Alex Middleton is in his 40s now, and Jim Valvano is still the best
salesman he has ever known.
How else could Valvano have lured a team of Long Island all-stars to Iona?
How else could the energetic coach, a graduate of Seaford High School and
Rutgers, have transformed a tradition-poor Catholic college in New Rochelle
into a viable destination for prized recruits?
"That was his whole thing," said Jeff Ruland, a Sachem product who became
the centerpiece of Valvano's dream in the late '70s. " 'Come with me and take
this small place and beat a nationally ranked team in the 9 o'clock game in the
Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 47, said he would do it,
and he did. Iona's 77-60 upset of No. 2 Louisville in a regular-season game
mesmerized a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 21, 1980.
"That was the reason we came there. For a night like that," said Ruland,
who recently completed his fourth season as head coach at his alma mater. "I
wish I had a buck for everyone who says they were there. I'd have a $5-million
annuity by now."
In the process, local basketball cashed in because 10 of the 14 Gaels were
from the Island. They displayed the area on a national stage, as a fertile
ground for recruiting. After the Iona win, high-profile coaches such as Bob
Knight and Digger Phelps were seen in the bleachers at local high schools.
"That whole little hotbed of Long Island basketball, Bay Shore, the
Babylons, the amount of good basketball was plentiful," said Middleton, who
played at Holy Family in Huntington. "You didn't really have to travel to the
city, you could find it in Bay Shore or at Hofstra."
How Valvano assembled the talent to upset Louisville was as compelling as
the final score. The coach who later led North Carolina State to the 1983
national title snake-charmed Babylon's Glenn Vickers, North Babylon's Kevin
Hamilton and Rockville Centre's Mike Palma away from national powers in 1976.
"He believed his hype. He lived and believed everything he said to you,"
Middleton said. "He'd come into practice and say he was the most well-known,
popular Jimmy in the country. And he'd actually believe it." Even though Jimmy
Carter was the president.
After the first class, he found the Rosetta Stone in a 6-10 center from
did what every other coach wouldn't. Ruland, who went on to become an NBA
All-Star, fondly remembers Valvano's take on his 19-point game during a 75-69
loss to Whitman on Jan. 19, 1977. "V came up and said, 'You stunk tonight,' "
Ruland said. "His honesty won me over."
His persistence won him Middleton, an All-American at Henderson (Texas)
Junior College, who had all but signed with Texas in the spring of 1978. If
Texas fell through, Purdue stood waiting. Iona wasn't even a consideration
until Valvano called Middleton, asking the 6-6 forward to fly home for a visit.
"I just came for the free trip home," Middleton said.
Middleton toured the campus with Ruland. A seed had been planted, but
Middleton flew back to Texas still intent on becoming a Longhorn. Valvano
called him the next morning to say he would fly in the following day. Valvano
arrived and waited. And waited. And waited.
"He said, 'I'm not going to leave until you make a decision,' " Middleton
said. "He was the best salesman I ever knew, the best motivator. It was a pride
thing about playing with guys I grew up with and knew. I wanted to see how
that would play out on a national stage. That was intriguing enough for me to
Intrigue became reality when Ruland had 30 points and 21 rebounds as Iona
handed eventual national champion Louisville its last loss of the season.
No single event has since inflated the sphere of influence of Island
basketball to the same extent. Of course, that's not for a lack of effort by
"That's what we're trying to get back to," Ruland said of Iona. "I haven't
had enough luck to find a kid crazy enough to do the same thing."
A reprise would allow Ruland to relive the past. "The only regret I had is
I ran straight into the locker room," he said of the Louisville game. "I didn't
stick around to take it all in."