The rise of the Manhasset boys basketball team has been one of the feel-good stories on Long Island this season. Having improved from 9-10 a year ago to 19-3, and having won only their second Nassau title in 22 years, the Indians — led by 73-year-old coach George Bruns — will face Wyandanch on Sunday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum in the Long Island/ Southeast Regional Class A championship game.
For Bruns, walking into Long Island’s basketball cathedral will be filled with nostalgia and memories. It will be the first time he’s been in the building for a basketball event in more than 45 years.
The Coliseum, you see, was home for the most exciting time in his basketball life: when he played for the 1972-73 New York Nets of the ABA, coached by Lou Carnesecca.
“Things happen in funny ways, but I expect that it will jog a lot of great memories for me,” Bruns said during an interview at the Floral Park home he and his wife, Elene, have shared since 1970. “I wasn’t there long but, for my time in basketball, it was great times.”
What has paved Bruns’ road back to the Coliseum is a scrappy team of overachievers who dedicated themselves to making the most of this season in the wake of last season’s disappointment. The Indians competed together in summer leagues at Hofstra, in Hicksville and in Hempstead and bought into Bruns’ vision for what it would take to be winners.
“They are one of those teams where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts,” he said. “I am proud of them, but they should be proud of themselves . . . They find a way to win on the day they play.”
Long road to Coliseum
It was a much more circuitous route to the Coliseum the first time. Bruns was the late-blooming, fundamentally sound point guard at the since-repurposed St. Augustine Diocesan High School in his native Brooklyn. He was a walk-on at Manhattan College and ultimately improved into a starter who would, as a senior, make the 1966 all-Metropolitan team.
But when college ended in 1966, it looked as if his shot at continuing high-level basketball did, too. He tried out for the Eastern Professional Basketball Association (now called the CBA), which played mostly on weekends, and was cut. For Bruns, basketball became pickup games and amateur leagues in and around New York and Long Island.
He took high school teaching jobs in New York’s five boroughs and soon became the boys basketball coach at McClancy High in Queens.
“I was playing in the Long Island Press League and there was an official who worked in the Eastern League and encouraged me to try out again,” Bruns said. “I did and made the team in Hartford [for 1969-70], the Hartford Bics. I think maybe that’s where people saw I had a pretty good basketball IQ. I could run a team, saw the mismatches, knew who hadn’t touched the ball in a while, kept everybody happy.”
He played that season in Hartford and the next three for the Allentown Jets, all the while commuting from Long Island and McClancy.
Before the 1972-73 season, former St. John’s player Lou Roethel convinced him to try out for the Nets. He played well but was cut and returned to playing weekends with Allentown.
And then his break came: The Nets suffered a spate of backcourt injuries.
Nets assistant John Kresse — who played at St. John’s, was on Carnesecca’s coaching staff there and with the Nets and became nationally known as the College of Charleston coach — wanted to scout him.
“I had called George at home,” Kresse told The New York Times in 1973, “and asked for directions to drive to Allentown. I told him I was going to look over some talent, never mentioning that he was the one we were looking for. He played a great game, took 12 shots, hit on seven and ran the ballclub.”
Carnesecca called days later to offer a three-game contract. “They’d just moved to the Coliseum and I wasn’t sure what to do,” Bruns said. “[A friend] advised me, ‘Sign that contract, because it’ll never happen again.’ ”
Bruns played only six minutes that first game, but in the next one, he scored 15 points in 30 minutes as the Nets upset a mighty Kentucky Colonels squad led by future Hall of Famers Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel.
Not only did he feel comfortable playing at that level, but he was surrounded by talented players who could finish on his passes. And the Nets signed him for the remainder of the season.
“What I like most is that George knows what’s happening at all times,” Carnesecca told the Daily News that season. “He can salvage a situation without being told what to do.”
And soon he became a fan favorite, the everyman who could compete with the pros.
“We had kids ringing the bell of the house and asking for autographs,” Bruns said. “And even though our team had players like Whopper [Billy Paultz] and Bill Melchionni and John Roche, so many people wanted me to sign autographs after the games . . . It was really a great time.”
Bruns averaged 6.6 points and 2.8 assists in 18.2 minutes in the final 13 games and was looking forward to playing for the Nets the following season — but it didn’t happen. There was a new coaching staff, a new star in Julius Erving and a new sensation of a guard named “Super” John Williamson. It was a team that would win the ABA title.
A calling for coaching
Soon coaching became Bruns’ forte. Over the next 30-odd years, he coached high school boys, then his daughters’ CYO teams, then spent nine years as the women’s coach at Nassau CC. He’d been out of coaching a short time when the Manhasset position opened up. Close confidant Stu Goldman encouraged him to go for the gig by promising to be an assistant coach, which he remains today.
“This has been a very satisfying season so far,” Bruns said. “It can be a little scary because we never know which of the players is going to be the one to step up on any given night, but it just happens about every game . . . I can’t wait to see what happens Sunday.”