The tale of St. Mary’s Institute’s interscholastic basketball program could be best told by two men who each played and coached within it. Alex Isabel was a baseball star at Amsterdam High School who enlisted in the Navy when the United States entered WWI. When he was discharged, he enrolled at SMI and became a basketball star at the old Forbes Street School. He was hired to coach St. Mary’s Varsity baseball team in 1940 and a year later, he took over the school’s basketball program as well and coached it for the next 14 seasons, through the WWII and Korean War years. When he passed away suddenly in January of 1953, his former player at SMI, Francis “Dutch” Howlan was working as a Physical Education instructor at a school for the handicapped on Long Island. His good friend and former SMI teammate, Bob Sise called him and told Dutch that Isabel had died and Howlan needed to get back to Amsterdam and apply for the two vacant head coaching positions. Fortunately for the next three decades worth of SMI and Bishop Scully athletes, Howlan took Sise’s advice. He served as head basketball coach at St. Mary’s for the next 13 seasons, until it closed its doors in 1966. The highlight of Isabel’s basketball coaching career was the wonderful inter-city rivalry between his SMI team and Amsterdam High School during the 1940’s. Howlan’s legacy was turning what had been a very good program under Isabel into a great program, including one three year stretch during the early 1960’s, when his SMI teams compiled a record of 56-5.
Here are picks 4 through 7 of my All-Time Top Ten Greatest SMI Basketball Players. I will be posting the entire list of all ten players in the May issue of my Amsterdam All-Time Top Ten Newsletter which will be distributed next week. You can subscribe to that free newsletter here.
4. Dave Hugo – This big guy had one of the greatest seasons in SMI hoops history in 1965-66, when he average 19.2 points and over 20 rebounds per game to lead a Gael’s team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year to a 14-7 record. Scored over 650 points during his two seasons as Dutch Howlan’s starting center. Hugo once pulled down 40 rebounds in a game! A super athlete, he was also a good-hitting first baseman on the St. Mary’s baseball team.
5. Al Bush – A gifted scorer and rebounder, Bush’s 368 points in his 1955-56 senior season set an SMI record at the time. He also set the single game scoring record that same season with a 38-point effort, which was later eclipsed by Bill Stanley. Though he was nicknamed “the Twig” because of his tall and slender build, Bush was a very tough player, who never backed down. He went on to play ball for Alliance College.
6. Tony Fabozzi – A three-year starter for Coach Alex Isabel, Fabozzi was a superb ball-handler and double-digit scorer for the Gaels. In one of the greatest wins in SMI history, Fabozzi poured in 20 points against inter-city arch rival Amsterdam High on March 11, 1945 before crashing into the scorers table pursuing a loose ball and breaking his leg. Went on to a great collegiate career at Siena.
7. Jack Eckert – He was the best player on the SMI teams of 1958-‘59 and ’59-’60. He scored 13.1 points per game as a junior and over 17 per game as a senior. He and his twin brother Jim controlled the boards for the Gaels in their senior year, grabbing 475 rebounds between the two of them. St. Mary’s finished 18-3 that season. Eckert went on to play collegiate ball for Chattanooga University.