WESTFIELD, Mass. – When Westfield State men's basketball squares off with UMass in an exhibition game on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at the Mullins Center, it will represent the 50th anniversary of the most historic meeting of these two teams, though none of the games are even official on either school's schedule.
The Owls junior varsity team played a two-game series with the UMass freshman team in 1968-69. (Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity basketball according to NCAA rules of the day.) What the Owls didn't know at the time was that they were squaring off with a future NBA All-Star Julius Erving, more popularly known as "Dr. J"
Erving was inducted in 1993 into the Basketball Hall of Fame and was also named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time team. In 1994, Erving was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 40 most important athletes of all time.
Without a doubt, Erving is the most talented player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers in the old Parenzo Gymnasium in the center of the Westfield State campus.
"We played them twice, once in Parenzo and once in the old cage," said Westfield State alumnus Greg Little '72. "They beat us 70-42 (at Parenzo Hall) and the rumor was that they had to practice and run after the game when they got back to UMass because the coach wasn't happy."
"We tried to freeze the ball," said Owls alumnus Wayne Dimetres '72.
While Erving scored just 12 points in that matchup in Parenzo, the second game was not as kind to the Owls, as the Minutemen ran past the Owls 101-46 behind a game-high 17 points for Erving. Little and Dimetres each scored 10 for the Owls.
"We were all kids with no particular expectations going into the games," said Dimetres. "Nobody had heard of Erving before the game, and we thought we had a pretty good team."
"He was such an amazing talent," said Dimetres. "He was a tall, thin kid at the time, but anytime he got the ball he could score at will. We played 1-3-1 and tried to keep him away from the hoop. But when he drove to the rim his elbow was above the hoop. He was pretty much unstoppable. Holy cow!"
"Even at 18 he was as dominant a player as you could find in college basketball," Dimetres added. "But he was a nice guy and not arrogant at all."
"I was just amazed by Erving," said Little. "I tried to guard him and I fouled out early. He would just float through the air."
A native of Nanuet, New York, Little came to Westfield thinking it would be a 1-year stint, as he had tried to get into Springfield College late, and Ed Bilik, then the Springfield coach, suggested he go to Westfield for a year and then transfer.
"It turns out I met all my friends at Westfield, and enjoyed playing for Leo LeBlanc, and I wanted to stay at Westfield State."
Little spent most of his career as Director of Special Education in Simsbury, Connecticut, before serving as the superintendent of the Windsor Locks school district for a few years before retiring. Dimetres is a Palmer native who served as vice president of sales and marketing for Reliant Standard Life Insurance, before retiring in 2016.
Dimetres lives in South Carolina but comes back to Western Mass regularly and plays with his old teammates in the Owl Club Golf Tournament which is a fundraiser to support Westfield State athletics.
"As alumni we still talk about those two games," said Dimetres. "I spent most of my career working in Philadelphia while (Erving) was playing professionally. I always hoped I might have the chance to meet him sometime and see if he had any memories of playing against Westfield."
The two local basketball teams have met infrequently since the NCAA Divisional splits in the 1970s and 80s, with UMass in Division I with 13 full scholarships for basketball and Westfield in Division III with, of course, none.
While it's been 50 years since the meeting that included Dr. J, the Owls and Minutemen played somewhat frequently during that era. Another matchup of note took place in the 1970-71 season, when an Owls team led by 2018 Westfield State Athletic Hall of Fame inductee Tom Daviau '74 squared off with a UMass team that included Al Skinner, who later became the head coach of Boston College, and Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Pitino.
"It's definitely monumental," said Marcus Collins, the Owls senior captain when asked to reflect on the historical nature of the series of games between the two public universities. "I'm just excited for it, excited to play in the Mullins Center it's a real big arena and there will be a lot of people there."
Collins, a 6-4 forward, was a first-team all-conference pick in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference a year ago when he scored 15.4 points and grabbed 9.7 rebounds per game.
"I'm very excited about it, it's a chance to play a team of a higher caliber, a program that been in the NCAA Tournament in recent years," said Collins. "It's definitely going to give us a good challenge and a good measurement about how we're going to be against our division and our conference."
"It's generous of coach (Matt) McCall to invite us up," said Sutter. "It's a once in a lifetime type of experience for our guys, to have the chance to play on a Division I court in a big-time arena."
Westfield is coming off an 11-15 season in 2017-18. The Owls are led by Collins, senior guard Peter Mafo, who netted 11.5 points and 2.7 assists per game, and junior guard Moody Bey tallied 12.3 points per game for the Owls.
Junior guard Luwane Pipkins is the top returnee for the Minutemen, after averaging better than 21 points per game last season. The Minutemen have added several transfers to strengthen their roster for 2018-19, and the Owls would appear to have no physical match for UMass big man Rashaan Holloway, a 6-11, 310-pound post player with a soft touch around the basket.
There is one more interesting connection between the two programs. UMass Junior guard Jaylen Franklin is the son of Westfield State men's basketball Hall of Famer Jason Franklin. Jason scored 892 points in just two seasons with the Owls, set the career assist record, and dished out 6.6 assists per game in his career.
UMass posted a 13-20 record in 2017-18 under McCall, in his first year as head coach. Owls mentor Rich Sutter is in his 21st year at Westfield State, with a record of 280-242.
Sutter saw time on the Division I bench as an assistant at Colgate from 1991-97 under Jack Bruen, recruiting and coaching former NBA standout Adonal Foyle, as well as Tucker Neale, the Red Raiders all-time leading scorer.
"The Division I season rules are different from Division III, so UMass will have been together longer as a team," added Sutter. "We will play a blue-white game before we play the Minutemen, so we can be sorted out, but they will be more ready. Of course, Springfield College played at UMass last year, and Springfield ended up going to the Final Four, so that's what we'd like to try to do too."