Sussex County History Today: 1981 NBA Draft

| 15 Jan 2024 | 08:14

This is the final installment of Mike Ferrara’s fantastic basketball career:

Senior year 1981 has just ended. This nine-year plan that started in September 1972 actually came together.

In total honesty, although I never lost focus and I gave it everything I could, you never really think it’s going to actually happen the way you hoped.

Talk about it all coming together, I was peaking perfectly for the 1981 NBA Draft. I closed the season averaging almost 40 points a game the last four games, shooting approximately 60 percent (35/35/50/37) against some pretty good teams/players (Vermont/Niagara/Siena/Maine).

All was looking up and I along with others was assured verbally by Red Auerbach on the speaker phone that they were planning on picking me 23rd in the 1981 NBA Draft.

Then when I returned to Colgate that first week of March 1981, I was invited to play in the Aloha Classic in early April to compete against the best players in the country. Back in 1980-81, Larry Bird was the second-highest-paid player in the league at $900,000 per year, just behind Magic Johnson, who just signed for $1 million a year for 20 to 25 years.

At that time, the 23rd pick of the NBA Draft in 1981 received maybe a one-year guarantee and approximately $100,000 to $150,000 per year over three or four years.

If I go to the Aloha Classic and do well like everywhere else, I go in the top 5 to 10 and now we are talking $1 million to $2 million over three to four years all guaranteed, back in ’80-81.

See at Colgate I never really got on TV, only regionally at the major markets, so a lot of basketball people didn’t see me play. Those I went against found I was pretty un-guardable. I played hard and never once forgot the boot-on-the-neck lesson.

I was double- and triple-teamed all year and no one important was successful in stopping me. I didn’t feel the guards going to Hawaii were any better than the guys I went against on a lot of the teams I played against all year.

I was guarded by All-Americans all year long and now I was playing with them in Hawaii. No big deal, bring it on. That would be great to have guys that can actually play. I couldn’t wait to get there.

I accepted the invitation to Hawaii not knowing a cascade of very negative events, a few purposeful, would begin shortly. In late March, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse was selected to coach the East team that I would be on. Me and Boeheim go back a little ways to Niagara days prior to Hawaii and not in a real good way.

I never met him but learned a lot about him from some of his players over the years at the various camps, and what I heard wasn’t good. My Niagara experience gave me a little PTSD toward bad coaches/programs, and when I would hear those stories, I put an internal check mark/target on their programs too. So, Syracuse had a target also in my head.

Quick actual story that provides the backstory: When Colgate played Syracuse in January 1981, we hadn’t beat them since about 1959-60 and usually lost by 30-plus. They had their best defensive player ever on that team we played against in 1980-81, Eddie Moss. Great point guard-playmaker, a great guy.

It was me versus him with 14,000 people at the Carrier Dome. That team also had Schayes, Rautins, Head, Cohen and others. With three minutes to go, we were down four points and you could hear a pin drop in the Carrier Dome.

We had them on the ropes, but once again we were outcoached. We lost by about 10 to 12 again, just fouling at the end. I came out of the game with about 10 to 15 seconds or so left to a standing ovation. I had 31 points (highest game against Syracuse that year) and was the first and only losing player in the history of Syracuse basketball at that time to get the game MVP.

That is what they told me when they gave it to me after the game at half court. That was another A+ maybe ++ performance. Boeheim didn’t like that too much and even said so in the papers the next day and on the local radio/TV that night after the game.

That was quite surprising/disappointing to see/hear. Eldon Miller from Ohio State did a similar thing (not as angry as Boeheim was) in my Sports Illustrated story after I also destroyed his team/guys with 26, another A+ performance and another standing ovation from 12,000 people. Not to mention we were leading at half and had them on the ropes too.

You know where this story is going when I show up in Hawaii now, don’t you? I think Boeheim didn’t forget my January performance and actually came to Hawaii with a vendetta to prove I wasn’t as good as I was for what I did to his team and his defensive superstar.

I am 100 percent convinced of what I just stated is a fact. I was there, I was witness to it, I know what he did to me, he did purposely, and I also know he knows it - and he acknowledged it to me the last day and I came close to punching him out when he did.

Unfortunately, being a head coach, he could make that kind of stuff happen to any targeted players and he did. It all started the first second I met him in Hawaii in the locker room team meeting. Can you believe that? That’s an absolute truth and fact.

