A Basketball Vagabond’s Tale

Leo Papile

“Jack Kerouac paved the way for basketball vagabonds like me. I’ve never recovered,” Boston Amateur Basketball Club founder Leo Papile tells Breitbart Sports.

In the 1940s, shortly after flaming out as an Ivy League football player, Jack Kerouac, beverage in hand, vicariously recouped failed athletic endeavors through fantasy sports—much like our contemporaries. Tallying scores and results of secret fantasy contests, often while drunk, the On the Road author operated an ongoing secret baseball league up until his death in 1969.

Since creating the Boston Amateur Basketball Club in 1977, North Quincy, Massachusetts native Leo Papile pays homage to Kerouac’s sports fantasies by living them. As GM and player-coach of the (EBL-CBA) Quincy Chiefs, Papile simultaneously founded the BABC, an assortment of Bay State high school all-stars. Papile began donning the hats of Kerouac’s alter egos, albeit in a different sport, at twenty-three.

Papile authors a road-less-traveled basketball story recalling the beat culture lived by writer Kerouac. Romanticizing the American dreamer in On The Road, the Columbia dropout inspires Papile to exchange the barroom underbelly for the bowels of basketball without ever losing beatnik charm.

While employing an 18-month-old dog as an assistant coach this season, Papile won the Krossover coach-of-the-year honors in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). Past BABC assistants include Dallas Mavericks coaching assistant Mike Procopio and Kennesaw State head coach Al Skinner. Winning with a canine with sideline credentials marks both a first and a last. Papile too, likely stands as the last of his species.

Paying for a draft choice while the Celtics owners weren’t paying attention at the 2006 draft, doing radio play-by-play as Rick Pitino’s assistant at Boston University, and assisting Cleveland State to a Sweet 16 run from 600 miles away suggests Papile is unlike his modern coaching brethren.

“Without question, Leo’s one of a kind. The last of a dying breed, ” former Cleveland State head coach Kevin Mackey tells Breitbart Sports. That Papile’s trajectory also witnesses a glacial shift from a barroom purgatory to pension-holding NBA front office man is nothing short of a perfectly executed Dean Moriarty pipe dream from On the Road.

Chronicling the reigning Nike EYBL coach of the year during the AAU season and through an ongoing conversation beginning at his Christmas party, the Godfather of Boston hoops divulges “some” of the untold chapters. Papile explains how merging early losses with a continuum of anthropological fieldwork of life’s bygones manifests as one of hoops all-time winners.

“Leo is a time capsule with an eidetic memory,” former Salem State assistant coach and Christmas party beer tender Dan Viscariello tells Breitbart Sports.

On the outskirts of Boston’s South End and Lower Roxbury, within the subterranean quarters of a mixed-use building adjacent to Wally’s Café, America’s oldest Jazz cafe, Leo Papile holds his annual Christmas Party every December. The gathering explains why Papile is the Godfather of Boston basketball. A Congressional Gold medal winner, an ex-Heavyweight boxer, a BCS assistant, referees, BABC alums, high school coaches, and basketball’s beat characters imbibe. During a Prohibition-style brouhaha underneath a heap of Mass. Ave traffic, the everyman talks Boston history and boxing but mainly hoops.

“Does Peter McNeeley still want to fight Michael Herren?” is the first Heineken-induced conversation feeler overheard upon entering the dimly lit cellar. Nobody takes the bait on charity-boxing matches. Arriving late, the author misses McNeeley, hero for once having the balls to fight Mike Tyson, and villain to those splitting a fifty-dollar price tag on a fight lasting 89 seconds. Although minutes later, the author, like everyone in the room, realizes he is much later for something else.

At the corner of a makeshift bar, sitting by Papile’s side, is an attentive Division Three assistant coach, 23 year-old Dan Viscariello. Saying little, he breaks the ice every twenty minutes. “Does anyone need another beer? Everyone good?” asked Viscariello. “Good,”

Dave Chandler, an ailing statistician, slumps against a couch sans alcohol. Chandler, BABC’s longtime statistical savant sits by Papile. The stat man’s internalized montage of Boston basketball compares only to Papile’s. As Chandler’s health regresses, Viscariello now mans the scorer’s book for BABC. “Simply put, Leo’s attention and dedication to detail are the reasons BABC is the most successful amateur program in the United States,” recalled Viscariello.

