This is the story I did on Al Clinkscales during the Post’s “Best of Bridgeport” series. He was a hell of a nice guy.
BRIDGEPORT — Dave Bike can still see it as clear as day.
Sitting in a chair outside the sports information director’s office at Sacred Heart University, Bike, the longtime head men’s basketball coach for the Pioneers, closes his eyes and remembers back to a night at the old Bridgeport Armory.
It’s the late 1950s, probably 1958. The Boston Celtics are in town, barnstorming, playing the Milford Chiefs. Bill Russell, the Celtics’ all-star center, is playing against the Chiefs’ big man.
A man by the name of Al Clinkscales.
“The Chiefs were a very good team, a good brand of ball, and they used to play against the pros,” Bike said. “I remember he shot over Russell — everyone knew who Russell was because in the old days, the teams would barnstorm to pick up an extra couple of hundred dollars.
He went up for a shot — I can still remember what basket it was, the street basket at the Shehan Center — and he went up to shoot and Russell was right there. And he knew that Russell was going to get it and at the last minute, Clink adjusted in the air and it went over his fingers and right through.”
He was a tall, skinny kid. A kid who didn’t even play basketball until his junior year, when veteran Central High coach Ed Reilly stopped Clinkscales in the hallway one day and told him he was on the varsity.
He played with Porky Vieira and Ron DelBianco, winning the 1950 New England title. He played with Vito Montelli at Arnold College, and he helped the University of Bridgeport to the 1954 NAIA New England Championship.
He played two seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters and Meadowlark Lemon. And he became the first black man in the state to coach a high school boys basketball team at Notre Dame of Bridgeport, which gave him the job in 1958.
He was one of Bridgeport’s finest.
And he came a long way quickly.
“Ed Reilly told me I’d better come out, so I did and I got better and better as I went up the ladder,” Clinkscales, 75, said. “But I wasn’t that interested in playing at the time.”
When Clinkscales was just 2 years old, he was adopted, along with this three brothers, Leo, Clarence and Charles, by William and Mary Parsons. The family lived on Fulton Street and Clinkscales grew up playing pick-up games at the Middle Street Boys Club. He didn’t play organized sports until that day Reilly stopped him in the hall.
He got real good. Real fast.
As a senior, Clinkscales was named to the all-state team. Central lost to New Britain in the state finals that year. But a week later in the Boston Garden, the Hilltoppers defeated Sommerville, Mass., to win the New England Championship. He spent three seasons playing for Arnold College against such top teams as Seton Hall and St. John’s. When Arnold College was taken over by the University of Bridgeport in 1954, Clinkscales played for UB as a senior and earned Little All-America honors as the Purple Knights won the NAIA New England title. His 1,388 career points were just 100 shy of Lou Saccone’s school record.
“I remember that he was a hell of a player. He played very, very well,” said Jack Kvancz, a standout basketball player himself at Harding High in the mid-1960s and now the athletic director at George Washington University. “Every time I saw him play, he played great. He was a big-time player.”
Said Clinkscales : “We had some pretty good teams; for our size and stature, we were pretty good. We weren’t world-beaters. In those days, we played against some great teams in St. John’s and Seton Hall, so I got a lot of experience when I did that.”
Enough experience to get drafted in 1954 by the New York Knickerbockers of the NBA and to receive a playing offer from the Harlem Globetrotters.
It was Clinkscales’ mother, Mary, who decided things.
“My mother said to me, ‘I know what the Globetrotters are, I don’t know what this Knick business is, so you’re going to play for the Globetrotters,’” Clinkscales said. “In those days, you did what your mother said, so I played for the Globetrotters.”
He played as part of the No. 2 squad that toured Canada, Mexico and the Southwestern United States. In 1954-55, the Globetrotters went 171-0. In 1955-56, they went 162-0.
“It got boring winning all those games,” he said.
Still, Clinkscales was about to hitch his wagon to the Globetrotters for a third season when the U.S. draft board came calling. For the next two years, Clinkscales was stationed at Fort Dix, N.J., and played basketball for the Fort Dix Burros, a team that went 30-0 and 31-1 en route to winning back-to-back All-Army tournaments.
After his discharge in 1958, Clinkscales played basketball with the semi-pro Milford Chiefs against a number of barnstorming teams and a number of great players, including Wilt Chamberlain and Russell.
“The Milford Chiefs had a lot of guys around my size, 6-4, 6-5, and we could play with anybody,” Clinkscales said. “We played the pros, we played anyone. We’d fill the Armory. We’d bring in Chamberlain, we’d bring in the Celtics and we’d play them and we had great, great games.”
Especially the one in which he shot over Russell.
“I can’t really remember when that was but I remember that play,” Clinkscales said. “Russell turned to me and said, ‘Damn, Clinks, what are you doing?’ and I just laughed. After that, he and I became good friends. He was a very nice guy.”
The Globetrotters called Clinkscales and offered him another spot on the team, but by now, he was getting tired of basketball. Clinkscale, who earned his degree at UB, wanted to do other things.
“Like I said, my basketball career was funny,” he said. “I really didn’t like it. I got pushed into it because I was tall. I got better and better, but all those games I played with the Globetrotters and in the service, it got boring to me. I was ready to pursue my (teaching career).”
On Aug. 5, 1958, Clinkscales took that first step by becoming the first black coach in the state when he accepted the job of boys basketball coach at Notre Dame of Bridgeport.
“To me, he wasn’t black, he wasn’t white, he wasn’t yellow. To me, he was Alvin Clinkscales , a good player and a good coach,” Kvancz said. “In the 1960s, we didn’t think of that, at least I didn’t think of that. As a high school coach, he was outstanding. We played against them twice a year. He had a great relationship with the kids. Everyone I know that played for him enjoyed playing for him because he let them play. He was a great teacher of the game.”
Said Bike: “He wasn’t a big X’s and O’s guy. You played team basketball and you always wanted to play hard for him. He challenged you at times and you wanted to play well for him. He influenced me a lot.
“I played J.V. (junior varsity) my freshman year, and when the state tournament came around, I got to dress with the varsity. I was so proud just to practice with them and I can remember coming back home and telling my dad, ‘This guy ( Clinkscales ) knows his stuff.’ What am I? A naive 14-year-old, making this judgement, saying that his guy knows his stuff. And now, speaking as a friend for the last 45 years, I know he knows his stuff.”
He coached from 1958-68, posting a record of 118-41. His teams won or shared four MBIAC titles and made nine CIAC appearances. The crowning moment came in 1964 when Notre Dame went undefeated (23-0) and reached the state finals against Hillhouse, losing 57-51.
“I had a good career there because I had great players. It was pretty easy for me to become a good coach,” he said.
Clinkscales took a job on the administrative staff at Notre Dame in 1968 before moving across Park Avenue to work in the Financial Aid Department at Sacred Heart University. Today, he still puts in some hours at SHU as a special assistant to the Dean of Financial Assistance. Not even continuing problems with his kidneys, problems that force him to undergo dialysis three times a week, can’t keep him down. “Outside of the dialysis, I feel fine,” he said. “My kidneys aren’t working too good, so I go to dialysis. Outside of that, I have a normal routine. I’m doing OK.”