Ernie DiGregorio, one of the most popular players in Buffalo Braves history, is among six former standouts who will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Nov. 24 in Kansas City.
DiGregorio, now 68, was a first team All-American in the 1972-73 season when he and teammate Marvin Barnes led the Providence College Friars to the NCAA Final Four at the St. Louis Arena.
Ernie D, as he is known, was one of the best passing guards in basketball history, but in his college years was also a prolific scorer. He averaged 20.47 for his career at Providence. In three varsity seasons – freshmen were ineligible to play varsity in those days – he scored 1,760 points in 86 games. His senior season he had 761 points and averaged 24.6. His 267 assists in 1972-73 still stand as a Providence single-season record.
DiGregorio was truly a hometown hero. He grew up in Providence, R.I., and played at North Providence High before going to St. Thomas More Prep. At the Connecticut prep school, he played under coach Nick Macarchuk, who soon moved on to become assistant coach at Providence under Dave Gavitt and later became head coach at Canisius College.
In Ernie D’s four years at Providence, the Friars had a 72-18 overall record and played in the National Invitation Tournament once and in the NCAA tournament twice.
DiGregorio, Barnes and Providence really shined in the 1972-73 season when they went 27-4 and packed the brand new Providence Civic Center (now Dunkin’ Donuts Center) for every game. DiGregorio had a high game of 41 points at St. John’s, 39 against in-state rival Rhode Island at the Civic Center and 37 against Fairfield.
Providence seemed on its way to the NCAA championship game against Bill Walton and UCLA in the 1973 Final Four. The Friars built a double-digit lead on Memphis State, but then Barnes was hobbled by a knee injury and had to leave the game. Memphis State won, 98-85, and went on to lose in the title game to UCLA.
DiGregorio scored 32 points in that loss and flashed his passing style. He became a major attraction. He played in the East-West All-Star game in Madison Square Garden and, with Walton, stood out for a team of U.S. Collegiate Stars in a victory against the Russian national team in San Diego. It was only a year after the controversial Russian victory over the U.S. in championship game of the Munich Olympics and any win over the Russians was huge.
Now, DiGregorio became even more attractive to the pros. He was drafted by John Y. Brown’s Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association but he signed with the Braves, who had made him the third pick in the 1973 NBA Draft. His popularity and flair soon became apparent. The Braves drew 10,820 for a hastily arranged rookie game against Doug Collins and the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-year players in June of that year. Ernie D had 27 points and eight assists in the game including a few of his patented behind-the-back passes.
In training camp at Fredonia State, DiGregorio soon fit right in with the new-look, fast-breaking Braves that General Manager Eddie Donovan and coach Jack Ramsay had assembled for the 1973-74 season, joining burgeoning young stars Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith and trade acquisitions Jim McMillian and Garfield Heard.
Ernie D averaged 15.2 points, was the NBA Rookie of the Year, led the league with an 8.2-assist average and a .902 free-throw percentage. The Braves had their first winning season (42-40), made the playoffs for the first time before losing to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics in six games, in a series that is still recalled by those old enough to live then.
The 6-foot DiGregorio suffered a knee injury early in his second pro season, seemed to lose a step as a result, especially on defense, and at times clashed with Ramsay. He played only 31 games in 1974-75, then 67 the next season and 81 games in 1976-77.
Before the 1977 season, Ernie D was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for future considerations. He was waived by the Lakers in the middle of the 1977-78 season and signed as a free agent by the Boston Celtics.
Ironically, Ernie D played for the Celtics in what turned out to be the last Buffalo Braves game, a loss in Boston Garden on John Havlicek Day. Another irony: It was Ernie who assisted on the last basket as a Celtic by Havlicek, who was a Braves nemesis for each of the team’s eight seasons in Buffalo.
DiGregorio becomes the third person with Providence College ties to enter the Collegiate Hall of Fame, which owns no connection to the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The other Friars in the Hall include Lenny Wilkens (as a player) and Gavitt, who was inducted as a contributor and not a coach.
The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame is located inside the College Basketball Experience, an entertainment facility adjacent to the Sprint Center.
Besides DiGregorio, the College Basketball Hall of Fame will induct former players Calbert Cheaney (Indiana), Shane Battier (Duke), Terry Dischinger (Purdue), Larry Johnson (UNLV) and Todd Lichti (Stanford). The coaches to be inducted are Homer Drew (Bethel, IU-South Bend, Valparaiso), Lute Olson (Long Beach State, Iowa, Arizona) and the late Rick Majerus (Marquette, Ball State, Utah, Saint Louis).