Old Sailors

Thu, 08/15/2019 - 10:15pm

“If you haven’t played the Garden, you haven’t played anywhere.” — Anonymous

In 1968 while playing center for Providence College, Ray Johnson strode to the middle of the basketball court at Madison Square Garden. There, he stood face to face with a local New York City street player named Lew Alcindor, a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — right out of Rucker Park — who played for UCLA. Ray said, “Hi,” but Jabbar said nothing. At six foot seven, Johnson came up to the armpit of Kareem who stood at seven foot one inches. “I played him very physically and aggressively that night — solid D and offense — and I got right in his head from the jump. We lost that night by 18 points, but we played a good game,” he said. (Johnson fouled himself out of the game and got a standing ovation.) Ray Johnson was an imposing and capable center at PC, where he was coached by both the legendary Joe Mullaney and Dave Gavitt — not many players can say that. In those heady days of Providence College basketball, Ray Johnson was strong, quick, competitive, and he hustled. Today he still possesses these very same qualities — he still hits the gym three hours a day. Additionally, it is safe to say, that this was not a 230-pound, broad-shouldered, and solidly-muscled guy who you wanted under the boards blocking your shots or grabbing your rebounds, which he did prodigiously. And he was no slouch from the three-point arc, either. Ray was all business on the basketball court, and you had best be prepared if this guy was charging down court; you wouldn’t want this man bumping into you at twenty miles per hour. Johnson was notorious for having speed, agility, and strength with endurance to spare.

“Houlihan, I’ll meet you in Newport at the boat at noon, and I’ll bring lunch. You got any ice on the boat?” says Ray. I say, “Yup, noon is good, and bring some good grub, and more ice.” “Hey, Houlihan, I always, do,” says Johnson. And, that’s how it’s been before we hop on Reverie, eat our lunch, and head out of Newport Harbor to chase the wind. We’ve been doing this exact drill for about 15 years. Johnson is a very prompt and organized character, and he is also a very capable sailor. He’s the only guy I’ve ever sailed with on my boat who I feel totally comfortable with at the helm. I can relax as Ray sits at the wheel on any point of sail. Johnson and I worked together in a private school for a while, and go back many years. We hung out, played backgammon, and insulted each other as only guys who know each other well can do. Johnson has a great sense of humor, and his laugh is infectious. He’s a great guy to go sailing aimlessly with on a day holding a good southwest breeze. We never have a destination, we just like sailing on long tacks and talking about life as it is. Recently, we were talking about guys like Providence College’s Ernie DiGregorio and UNC’s Michael Jordan. We agreed that both guys scrambled the brains of guys trying to cover them by playing defense — offense, too — in the standard anticipatory context. “Both of those guys were playing outside the box, Ernie hit me with an unexpected pass behind the back, and it caught me off guard and rocked me,” said Ray. And, we agreed that there will never be another Michael Jordan in our lifetime. Both players took the game to another level.

Ray Johnson wanted to attend Providence College since he was a kid growing up in Narragansett. After being a student at South Kingstown High School for two years, he left Rhode Island to attend North Yarmouth Academy in Maine. There he played football and basketball. Moreover, although he’d never picked up a lacrosse stick in his life, he played that game in a precise and aggressive manner. I’ll bet he was a terror playing this game. “Joey, they gave me a stick to go chase a ball and get goals while playing hard defense and aggressive offense, I loved it,” he said laughing. He played varsity lacrosse and in his first season he scored a game high of four goals in his first season of ever playing the game. Here is a guy of formidable talents. “In my senior year, I was playing a basketball game at Allentown, Penn., and the place was filled with scouts,” he said, “Get this, I only filled out one college application, and it was for PC. I got someone’s attention at that game.” The rest was history for Ray Johnson.

“The first time I sailed, a bunch of friends chartered a sloop and we sailed to Cuttyhunk, Tarpaulin Cove, and the Vineyard, then I bought my first boat. It was a Cape Dory 25,” says Johnson. Subsequently, Ray bought a Pearson 303 that he kept at Dutch Harbor in Jamestown. The boat fit his 6’ 7” height and wide-shouldered frame. He sailed that boat for several years and then sold it. “I singled-handed that boat everywhere, and I loved the way it handled,” he said. When Johnson had his boats, I also had mine. It’s very hard to connect with guys who have boats because they’re usually out sailing on their own — it’s just the way it is. Finally, as long as Johnson and I are able-bodied, these old school sailing geezers will be out there bashing around Narragansett Bay while laughing and busting each other’s chops, giving each no quarter, eating great food and telling tales.