Boston High School: Gary Mindell

Mindell leaving lasting legacy at Commerce

May, 7, 2013
The city of Springfield has seen great success in high school basketball over the past two seasons with Springfield Central and Putnam Vocational bringing consecutive Division 1 boys’ basketball titles back to Roosevelt Ave.

While the birthplace of basketball revels in the success of the Golden Eagles and Beavers, one of Springfield’s most revered coaches is being honored for the legacy he leaves behind at the High School of Commerce.

Gary Mindell, who finished his 19th season on the Red Raiders sideline, announced earlier this week that he would retire as both Commerce’s basketball coach and physical education teacher. Mindell ends his 27-year coaching career at Granby High School and Commerce with 332 wins, three Western Mass. titles and a state championship in 2004.

“I kind of knew that coming in to this year, that this would most likely be my last season,” Mindell said. “I just didn’t want to make an announcement too soon or too quick.”

Mindell wanted to coach in Springfield, but needed to wait his turn to gain a head coaching job in the city. He spent eight seasons at Granby, before the Commerce job became available in 1995. He took over a program far from being a powerhouse in the city of Springfield.

Commerce had seven losing seasons in eight years before Mindell showed up. In that span Central, which opened in 1986, had dominated the city with the most talented ball players including future NBA veteran Travis Best. In first eight seasons of the Central-Commerce rivalry, the Golden Eagles were 16-0.

“I took over the program with high ambitions and I brought a lot of passion into the program,” Mindell said.

Enter Commerce Pride.

“That was my motto at Granby and I brought that over to Commerce with me,” Mindell said. “When I took over the program I had to change the whole culture, and one of the things I wanted to do was talk about building pride. Pride in our team, pride in our program, pride in our school, pride in ourselves.”

Commerce defeated Central three out of four times in Mindell’s first two seasons on the Red Raiders bench. In that memorable second season, Commerce won the Western Mass championship and the basketball powers within the city began to switch hands.

“From that point on, all of a sudden, Central wasn’t the king of the city anymore,” Mindell said.

The 2000s were when Commerce built a dynasty. From 2001-2007, the Red Raiders made two appearances in the state championship, capturing two Western Mass. titles and five league titles in a row. The Red Raiders appeared in either the Western Mass. finals or semifinals in each of those seasons.

The highlight of that run of dominance was the 2004 state championship team.

“One of the first times I spoke to him he said, ‘At Commerce they play for championships,’” said Pat Ochoa, the co-captain of the 2004 state championship team. “The goal every year is to win championships and he backed it up.”

The 2004 state championship team defeated a Brookline team headlined by former UConn star and current Charlotte Bobcats forward Jeff Adrien. Commerce went on to narrowly defeat Brookline 53-51, holding Adrien to only four field goals.

“We were so close on and off the court,” Ochoa added. “It just clicked. With Mindell leading us as the coach, it was something special.”

That would be the city’s last boys’ basketball championship until Central and Putnam went back-to-back the past two years. In March, William Shepard led Putnam to the school’s first sectional and state title. Shepard first met Mindell three decades ago when Shepard was in middle school. Their relationship continued at Commerce when Shepard was a star player and Mindell was a volunteer assistant. Shepard would serve as Mindell’s assistant when he first took the Commerce job in 1995.

“I was very proud for him and his school,” Mindell said. “They defended like nobody else. He did a wonderful job of pushing those kids and directing those kids. He got them to buy in to what he was trying to get across.”

Mindell had one more shot to sit atop Western Mass. basketball in 2012. With less talent than some of his other championship teams, Commerce made it to the Western Mass. final and nearly knocked off eventual state champion Central behind the 32-point performance by senior guard Alex Lopez.

“Still to this day I wish I could have given him another championship,” Lopez said. “I’m sure it would have meant everything to coach.”

Lopez will be Mindell’s last star player. The four-year varsity starter was the fourth Commerce player under Mindell to win the John “Honey” Lahovich Award, given the top player in Western Mass. Mike Vaz (’03), Will Dawkins (’04) and Josh Tate (’05) won the other three in consecutive seasons.

Mindell said he had a special relationship with all of his players during their playing careers and to this day continues to keep in touch with many of his former players such as Lopez, now a freshman at Worcester State University; Dawkins, who is currently the Director of College Player Personnel for the Oklahoma City Thunder; and Ochoa, who is a supervisor at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Yeah, me and Coach Mindell talk to each other every now and then,” Lopez said. “Not every day, but we still call each other to see how everything is going.”

“Every time we see him, one of the first things he reflects on is how he there was only one team he won a state championship with and it was with us,” said Ochoa, who is also an assistant coach at East Longmeadow High School. “And he always says he keeps that close to his heart and it’s something that he’ll always cherish and at the same time that feeling is returned right back to him.”

