Once upon a time, Springfield’s Riverside Gymnasium was one of the centers of the Vermont Basketball universe. It was spanking new, state tournament games were played there and everyone sang its praise. Now over fifty years later, few people consider the once spiffy building special.
I have spent many enjoyable days in the confines of Riverside. Recently, I made peace with myself, that all its’ glory days had likely gone by. Each time I attend a game it hurts a little to see the size of the crowds. Some are bigger than others, but with the bleachers pulled out on only one side, I had settled there would not be another grand basketball experience between the walls.
Then came Friday night. Just when I had accepted it would take something close to a miracle to ever get the bleachers pulled out on both sides of the court, a spectacle appeared in the friendly confines of the once gleaming palace. A notable event broke out that didn’t compared to any basketball game ever played there.
One might guess that it might take a Springfield-Bellows Falls match-up to create such hype and we are sure such a get together had a little to do with it, but this night went way beyond the emotion of any contest ever played between these two rivals. A night that “started as simple as a benefit game hosted by the Booster Club,” according to a Springfield senior player by the name of Alex Naccarato, turned into a night that had Springfield people wearing and saluting the color purple (actually lavender to be exact) and left almost everyone with an emotional outbreak they never saw coming.
Naccarato is at the heart of this story. He was enjoying his senior season of being a Cosmo basketball player, when he was interrupted through no fault of his own.
“I just kept getting really tired,” Naccarato told us Monday evening, adding, “eventually I came home one night and told my mother I couldn’t do it anymore. I wanted to quit basketball,” a sport that he loved. This proclamation led to a trip to the doctor’s office.
While Naccarato felt tired, Springfield Cosmo Coach Mike Ruppel noted, “I had coached Alex for three years and he was always a kid who gave 100 percent. Both the staff and I noticed, he had become a step slower and had lost weight. Something wasn’t quite right.”
Mono was everyone’s first guess, but unfortunately as bad as that can be in ones life interruption, it wasn’t that simple. Tests and more tests and periods of wait, ended in a diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma. A chest x-ray helped lead to the discovery of an enlarged lymph node in his upper right chest and a biopsy led to the diagnosis.
For those not familiar with Hodgkins Disease, Naccarato was told, “If you have cancer, it is a good kind to have.” I know other sufferers who have been told the same thing, including yours truly, who fought the disease in 1994. Beating the disease takes its toll, but the survival rate is high.
All of Naccarato’s gears are lined up in the direction of overcoming this disease. The large crowd, which turned out for the basketball game, saw some incredible uplifting events.
It was a surprise to most, when the Bellows Falls team came out for warm-ups all wearing number 10 warm-up jerseys to salute Alex. Naccarato expected some money would be raised on this evening to help with medical expenses and to help his family overcome a loss of funds, as they fight through this adversity. However what happened was not in his wildest expectations.
“People said we would get a big crowd, but I didn’t expect that big a crowd. My great uncle (Andy Bladyka) took me to a basketball game when I first moved here and there was a big crowd and a college type atmosphere. This is the closest to that it has been since I came to high school. I didn’t expect the stands to fill up like that. It was really amazing,” Naccarato said reflecting back three days later.
Bladyka, who is the Springfield High School Softball coach and the town’s recreation director, told me that Alex is “a very intelligent, very likeable, young man and an outstanding student, who treats freshmen and seniors like they are equals.”
Hours after Bladyka uttered those words a parent of a Cosmo freshman player said to me “Alex is the ultimate role model. He treats my freshman son like he was his best friend and it has helped with his confidence all over.”
During my sit down with Naccarato, it was obvious this young man has special qualities galore.
Even Alex had wondered at times, if he would be able to attend his own night last Friday. He had a chemotherapy appointment that day and energy can certainly be a challenge after that. If his own drive allowed him to arrive that evening, the gathering pushed him the rest of the way through.
“I know treatments were not going to be easy,” he told me, “but they have been a lot better than I expected.”
I asked him if he ever asked himself, why me and now?
“Yes, I have thought of that. I think I do things right, so you wonder, but I am one who believes that there is a reason for everything, so maybe I will some day find out,” he answered.
His future is on hold, but at the same time it isn’t.
“I am definitely going to college, but I am not sure where.” Naccarato stated.
He has been accepted at the University of Vermont and would be more than happy to be in their Wildlife and Fisheries program, but he really wants wait to see what all the options are.
His assistant principal Jade Costello says, “he’s an example of what teachers, coaches and school leaders hope for when we send young people off into our world.”
Alex has spent his high school years building his skills and putting himself in a position to have choices about his future. He does and doesn’t have full control now. His life has been interrupted and at some time things should return to normal.
In the meantime, the community is doing their part in nudging him over the top with his battle. Of all that community effort, Costello says, “there couldn’t be a more deserving kid.” There are a whole lot of people who agree.
The surrounding Springfield Area community has come through with flying colors.
Ongoing efforts are continuing to add to the totals raised. Anyone who wishes to make a donation may send their offering to: Rachel Hunter, President, Springfield Boosters Club, PO Box 666, Springfield, Vt. 05156.
The Booster Club is also presently supporting the efforts of a raffle for the same cause, which can be accessed online by googling: Eventbrite: Alex Naccarato – Raffle Hoops For A Cause, which has a March 10 deadline and includes two major prizes. First prize is 4 tickets to the Celtics versus Miami Sunday, March 26 and includes overnight accommodations. The second prize is a Snowboard Package which includes a board, a jacket and pants.