Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of “How Good Was He?” It’s an occasional Playbook series in which we delve deep into the athletic pasts of celebrities.
If all you know about Denzel Washington’s basketball skills comes from the extended one-on-one scene with Ray Allen in the 1998 film “He Got Game,” read on. Turns out that, back in 1973, Washington was a good athlete, completing his sophomore year at Fordham in the Bronx. After coming up through the playgrounds and Boys Club in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and playing playground ball with the likes of future NBA stars Gus and Ray Williams in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Washington scrapped his way onto P.J. Carlesimo’s JV team for two seasons, 1972-74.
The Rams went 18-1 his second year, losing an early-season game to Yale but storming all the way through the rest of their schedule, culminating in a big win against rival Manhattan College. Carlesimo had just graduated from Fordham, and one of his duties as a varsity assistant was coaching the JV.
Darryl Brown, Fordham Class of 1975, Boston Celtics draft pick: I had a pretty good high school career at Nanuet (N.Y.) and started getting recruited in 1970. The first letter I got was from the U.S. Military Academy. I thought I was getting drafted, so I didn’t open it for two weeks. Then I realized they wanted me to come up and look at West Point. Bobby Knight was the coach. I wound up getting recruited by several schools, and it came down to Fordham, UVa, Harvard and Princeton. Digger Phelps was the coach at Fordham, and he invited me down to [Madison Square Garden]. There were 20,000 people there, and they beat Notre Dame. I made my decision that I wanted to go to Fordham that night.
That year, they went 26-3 and ended up ranked ninth in the country. Off that year, they ended up scheduling all big-time schools. That summer, I was back home listening to the radio, and they said Digger was leaving for Notre Dame.
So 40 years ago Fordham was a legitimate high-level college program.
Brown: We played at Madison Square Garden, and that’s what I wanted to do. I loved Fordham. It was only 40 minutes from home. We had to play freshman ball back then [the NCAA allowed freshmen to play beginning in 1972]. And I was on the first team P.J. Carlesimo ever coached. My sophomore year (1972-73), I saw Digger again at the Garden. We actually beat them at the buzzer.
Fordham, at that time, we played everybody. Our schedule included Maryland, Notre Dame, USC, South Carolina, Kansas, Stanford, those types of schools. There was no Big East, so if you were an independent and wanted to make it to the NCAAs, you had to play, you had to have credentials. Our program was very tough.
By the time Denzel got to Fordham, I was on the varsity, so we never played together. But we had lots of scrimmages with the JV team.
He played great defense, very quick, he had good hops, he was a slasher, he would drive hard to the basket. That’s kind of the inner-city game. He didn’t have the best of shots, but he had all of that tenacity. You didn’t want him to guard you, let me put it that way. He knew where his strengths were; he would just get in your jock and he wouldn’t let you go. That’s the way he played. He was 6-1 and a pretty decent ball handler, and he would go at the basket real hard.
You had to be good to play against a good player.
Jeff Crowne, Fordham Class of 1976: Actually, one guy on our team, Kenny Charles, went to the NBA. He played for the Atlanta Hawks for a few years. The year before, Fordham got to the Sweet 16.
P.J. Carlesimo, Fordham Class of 1971: He’s a decent player. A legit basketball player. He played on an organized college sub-varsity team. Was he way better than an average player? Of course he was. He was a level above 95 percent of the student body.
People have trouble separating “Denzel the Oscar-winning actor” from “Denzel the college student.” They say, “Of course you’d put him on your team since he was going to win Academy Awards.” But it wasn’t that at all.
This was a time when we would have one or two scholarship players, and this was a vehicle for them to get playing experience because they weren’t quite ready for the varsity, so you had to fill out the team with nonscholarship guys. We’d have to practice at odd times. We were the low guys on the totem pole.
We filled out that roster in all different ways. A high school coach would call me up and say “I have a kid who’s there that’s a good player.” I’d be walking through the gym and seeing guys play pickup.
Crowne: I was shooting around in the gym, and P.J. said, “Why don’t you come over and try out for the JV?”
Carlesimo: I remember [Denzel] just coming in and trying out.
Patrick O’Connell, Fordham Class of 1977: In 1973, we tried out with 80 or 90 other young men to make the JV team. That year was one of the first years freshmen were eligible to play varsity. A lot of schools had a freshman team or JV team where they would put their recruits, and they would fill in with walk-ons.