I should have walked out of the locker room and got on a flight home that minute and refused to play. There is so much more to say on this guy/deal but unfortunately, this is where this story must stop now in this venue.

The basketball drama that will begin in Hawaii and end in September 1981 will take at least 100 pages to explain clearly and we can’t do that here. You’ll have to get the book in two to three years. This is one of those “you got to be kidding me” stories, right? Yep.

Looking back on all this 42 years later, was it all worth it? If you had asked me up to 20 to 25 years ago, I would have said probably not, I regretted it. I hated the game and most of the coaches I ran into by the time I got done.

Plus, honestly, this last part of this process was so bad I blame it for messing my head up in some areas for years afterward. Notice there was never a serious comeback, right? There were very good reasons.

But 42 years later, having gone through life’s various phases up and down like everyone else and fortunately finally having grown up nicely from that process, I actually now realize how lucky I was. First, I developed incredible internal skills/habits from the court that I have relied on my entire life to pull me through most, if not all, life challenges I found myself facing. It wasn’t the Colgate/Wharton education that saved me, it was always the basketball lessons I learned when I was young.

Second, I know and have met many people in my life. Way too many to count. But the best guys I have ever met and have been around are all the basketball people-training guys from Sussex and Rumson - there is no question about that.

I just went home for three weeks and saw most of them and I am in awe at how wonderful most of them have done with their kids, families, wives etc. and how they have all grown to be great people in their respective communities.

It is all very obvious to me, and I think with them also, that this intense athletic process we all participated in connected us all in a very special way for the rest of our lives. I am so glad through all the superstar BS, I never once forgot where it all started.

It’s funny when that superstar stuff got to be a little too much, my guys always had their unique ways of keeping my feet on the ground. I just laugh even now writing this when I remember those guys from back then: Big Gary, Jim Jim, E, Paiva, Mr. Platukis, the Stick, Puddy, Joey, Dools. The best of the best.

Finally, I really don’t like flying anymore so I just drive home from Florida. Here is the rewards from all that work. Mr. and Mrs. Platukis moved to North Carolina 10 years ago. I drive to New Jersey, stop off for three or four days at the Platukises in North Carolina, then I head to New Jersey.

Then, of course, I stay at the Virtues when I am there. I spend two weeks seeing all the boys in Sussex and Rumson and helping, hanging out and running around with Mr. Virtue. I head back to North Carolina for a few days with Mr. and Mrs. Platukis and their family again to close out my trip before I head home.

Who could ever have imagined some 13-year-old Italian kid from New York City with a two-hand jump shot at that time would be groomed perfectly from the start at some little country high school with two great coaches and meeting all the right people along the way to develop and get an actual real shot at the NBA.

No one from our county ever even came close to doing something like that before me and my guys showed up. On top of that, to also be basically adopted by my two high school coaches and their families almost right from the beginning to this very day besides. How fortunate is that? That’s incredible how that all worked out.

In closing, I remember for eight years or so between 1974 and 1982, my mom and dad would go food shopping every Saturday at ShopRite in Franklin. Food shopping in those days at our house was a six- to eight-hour event. They would leave in the mid-morning on Saturdays about 9:30 to 10 a.m. and get back for dinnertime about 4 to 5 p.m.

My dad would sit in front of the ShopRite on the bench past all the registers, and all his boys would just drop by and sit down to get caught up on the basketball career and he loved telling all the game stories.

My mom would be stuck in aisles for hours running into all her friends (mostly their wives) telling the same basketball stories. They attended all my games in high school and college home and East Coast games. Plus, they absolutely loved all the guys I played with and against. They especially fell in love with Mr. Virtue and Mr. Platukis for influencing me early on and keeping me out of trouble and on the basketball court.

Although this NBA thing at the end turned out to be a real big disappointment for our family, I think they would be very happy to know this basketball journey has gone full circle and that I still have the same strong personal connections with all the same people they knew and loved from Sussex and Rumson.

If someone were to ask me right now, would I give everything up I have from basketball at this time in 2023, if I could just go back in time and be smart enough and agree to accept the No. 23 pick in the draft to the Celtics? Would I take a do-over?

Not a chance at this point. Even if it meant we still have to let Gene Gene the Hacking Machine, Chris the Cat, Harry the Hat who still can’t count to this day and the Snake back in the games again. That’s all.

Contact Bill Truran, Sussex County’s historian, at