Hark, for this Herald!
Jim Chiacchiero and his buddies were part of the last great era of St. John basketball
By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
If you picture it in your mind, it might resemble the opening to a movie. A solitary boy picks up a basketball, trots out to a suitable distance, squares up and launches a high arcing shot.
As soon as the old basketball leaves his hand, he starts his jog back toward a spot he anticipates it will land, watching all the way as it clears the cylinder and tickles the twine on its way back to earth.
The ball bounces once and the boy is there to pick it up and
start the whole sequence over again.
In truth, that was St. John graduate Jim Chiacchiero honing the skill that would one day punch his ticket to the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame.
“I lived on Route 45,” Chiacchiero said. “There weren’t that many kids my age growing up. We had a basketball hoop and I would shoot and and shoot. I shot in all kinds of weather. I remember shooting with gloves on my hands and snow on the ground. I remember there were times I had to play the wind. I remember shooting in the rain and having to catch the ball before it landed in a puddle. My dad had installed light up in a tree and on summer nights I would shoot until my legs felt like Jello.
“Back then, I had no clue (it would lead to the HOF). It was just something I enjoyed doing, so I did it. It began then. Looking back, I think I was nuts to do that. But it’s what I enjoyed doing. I loved to do it. I still do.”
Though for different sports and different organizations, Chiacchiero is the second member of his family to be named to a hall of fame. His father, Tony Chiacchiero is a member of the Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame.
Chiacchiero was blessed to have a great family behind him with his dad and mom, Joanne, who passed away in 1999, leading the way.
“They were dedicated,” Chiacchiero said. “They were dedicated to me, my sisters and two brothers. They were never over the top, in your face yelling, but they were there to support us. Both my parents are hall-of-fame parents. If everybody had parents like I have, the world would be better off.”
The elder Chiacchiero, offered one piece of advice the younger Chiacchiero will never forget.
“I remember I was in fourth grade or so,” Chiacchiero said. “My dad would say if I developed my game, I would be a pretty good ballplayer. He told me good ballplayers could use both hands equally and asked if I wanted to be a good ballplayer.
“Over the next two weeks, I don’t think my right hand touched the ball. That’s all he said to me. Those few words just hit a note with me.”
It wasn’t just his parents, though, who helped Chiacchiero reach lofty plateaus.
“I have to mention my sisters, Connie and Nancy, I don’t think they missed one of my games in high school.
“My brothers, Joe and John, I’ve got to thank them for never letting me win at anything. That just fueled the fire.”
Though, in the end, Chiacchiero got the better of his two brothers.
“If nothing else, it gives me bragging rights,” Chiacchiero said. “I don’t hold a lot of bragging rights, but this is one they haven’t matched yet.”
His coaches made an impact, too.
“I owe a lot to Coach Bowler,” Chiacchiero said. “He had faith in me even though I was only 5-7 and 150 pounds soaking wet. He had a lot of faith in us, not only myself, but everybody.
“My freshman year, the varsity team won six or seven games. To go from six or seven wins to 18 is a big accomplishment. He had to have faith.
“Eventually, it wore off on us.”
There were other coaches who helped, too.
“Larry Daniels was the JV coach,” Chiacchiero said. “He was coaching for like 1,000 years. Though he was the JV coach, he was still in practice every day. He was a heck of a coach.
“In junior high, I had Joe Prugar. Every junior high kid should have a coach like Joe Prugar. He would just pound the fundamentals.”
A rule change, adding the 3-point line Chiacchiero’s freshman season, provided St. John coach John Bowler with a formidable threat to go with the inside punch of 6-foot-7 center Steve Hanek. With the new rule in effect, the 5-7 point guard netted 202 career treys in his career to set an Ashtabula County record that still stands on his way to totaling 1,159 points.
During the 1990-91 season alone, Chiacchiero knocked down 80 3-pointers and nine in a single game. The former is a county record and the latter ties the county record.
As much as Chiacchiero might enjoy having achieved those feats, there is one he cherishes above all others.
JIM CHIACCHIERO: "We played for the team and the community, but we were also playing for the players over the last 50 years or however long the school had been in existence. It wasn't just about us."
JIM CHIACCHIERO was always dangerous when he had the basketball in his hands, including at the free-throw line as shown here in the old Falcon Gym in Jefferson.
JIM CHIACCHIERO (15) of St. John battles Ryan Mongenel of Harbor for a rebound during a game at Fawcett Gymnasium.
JIM CHIACCHIERO with his wife, Shaunna, and son, Devin, 7.
“(Those records) obviously (mean a lot),” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade our (Northeastern Conference) championship for them. Without it, there would be something missing. In fact, I would trade those records for another NEC championship.”
That’s right. St. John won a share of the 10-team league championship Chiacchiero’s in sophomore year, 1988-89.
The Heralds were 18-2 in the regular season, sharing the league title with City Series rival Ashtabula. It marks the single-best season in St. John history.
“That was a dream season,” Chiacchiero said. “I think it erased a lot of ghosts, ghosts from when we weren’t even there. St. John basketball had been pretty pitiful. I think the most wins the school had prior to that was 15 counting the tournament. The most in the regular season, I think, was 13.
“For us to get to 18, that was a huge accomplishment. We did things that were never done before. It’s the only NEC championship (in basketball) for the school. The whole season, obviously, we were playing for us (individually). We played for the team and the community, but we were also playing for the players over the last 50 years or however long the school had been in existence. It wasn’t just about us.”
