players in CYO basketball. I remember the first few tryouts at St. Agnes in Cohoes and how nervous I was to be competing with and against all of my arch rivals while our fathers lined the sidelines, and wondered how so many of us would make just one team. The tryout ran at least one weekend, if not two. I remember sitting in the tight gym space at decision time, and seeing Doc in his thick hair, sweater over a collared shirt and dress pants. With his serious voice, he said that the coaching staff had decided to pick an A and B team.
He called out the names. When I realized I had not made the A team, I decided not to make eye contact with my dad as we all exited the gym. I remember hearing others mutter to their parents that the tryouts were rigged against them and what mattered most was whether or not your dad was on the coaching staff or if you were close with one of the main players. I said nothing, and neither did my dad, which was a shock to me given how much he supported me since my first game, as my firm and demanding coach.
We got into our station wagon, and both of us shut our doors, still not able to look at each other. I sat for a second in the silence.
Knowing I’d heard the other girls saying they were going to quit, my dad asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going back.”
Dad started up the engine.
By the end of the summer, I was starting for the A team.
I was just one of 200 players who went through the American Eagles program and ended up earning a full Division I basketball scholarship (to Northwestern University). My sister also earned a full scholarship (Rider University), as did four of my high school teammates (George Mason, William & Mary). The American Eagles also created opportunities for 100 young women to play Division II basketball.
I met with Doc in early December to catch up and say thank you again after many years of not seeing him. He said, “There’s more to that B team story that I’ve never told you.”
Doc went on to explain that he intentionally put me on the B team because he felt that I was becoming too much of a follower of twins in the program who were dominant players at the time. He said he feared that I would never find my own identity because I was too caught up in trying to be like them. He said I was also deferring to them too much.
“We wanted you to know what it’s like to be The Man,” Doc said.
I smiled. I have made this call so many times with players in our program, and when I’ve advised where players should be at different points of their careers.
Doc was right. I had been so heavily influenced at wanting to fit in — and we were all mostly guards with dads who were our coaches — that looking and acting like those around me was my only option since back then, it was not as though we saw older players and role models all the time. We saw mostly dads and brothers because our mothers and aunts never had a chance to do what we loved.
Our fathers not only pushed us and believed in us, but they also made sure we traveled together in that Silver Bullet of a tank bus that Doc bought and kept on his farm. (In doc’s free time, he ran a farm and a dental practice, and initially oversaw his son’s new businesses while having another daughter who was heavily invested in gymnastics at the highest level.)
We took the bus or traveled in a car pool to rural places in New York State right on down to the Deep South to places that none of us would have traveled to if it weren’t for AAU basketball. Note that we didn’t do all this traveling until we were in high school, and each year the team grew more and more stacked with talent. By the end of our junior year — the most pressure-packed summer — we had 10 out of 10 players on our team who would go on to receive Division I scholarships. At our games, we’d have hundreds of college coaches watching us. Pressure? Yes, but somehow Doc managed to keep us smiling. Doc played rotations that worked, he knew what coaches were there, who had been calling his office, who needed to be on the floor at the right time and place.
Doc and his support staff, the two Cavosie brothers, also took us to water parks and to Graceland. We stayed in dorm rooms and in cheap hotels and ate at diners with limited cash. For those who didn’t have or couldn’t raise enough funds for the basketball tour we all needed to go on, Doc was there for them. Doc always made us play a year up early in our careers. Our first loss was to the Louisiana Dominoes. It was a team like I’d never seen before in my life. I still remember crying after the game — disgusted with the thumping. There were more. A team from Indiana whooped us within hours, and then we were moved to the Friendship Bracket, which had most of us scoffing and wondering why we traveled from New York to Mississippi to waste this amount of time. Doc said to hang in, the tide will turn for those strong enough to handle it. He was right. Within two years, Geno Auriemma, Pat Summit and all the coaches from the biggest programs to the smallest had Doc Gallivan’s phone number, and often called him at his dental office in Cohoes, NY.
Two-hundred Division I scholarships; 100 Division II scholarships. My best bet is that several of us, if not the vast majority, would not have gone too far away from home for college if it weren’t for basketball, and the opportunities Doc provided for us.
When we met, Doc and I talked about how tough Anita Kaplan Fiedelalways was in terms of her core character and clear commitment early that she would go on to be the best player she could be. Doc said that Anita got a ton of credit — and rightfully so, — but that Nickie Hilton Emery was the most underrated player in the program. We both marveled at Nickie’s instincts, talent, her hands, her toughness.
We got off track a few times when the subject of politics came up, and then we circled back to all the good we’d found through hoops and each other. A week later, Doc called me after he saw on Facebook that I’d decided to go to Alabama to canvas for Doug Jones.
He called to tell me to use good judgment.
And Doc called to say, “You’re doing a good thing.”
Keep in mind one of my most vivid memories of the Deep South was during our junior year nationals where we ended up playing Southeast Alabama in the Final 8. I remember three times in my career that the referees completely got out the hoses on my team. Not one, not two, but six players on our team fouled out. I was the sixth. I was out of my mind when I hit that bench. Two players on the other team fouled out. We were all so mad because they were calling everything. We could not be basketball players because the whistle was blowing so much, and there was absolutely nothing we could do to get the referees to hear our case. We lost that game, which marked the end of our run.
After the game, Doc came up to me and pulled me aside. He said that they could only give two All-American awards per team and they were given to Anita Kaplan (Stanford) and Nicole Levesque (Wake Forest). These were my awesome teammates, and I was happy for them. “But the selection committee loves the way you play, and wanted to give you something.”
He said, “They gave you the sportsmanship award. They’re going to mail you the trophy.”
I didn’t say anything. Doc, being Irish, knew that I was Irish, and most of my relatives were Irish and at times, sick competitors. I immediately thought of the Holohans and O’Briens seeing this award in my living room where dad put the trophy along with the rest of our family’s collections on all the bookshelves that framed our television and fireplace. Dad was so proud. I quietly asked him to not let the cousins ever find out.
I thought of that memory on my plane ride to Alabama. I thought of how nice it was for Doc to meet with me, to call me, to remind me of all the good, and to have his vote of confidence a long time ago that I could be “The Man” before I knew what I could be or do.
I told myself to be a good sport, always, and to be thankful. I was on my way to one more opportunity in life to find out who I was and who I could be.
Maureen Holohan is a writer, director and entrepreneur. She can be reached at email@example.com.