The tryouts were for two weeks. There were three-hour practices that P.J. ran. It was more intense and harder than I think anyone had experienced from high school. The majority of people had come from small Catholic schools or private schools and had been big fish in small ponds. He told us he had five recruits that were going to play on varsity and JV. … We tried out and we’re down to about 10. P.J. tells us “last year we had sophomores that were walk-ons, and I decided to keep them.” So at that time, you realize he’s going to have maybe 11, probably not 12. We’re down to 10 walk-ons trying out, and you’re realizing you might not even make the team. … I remember P.J. made you go one-on-one, full-court, and you had to play defense. The thing I was struck by was Denzel and myself were the only ones that played defense with our hands behind our back. … We go through the whole thing, and he and I are the last guys to make it.
He was a tremendous athlete, extremely fast and quick. He could jump. He was quicker than the ball. He had a nice handle, but not great. He was physical. He could take contact, go to the basket and finish. He shot his jump shot from the top of his head, it was kind of funky. But he was tough and could flat-out play defense.
Crowne: He was very athletic; he wasn’t a basketball superstar. He had a really good drive but not the best outside shot. … When I found out Denzel was from Mount Vernon, I had this immediate respect. … He wasn’t NBA material, but he was just one of those really athletic guys. He knew the game. He knew how to pass and knew how to share the ball. It was really savvy basketball.
Kevin Carlesimo, Fordham Class of 1976: P.J. is five years older than me and had just graduated. It was around that time that freshmen became eligible for varsity. So freshmen would dress for home games and play on the JV. So there were several scholarship players and a few walk-ons.
Denzel would have been something like seven, eight or nine on the depth chart. It was the function of some of the scholarship guys would come down and play a few games; he was the third or fourth guy off the bench. But I would think that his sophomore year, he got a lot of minutes. The second team was certainly getting a lot of minutes and was able to legitimately challenge the first team at practice. … We could give the varsity some competitive scrimmages with the team we had.
Crowne: He and I probably played about a third of the game. We didn’t start because we weren’t on scholarship. He would be the first one to tell you that he wasn’t a star back then at that level. I’m sure he was a star at many levels over his childhood. … He was a real solid playground basketball player. There were no game-winning shots or things of that nature.
Brown: The pickup games at Fordham were very, very competitive. Everyone wanted to do well against varsity players. That’s where you proved yourself. I was a good shot-blocker; I had long arms. My sleeve length is 41. I blocked a lot of shots in school. Denzel was a slasher, and I recall him driving down the middle. Denzel used to have a chipped tooth. His teeth weren’t as pretty as they are now. He drove down the right side of the lane, and I said “I don’t know why this little 6-foot guy is coming down at me trying to make this layup? He’s trying to prove himself.” He went down the right side, he cups it, goes under the basket, and it wasn’t quite like the Dr. J move, but he somehow went under the basket and flipped it up, and it went in. And he shot me one of those grins of his. That much, I remember distinctly.
Kevin Carlesimo: One story I think I have right: We were playing a pickup game in the gym one afternoon, and the women’s coach came up to me and said, “A friend of mine is here, do you mind if she plays pickup with you?" I said, "Sure." Denzel was there, and another scholarship guy. We were probably playing 3-on-3 and in one of the games, he was matched up with her. She could play. Nobody knew who she was except me. She was strong enough to play with guys, and she’ll score. She scored a lot of points, and I went over to Denzel afterward and explained to him it was Carol Blazejowski who played at Montclair State and went on to hold the Garden single-game scoring record [and the Olympics and become the general manager of the New York Liberty]. She would be good enough to play with most guys who weren’t that big. I was trying to offer some consolation. He may not remember that story, and Blaze might never have known that turned out to be Denzel [when asked, Blazejowski said she recalled playing pickup ball many times on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus but didn’t remember any specific players she played against], but it eased his mind a little bit when he understood who she was and how good she was. Blaze was legendary for her ability to score, and she could score against most people.
O’Connell: Every other day, you had to run 20 suicides. P.J. had the clock up. Everyone had to hit all the lines in under 30 seconds, and you had a 30-second break in between, and then you got on the line. On the off days, he would give you the opportunity -- if you succeed in making 12 free throws in a row, and then if you get to 13 you knock one off. So if you made 12 plus 20 you’d only have to run one suicide, and that would just be in honor of our rival Manhattan College.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we think we’re going to go home early, and P.J. says, "No, knuckleheads, we’re having practice. He’s running us and says, “You have to shoot the 12 free throws and you can get out of here.”
