44 years of hoops

Naugatuck’s Friday Night League still going strong

Naugatuck Basketball Association Commissioner Kevin McSherry makes a call while refereeing a game March 3 at Hillside Intermediate School in Naugatuck. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — The Naugatuck Basketball Association, often referred to as the Friday Night League, had a modest beginning 44 years ago in the tiny gymnasium in the basement of the Naugatuck YMCA.

At the time, there were only four teams — Rosenblatt’s, Naugatuck Savings Bank, Buckmiller’s, and Paul’s Sport Shop.

The league was started in 1973 by Jack Fruin and John Letts, with Ray Adomaitis serving as the first league director. It was founded to serve as an extension of the Little Pal Basketball League, which only allows players up to 12 years old. There was no organized basketball for players between the ages of 13 and 18 who didn’t play on a high school team.

“The league served as a place for kids to play ball after Little Pal and provided that opportunity throughout their high school years,” said local attorney and league commissioner Kevin McSherry, who also coaches a team and referees games. “It continues to teach them how to work as a team and how to be disciplined, as with our no swearing rule — that is a technical foul.”

The league has evolved over the decades. It eventually expanded to 10 teams, and in 1981 moved to City Hill Middle School with games on Friday and Saturday nights.

Today, games are played on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights at Hillside Intermediate School, and 12 teams will vie for the league championship this month when the playoffs begin.

McSherry’s name is the one that is most synonymous with the Friday Night League today.

In 1982, McSherry came on to coach Sweeney Insurance and he’s still involved with the league 35 years later. In 1991, McSherry took over as commissioner.

“I played baseball and football in high school and later played football at Assumption College,” said McSherry, who was in high school at Holy Cross when the league began. “Never played high school basketball, but I did play down at the YMCA for Rotary in the Little Pal League for Norm Litke Sr.

“I may have been around for a long time, but it has taken some outstanding individuals to keep this league growing and surviving all these years. Guys like Billy Cowan, who has 15 years as a coach, and Jim Goggin, who was our longest tenured coach until he stepped down this year handing the reigns over to Brendan Hale.”

McSherry added that local sponsors have been the driving force behind the league thriving for over four decades.

“We couldn’t do it without the generosity of our sponsors,” McSherry said. “Some of them actually will come and support their team, cheering them on.”

As the league has grown over the years, a number of local legends of the game have played in it, including Naugatuck Hall of Fame coach John Minicucci and all-time game-high scorers Mike Wilson (51 points) and Bob Mezzo (54 points).

“I played there in seventh and eighth grade,” said Wilson, now the head coach of the Naugatuck High boys basketball team. “There are a lot of good basketball players that came out of the Friday Night League. In fact some of them have gone on to play for the high school team. It’s where I got my start to play with the big boys.”

According to McSherry, a typical game will draw between 50 and 100 fans. Come playoff time, the crowd grows to about 150. Players come out to watch their counterparts, he said, and more than a few of the players have gone on to excel at the high school level.

“It’s great to see those kind of success stories,” McSherry said. “And it’s not that unusual. Mike Wilson played one year in the NBA. Shane Swierbitowicz was cut as a sophomore and played in the NBA, and now he is one of the better players for the Greyhounds. Corey Plasky is another one who benefited from his time in the NBA Friday Night League.”

McSherry said a lot of the former players return when they are done playing to referee or coach.

One of those volunteers is Eron Ramadanov, a former player who came back to referee one season. Now, he coaches and does the book, recording assists, rebounds, turnovers and steals.

“Eron is a huge asset to the league,” McSherry said. “When I said we couldn’t do it without the volunteers we have, we certainly couldn’t do it without Eron. He does such a great job, and I know the kids and the coaches appreciate his efforts.”

The Naugatuck Basketball Association, in its 44th season, is still going strong thanks to the efforts of many volunteers over the years, starting with those who ensured the success of the league way back in the tiny confines of the YMCA gymnasium.