Surrounded by talent
With Chiacchiero manning the point and knocking down 3-pointers, Hanek operating dangerously in the paint alongside Dave Golen, Augie Pugliese providing points from the wing and Greg Andrego playing lockdown defense, the Heralds were a difficult matchup each night out.
“We were gym rats,” Chiacchiero said. “They had to beg us to get out of the gym.
“Steve and Dave were a handful to deal with inside. Dave was often undersized head to head, but he was a garbage-type player. He would outwork everybody. He did what he had to do to benefit the team.
“Beyond Dave, Steve and Augie, Greg Andrego was our fifth starter,” Chiacchiero said. “He wasn’t our best player, but you couldn’t leave him alone. He was probably the best athlete of all of us. During that championshipseason, me, Steve and Dave were quiet. We didn’t say a whole lot. The most important thing Greg brought was moxy. Teams probably hated our guts (because of the swagger), but we loved to play with him. He typically guarded the other team’s best player.”
Hanek, in his own right, will one day most likely be a hall of famer, scoring more than 1,000 points and providing Chiacchiero with the room to operate from beyond the arc.
“I was so lucky,” Chiacchiero said. “I had the pleasure of playing with a lot of great players. Steve was such a force inside. He required a lot of attention (from defenses). Oftentimes, teams would double down on him.
“As a result, they would leave me pretty open. It was a real pleasure to play with him for two and a half or three seasons. “
Off the bench making significant contributions were Terry Guerriero, Mark DiSalvatore, Steve Koproski and R.J. Valentic.
“I felt bad for those four guys,” Chiacchiero said. “In any other typical St. John year, they’d have been starters. A lot of the time, we won games before we even played them. Teams would look over in warmups and see we had players who were 6-7, 6-5, 6-2 and 6-2. A lot of people forget, but (Koproski) went on to play Division I football at Kent.”
All of those weapons gave Chiacchiero the opportunity to set another school milestone.
“I know I hold the school record for all-time assists,” he said.
The year the Heralds won the NEC, it was evident right from the start they had the makings of something special.
“The first game of the year, we played Pymatuning Valley,” Chiacchiero said. “The year before that was one hell of a team. They had the Hitchcock brothers and Sean Freeman. We ended up beating them in a close game. In our heads, we knew that win meant something because we knew how good they were the previous year.
“The next game, we played Grand Valley and they had Steve Oman (another member of the 2012 class of HOF inductees). We knew it would be a hell of a matchup between Oman and Steve Hanek. We ended up winning by one.”
They did, however, stumble a few times.
“Harvey ended up being our third game and they beat us pretty bad at our place,” Chiacchiero said. “A few games later, we played Bulaand they beat us by nine at Bula.”
A big win over a rival, though, salvaged what might have been lost.
“I remember the third-to-last game of the season,” Chiacchiero said. “Bula was one game ahead and we had to beat them to share the NEC title. It was at St. John and we had to be there before the JV game started. I arrived at the school about 10 or 15 minutes before the JVs started and it was already sold out. I couldn’t even get to the door. Who knows when it sold out?
“After the first quarter, they were winning. In the second, we came back. It was close the entire game, but we maintained the lead we got in the second quarter. At one time, we were up double digits, but the dwindled it down. We were able to hang on for the win. I think the final score was 63-60.”
One of the ways Bowler prepared Chiacchiero and the remainder of the Heralds is a tool he still uses today, coaching at Edgewood.
“Like us playing the Edgewood players (in open gyms) on Sundays, he had us playing older guys who were bigger and stronger,” Chiacchiero said. (Bowler) would tell us if we could compete with the older guys, come Tuesday and Friday, there was no reason we couldn’t succeed.
“That was true. A lot of times, the Sunday open gyms were tougher games (than our scheduled games). Those games were wars. There would be three or four games and nobody wanted to lose because you had to sit out. Nobody wanted to sit out.”
After such a remarkable run through the regular season, the Heralds were caught by surprise in the sectional tournament.
“I don’t want to talk about that game,” he said. “That’s one game that still haunts me. We just didn’t come ready to play.
“We were 18-2 (going in) and we had won the NEC. In our heads, maybe we thought we could sleepwalk through the first couple rounds of the tournament. Every school we played was much larger than we were and and we figured since we beat up the big schools, we could do the same with the small schools. You were dealing with 16-year-olds.
“I’m sure we were overconfident.”
After graduating, Chiacchiero did not play organized basketball again.
“I played baseball for a year at Wilmington College,” he said. “One of the things I knew was it was time to get more serious about my studies. I went down there with the intentions I would play. But at some point, I knew I wasn’t going to.
“I knew it was time to step away.”
Originally, Chiacchiero was going to be a teacher and a coach, that, however, changed.
“Back then, you didn’t do your student teaching until your last semester,” he said. “After that, I realized I had to do something different. I just didn’t have the patience.”
An old mentor stepped up and gave Chiacchiero the door to a career.
“I ended up working with Coach Bowler,” he said. “When he retired, I purchased the business from him,” Chiacchiero said.
The business is Northeast Office Equipment and Supply. It’s an authorized Xerox dealer and full-service print and copy store. Chiacchiero has a wife, Shaunna, and a 7-year-old son, Devin.
These days, Chiacchiero still takes to the court on Sundays to help Bowler, tough he is now on the other side of the fence.
“It’s a lot like déjà vu, except I’m on the other side,” Chiacchiero said. “I don’t want to be on the other side. I’m one of the older guys now. But it’s good to give back what all of those older guys gave us.
“Edgewood got so much better from that first open gym to the end of the season.”