Mindell won’t completely be removed from Commerce. He’ll return in September to coach the girls’ volleyball team. He’ll be able to watch a few Commerce basketball games next season, though he said he’ll most likely be sitting in the back row being as inconspicuous as he can be.

After the holidays he and his wife Jenny will spend January, February and March in Tampa, enjoying retirement.

“Of course I loved every minute of it,” Mindell said. “I would have coached for free all these years. The fact that they’ve paid me is really a bonus.

“It’s all about the passion -- the passion for the game and the passion for the kids.”

Recap: No. 5 Central 52, Commerce 43

February, 1, 2012
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- No. 5 Springfield Central knew emotions would rise like smoke inside the Springfield Commerce High School gym. But rowdy environments and scrappy opponents are becoming Central’s shot of adrenaline.

As if Western Mass. teams need any additional incentive to knock Central off its lofty perch, Commerce entered Wednesday night’s city rivalry knowing that guard Alex Lopez needed just four points to reach 1,000 for his career. Anticipation of the milestone collided with the natural excitement of facing Western Mass.’s best team, leaving a Commerce gym that bounced with excitement.

Central strutted into the lion’s den and exited with another impressive victory, souring Lopez’ big night by a score of 52-43.

“This season’s been great. It’s been a coach’s dream. We don’t even talk about playoffs," Central coach Mike Labrie said. "We don’t talk about two opponents down the road. It sound like a cliche, but all we do is focus on our next opponent. It’s really easy for me to coach because they don’t care about anything but the next game."

The night did not make for a clinic in shot-making, as both teams combined to miss a number of decent looks. A fierce pace almost left steam coming from the players’ sneakers, but the scoreboard did not reflect the mounting number of possessions. Central’s defense challenged each Commerce shot and its offense -- missing starting power forward Kamari Robinson, out for undisclosed reasons -- struggled to make outside shots.

The Golden Eagles led 13-7 when Lopez was fouled with 1:41 remaining in the first quarter. The senior toed the line and drilled both free throws for the 999th and 1,000th points of his career, becoming the first Commerce player to reach the milestone since 2007.

“It feels great. It’s a mark that not very many people get,” Lopez said.

“Alex has meant an awful lot to this program over the last four years. He's our leader. He's our best all-around player, and even though he scored 1,000 points, they were a very unselfish 1,000,” Commerce coach Gary Mindell added. “He's really just about trying to win the game. Unfortunately, on his special night, we couldn't win the game for him."

It was Commerce’s third consecutive loss, after opening the season with 11 straight victories.

Central finished the first quarter with a 15-9 lead, then applied a blanket that smothered Commerce’s offense until halftime came. Commerce scored just four points the entire second quarter, missing a lot of shots in and around the painted area, especially during a six-minute drought in which Central increased its lead from four to 12.

“We missed a lot of easy baskets right around the rim, and it really hurt us,” said Lopez, who finished with 14 points to lead the Red Raiders.

“It’s easy for us to say those are easy,” said Mindell. “But when you’re out there with two 6-foot-7 guys jumping and extending their arms at you, short looks aren’t necessarily the easy ones.”

Central’s lead slowly grew as Commerce’s offense stalled, thanks to eight first-half points from Chris Prophet (who ended with 12) and a quick scoring burst from Lee Turner. The senior guard Turner, who chipped in 14 points, went on a personal 7-0 run as Central opened a 25-13 halftime lead.

Turner’s quick spurt included one ridiculous three-pointer. He jumped out of bounds to save a loose ball, and, in mid-air, turned toward the hoop and fired a shot that split the rim as he fell into the first row of bleachers.

“I practice those shots in practice -- a lot, a lot, a lot,” Turner said. “So when I caught it, I gathered myself, looked at the hoop and just shot a regular shot. I just fell out of bounds and it went in, and I just felt like it was practice. I knew it was going in. I came to my bench and my team was like, ‘Yeah, I knew it was going in, too.’”

Does Turner really practice shots like that?

“He shoots insane shots like that in practice all the time, so we’re just used to it,” said Central star Tyrell Springer, who paced the Golden Eagles with 15 points. “We started getting a little flow, and as soon as he caught it and shot it up, I threw up my three fingers and knew it was going down.”

Lopez and Shadiar Thompson (13 points) tried to bring Commerce back after halftime, cutting the deficit to seven points during the third quarter, but Central quelled every run and the margin was at least eight for the entire fourth frame.

“We have a lot of the same guys as last season, but we have more of a brotherhood now,” Springer said. “On the court, off the court, we’re with each other all the time. We communicate with each other a lot more. We even help each other with our homework. We’re just with each other 24/7.”

The brotherhood is now 13-1, undefeated in Massachusetts play.

“And I don’t believe we’re going to take anyone lightly,” said Labrie.