By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
It became clear to Sam Hands when he was a sophomore at Spencer High School that basketball, not football, was his chosen sport.
Basketball coach Al Bailey told him so.
"Al Bailey wouldn't let me (play football)," Hands, one of the 2016 inductees into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame, said. "I went to one practice. The next day Al came to my home and said, 'You're not going to play football.' That was the end of my football career."
Hands would go on to become one of the stars on the 1961-1962 Geneva team after Geneva, Spencer and Austinburg consolidated in 1961, a controversial move, at least for the Spencer athletes.
Geneva and Spencer had been bitter rivals for years and many people in the communities didn't care for the idea of merging.
"We loved playing Geneva (when I was at Spencer)," Hands said. "There was a lot of animosity and problems when we consolidated. There was so much competition for years. It was pretty bad the first year."
Bailey was chosen over Geneva coach Jim Ayers to lead the combined team, a move some people questioned. The Spencer players were used to Bailey's intense practices; Geneva's were not.
"The poor guys at Geneva had never seen anything like Al Bailey," Hands said. "He'd have you run laps until you threw up. The kids got in great condition, but he was a hard taskmaster."
Bailey ran a 12-month-a-year basketball program, contrary to even that day's rules.
"I had a summer job, but I still had to go to practices, every night and every day, even though it was illegal," Hands said. "But it helped us a lot, and I really liked playing basketball."
One time Hands didn't want to go to school and called in sick. Bailey sent him fruit juices and oranges and a message to stay home all week and get well so he'd be ready to play Friday night. As Hands recalls, that was the loss to Mentor, in which he didn't play particularly well, leaving him feeling guilty.
Another time Hands, Billy Coy, Bobby Legg and Jim Prill threw an apple through Bailey's front window.
"I was afraid he'd find out about who did it," Hands said. "That would have been the end of my basketball career. But he never did. He was a tough guy."
Despite Bailey's highhanded ways, Geneva's team was the better for his presence, Hands feels.
"He was definitely an asset to Spencer and Geneva. Once he took us to Ohio State University and we got to meet Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond.
It didn't help the situation in Geneva denizens' eyes when Bailey chose his starters — Hands, Legg, Dave Tirabasso and Coy, all from Spencer, and one holdover from the former Eagle team, Jim Osborne (Osborne and Tirabasso are already in the ACBF Hall of Fame). Prill, another Spencer player, was often the first person off the bench.
But the results are difficult to question. The new Eagles team went on to win its first 16 games and finished at 18-2.
Hands and Legg were the forwards on that 1961-1962 Eagles team. Both were about 6-foot-4 and looked enough alike that they could have been brothers. Their last names provided writers with plenty of fodder for headlines and articles.
"Hands and Legg on the same team, they felt that was funny," Hands said.
About the same size as Hands and Legg, but bulkier, was Tirabasso, a junior, who played center. Osborne and Coy were the guards.
Hands, who led the Eagles in scoring that year with about 14 points a game, scored most of his points in the paint.
"I figured something out between my junior and senior years," he said. "It was move that I later used with Pruden's Chicks (a community basketball team). I would come under the basket and over to the other side (a reverse layup). Bobby and Jim Osborne were better outside shots. I loved to go underneath."
Though Hands loved playing high school basketball ("I had a great time doing it," he said), he had no thoughts of playing in college, though Kent State offered him a scholarship.
"I was more interested in a new car and girls," he said. "I thought I could have more fun than going to college and playing basketball."
Hands went to work for IRC Fibers in Painesville, then moved on to R.W Sidley's, to Chardon Welding and a place in Newbury that made signs. His accumulated skills at those workplaces resulted in his creating his own sign business.
In 1990 he visited Maine. While there he heard a noise, then spotted a bull moose.
"I love to hunt," he said. "I told my wife, "We need to move here.' We had seven children and no home. We moved seven kids to Maine in a 24-foot U-Haul trailer. Then we found a place in the woods. The kids had to go without electricity and indoor plumbing from 1990 to 1993 until I ran electricity to the house."
In Maine Hands started his own sign business. He has since built it to 16 employees, four of them his children.
"We're doing very well," he said. "We make high-rise signs. If you want a sign, we have it."
Hands met his wife, Ellen, who is from Pittsburgh, at Geneva-on-the-Lake in 1964. They met in March, got engaged in April and married on May 16, when Hands was 19. They have been married for 52 years. The Hands have eight children and 26 grandchildren.
"At Christmas, everyone comes here," he said. "We have a big house."
Ellen runs Sam's office. Jody, the oldest child, was born in 1965. She was followed by Rebecca in 1967, Samuel in 1969, Kathleen in 1971, Michael in 1973, Timothy in 1977, Sara in 1980 and Noah in 1985. The last four of those work with him in his sign business, along with a son-in-law. Jody runs a day care center, Rebecca is a nurse, Samuel has his own sign business in Spokane, Washington and Kathleen is a teacher.
Hands still remembers the day he met Ted Ocepek, a videographer with the Cleveland Plain Dealer for an interview. Ocepek was in the process of interviewing noted comedian Red Skelton. The three of them had a great time.
Of his basketball career, which included a stint with the Pruden Chicks, Hands said, "I had a great time doing it. I'm tickled to death to be coming back (for the Hall of Fame induction). It'll make my whole year."
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.