But then we don’t make 12 in a row, so we have to do 20 [suicides] while we’re thinking of seeing our families and going home. He starts running us, and he’s calling things out like: “You didn’t touch the line.” So now, we’re dead. We’ve done about eight or nine. So finally he says: “Stop being [babies]. OK, who can hit a one-and-one, we’ll knock one off.” People try and we miss, so we keep on running. People are dying even more. So he says: “OK, how about this -- we’ll do double-or-nothing. If someone hits both of them, you go home. If you don’t, it’s double. So who’s going to do it?” Denzel puts his hand up and says: “I’ll do it, Coach.” Now Denzel, on his best day, was an adequate free throw shooter. He had that funky release. He was in the bottom third of the team shooting foul shots, but he says: “I’ll do it.”
He steps up there and shoots the first one, way up in the air, nothing but net. The second one, shoots it, and it looks bad and we’re going “oh, man.” It hits the front rim, hits the backboard, back rim and then finally goes in. Each time, we’re dancing. And finally it goes through, we’re on our knees, praising the lord. And we mob him, and he’s like “it was in all the time!”
I’ll always remember that because we could not have run anymore.
Crowne: We had a really good team, and a lot of it had to do with P.J. being a really good coach. He used to scream and yell at us, and it was almost like you were in boot camp. I remember Denzel and I more than once laughing about it after practice about how we were treated like dogs and made to run intervals. If you didn’t make your free throws, the whole team had to run 50 laps and things like that. We had a lot of shared misery. We were extremely successful, and from team sports, you just have a bond and he was right in the thick of it with all of us. We were just dopey kids, 18 or 19. He hadn’t gotten the acting bug at that point, that I’m aware of. He didn’t really start to get into it until his junior year. But he was a ridiculously congenial guy. Very much like his personality right now. He’s a really approachable guy.
P.J. Carlesimo: We have the main campus in the Bronx, which is what people think of when they think of Fordham, and the Lincoln Center campus that was probably started back in the 1960s. Denzel took most of his classes at Lincoln Center. … Very few of the scholarship athletes over the years were Lincoln Center guys, and it’s really a tough chore to be taking a lot of your classes at Lincoln Center and still have to get up to Rose Hill in the afternoon or evening for practice. He was nonscholarship, so you had to make a big commitment to do that. I remember that vividly, that he cared enough to get back and forth for practices. … You’d only expect basketball junkies to want to be on the JV team. This was the last chance they had to play. The gym wasn’t filled [for our games] at 6 p.m., but people paid to see us play. It’s not surprising people who were athletes wanted to do it, but you had to make a commitment.
I knew that he wanted to be an actor, but no, I absolutely did not have any idea that he was going to be what he is now. It was probably when he turned up on "St. Elsewhere" that I was aware he had made it to that level. All I knew is he had been doing productions around New York.
Brown: After college, he toiled doing off-Broadway for years before he made it. He didn’t know he was going to do as well as he has.
Kevin Carlesimo: He’s still the nicest guy. We went to see him when he was doing "Julius Caesar" on Broadway a couple of years ago, and after the show we wanted to see him, but there were crowds lined up and the sidewalk was blocked off. He comes out to sign autographs, and he catches us out of the corner of his eye. I introduced him to my wife, Judy, and he says “Denzel Washington, pleased to meet you,” as if you wouldn’t know who he was. He’s always been that way.
Brown: Denzel has never ever forgotten his boys. Every time he came to the city, a bunch of guys would get together and he’d hang. We’d go to his plays. I was working in radio for ABC, and every time we needed him to go on air with one of our national talents, he would always be there.
P.J. Carlesimo: My brothers or someone would say, “Hey, did you see Denzel is doing a movie?” I remember that’s what he wanted to do, but I’d be flat-out lying if I said, 'S---, I knew he was going to be great.' … He is stone 100 percent normal. He came with his boys to watch us practice with the Olympic team two Olympics ago. He’s exactly the same, and I know that’s a cliché. When he was doing some of the shows to promote “Remember the Titans,” he said he modeled some of the character on his old college basketball coach. He was throwing me a little bone. Success has not changed him.