But more glaring than Papile’s vigilance towards statistics is the photographic memory allowing him to retrieve yesterday quicker than today. Coaching in nearly 4,000 basketball games since a high-major assistant once starred at point guard for Riverside Church,  Viscariello validates this point.

“The most vivid memory I have of working for Leo is at the 2014 Peach Jam. Sitting in the restaurant portion of the hotel with four high major assistants. Leo was reciting play by play of Riverside Church games from when one of the high major assistants played,” recalled Viscariello. Throughout the evening, Papile awakes similar lore, some as early as the 1950s. Papile made his bones in basketball long before any of the partygoers were going out with cheerleaders.

Examining where Papile stands begins by reflecting on where he once stood. His well-traveled coaching journey resembles well-fed suits on college and professional benches much less than the beatnik with an empty stomach sleeping on one.

Losing his mother in his teens, his father triumphed in old Boston as an MDC homicide and special task force detective. The 2005 novel Legends of Winter Hill chronicles his father’s role in disharmonizing mafia-addled gin mills along the Revere Beach waterfront.

Like most growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, sports define Papile’s childhood as much as tomfoolery does. Following days as a two-sport athlete at North Quincy High School were exploratory train rides “in town.” Papile followed adventurous social experiments alongside street hustlers and alehouse boozehounds haunting Dirty Old Boston by ditching taxis along the Neponset River.

“We would get out on the Neponset side of the river and crawl under the bridge through mudflats to fool the cops,” quips Papile. Sneaking into Celtics games at the old Boston Garden or playing in every CYO, pickup, and muni game imaginable was the innocent passion. Yet, booze, girls, and money formed the never-ending elective course influencing Papile’s earliest vocation.

“I began as a doorman and head of security at 16 at the infamous Boston Club, 969 Comm. Ave,” recalls Papile. As his father disrupted capo dens like the Ebb Tide Lounge, Papile labored harmoniously with small time hoods and reefer-toking bookies in the bucket of blood nightspot outside Kenmore Square.

But, as a barroom warden in Boston’s lawless 1970s, Papile only held back himself. After high school, Papile’s attempts to play and stay in college fizzled three times. He idled in the barroom underworld doubling as his paterfamilias’ nemeses. “I wandered through the desert,” reflects Papile.

But, when marooning at the threshold of any doorway, fate calls the desperate, albeit slowly. “The drinking age was 21. I was under orders to ‘check’ for 18. Age went down to 18…the place died,” recalls Papile. The fall of the Kenmore club led to more basketball and occasional bar work.

That summer while playing in the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League open division, Papile blew out his knee and retired playing for coaching. “The medical world was primitive. Called it ‘torn ligaments.’ Put me in cast the length of leg and that was that at Carney Hospital,” Papile tells Breitbart Sports.

With major college TV contracts looming, and professional basketball experimenting with several feeder circuits throughout the seventies, Papile’s injury arrived on time.

In 1977, minor-league expansion came to hometown Quincy. The native son was the only hoop junkie suitable for the Chiefs’ head job. “The Chiefs were ’77-’78. They had owners, signed me as coach around May of ’77. The GM quit in August, (they) made me GM as well,” recalls Papile. But a league wide pink slip in April of 1978 marred Papile’s transition from tavern warden to hobbled minor league player-coach and general manager of the Quincy Chiefs.

With the EBA franchise folding after just one season, Papile entered the back nine of the Carter administration coaching sans paycheck. Papile soon realized the only thing impervious to another last call would be his team of Boston area all-stars assembled in the spring he started with the Chiefs.

“BABC was one team of High School Seniors in ’77. We played about twelve games. [Cleveland Cavaliers Head Coach] Dave Blatt was on the team. Our trip to AAU junior men’s nationals in July was our highlight. We lost in the finals to Team Michigan with Earvin Johnson and Jay Vincent,” adds Papile.

The closure of a bucket-of-blood barroom and the tanking of minor league sports franchise, appropriately named the Chiefs, ala Slapshot, elevated Papile from factotum to youth basketball dignitary.

After starting BABC at 23, Papile plays villain to an estimated 5,000 opponents in a four-decade career coaching AAU basketball. Entering its 38th year, BABC boasts 19 NBA players, 18 national titles, and 99 New England AAU gold medals.

In spite of success on the road, Papile’s most fascinating coaching narrative occurs locally between fall and spring. After days ordering booze as manager of Ryle’s Jazz Club, the joint Patrick Ewing bicycled to as a teenage busboy, Papile coached at Suffolk University in the late 1970s.

Two years later, Papile catches his Division 1 break at Boston University under Rick Pitino. Receiving a not-so-impressive $6,000 as assistant coach, Papile also performed an uncommon substitute role.

“Only did radio here and there. When someone asked me to fill in,” recalls Papile. Filling in as play-by-play man for road contests while an assistant at Boston University from 1979-81, modern coaches hardly relate.

Leaving the CBA’s Maine Lumberjacks for Umana Tech High School, Papile remains the only coach in Boston Public School history culled from the professional ranks. But in 1984, Papile redefined loyalty of the 617 area code when landing a gig out of region at Cleveland State.

“He never came to Cleveland State,” quips Kevin Mackey, Papile’s laissez faire overseer at Cleveland State from 1984-1987. Press tables throughout the now defunct AMCU-8 smiled when announcing Papile’s name for three seasons.

Yet, working away from campus produced more than those chained to an athletic office desk, making recruiting calls, or penning letters until the night janitors clocked in. Call it the perks of working for a friend.

“The only people that appreciated the humor in it were the guys at the scorer’s table. They’d start laughing when they’d announce the assistant coaches,” recalls Mackey.

Recruiting four Hub stars to Cleveland while dodging the winds of Lake Erie, Papile assisted the Vikings’ 1986 upset of Indiana. A feat still considered one of Cinderella’s most impressive showings in NCAA tournament history.

Sticking with BABC in the decade following Cleveland State, an unparalleled 44 players assimilate into D1 programs (1987-1997), a figure topping two hundred today. In 1997, after twenty Julys chauffeuring scholarship hungry ball players from Augusta to Los Angeles, Papile’s career eclipses the odometer reading on his Cadillac.

Old boss Pitino, as new boss of the Boston Celtics, then gives his radio fill-in man a front-office role, appropriately, at the same arena Papile snuck into as a child. Eleven years into an executive role with the NBA’s most successful franchise, Papile wins a world-title ring in 2008 while senior executive director of basketball operations. Fittingly, he aids the hometown green with a noteworthy story making his narrative come full circle.

Leon Powe, a player sans ACL, whose six-year NBA career exudes afterthought outside his first three in Boston, played a crucial role in the Celtics first championship run since 1986.

“I just liked who Powe was as a guy. Double ACL. People thought he was dead,” recalls Papile. On draft night in 2006, when the checkbook holders “left the room,” Papile cut a $400,000 deal with Denver Nuggets GM Mark Warkentein, buying the ailing Leon Powe’s draft rights.

“I just wanted Powe, so I bought the pick from Warkentein,” says Papile.

Backing up Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis, Leon Powe was no superstar. But his 21 points in just 14 minutes during Game Two of the NBA Finals catalyzed the series momentum and a 17th NBA Championship banner to Boston. At the 2006 NBA Draft, Leo Papile wagered on a “Double ACL,” the ailment permanently sidelining Papile in the mid ’70s when he began coaching and first bet on himself.

Retiring from the NBA three years after winning a world title ring in 2008, Papile collects a pension and swims Miami Beach in the winter. He spends the rest of the year with his fantasy team, the Boston Amateur Basketball Club.

“Technology put guys like me in an NBA hospice bed,” quips Papile. “Liberated from NBA nuclear winter, I now winter at a tropical hide on Key Biscayne.”

When Jack Kerouac, Papile’s hero, wrote down all the tramps he met from Lowell to Los Angeles, gave them names, stories and direction, Papile chased the America Kerouac lived. But he conquered a sports world that Kerouac fantasized.

“For anyone to live the way Leo’s lived his life, survived and been so successful doing what he’s loved, it’s really unbelievable,” recounts Mackey. If finding a pen along the way, Leo Papile becomes basketball’s great poet. He opts instead to live a dreamer’s life.

Follow Sean Flynn on Twitter @Coachsflynn


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