Brookline High’s basketball season in 1963 ended on a March night at a sold-out Boston Garden after a heartbreaking 1-point loss to Brockton High.
But the players’ admiration for the coach who led them to that Eastern Massachusetts quarterfinal game has endured.
Wednesday afternoon at a Kingston restaurant, five players and the manager from that Brookline High team held their annual reunion with coach Don Slaven, now 82 and living in Mashpee.
“This is all about him, not about us, because Don knew us as more than basketball players,’’ said Peabody resident Rick Weitzman, who was a senior forward, captain, and top scorer on the ’63 team, and who five years later wore a championship ring as a Boston Celtic.
Also joining Slaven and his wife, Clare, were starting guards Eric Rosen and Mark Mazer, forward Mike Stacy, sixth man Hap Leven, and team manager Michael Sawyer.
The ’63 team was Slaven’s first at Brookline, and the stories from that memorable postseason run began with how he got the job.
“I was one of 118 candidates, and at the interview at Town Hall, there was some debate whether I could teach English and also coach basketball,’’ recalled Slaven, who compiled a record of 409-173 over 27 seasons, 12 at Brookline.
“The chairman of the English department asked me two questions. The first was ‘Who was Madame Defarge?’ and the other was to define a noun clause.’’
His answers were a bit irreverent, but that feistiness impressed the hiring committee and Slaven was on board.
Brookline started the season slowly, losing four of five games, then won 11 straight to qualify for the postseason.
“Before our first tournament game, our bus was late and we wound up taking the T to the Garden,’’ recalled Rosen, a Framingham resident and lawyer, and a prime mover with Weitzman behind the reunions. “Well, we defeated Lynn English that night so we took the T after that for good luck.’’
Slaven’s team then came from behind to beat top-seeded Beverly, the city where Slaven was born.
But against Brockton, a basket by Mike Bernard in the final seconds gave the Boxers the win in a game that saw Brockton star Steve Sarantopoulos score a tournamentrecord 51 points.
Brookline had one last shot and Weitzman, a member of Brookline High’s Hall of Fame, let fly from midcourt.
“I remember like it was yesterday, the referee saying ‘good if it goes,’ and the ball hit the backboard, then the rim, and bounced out,’’ said Weitzman, who starred at Northeastern and was Peabody High’s basketball coach from 1970 to ’80.
Slaven invited the team to his home after the season for pasta. According to last week’s gathering, Stacy consumed most of the meatballs. Slaven and his wife still have the knife set that Weitzman brought as a present.
Years later, when Weitzman was scouting for the Celtics, he was watching a college tournament game.
“One of the coaches was Mike Bernard and I walked up to him and said, ‘You’re still a son of a B,’ and he said to me, ‘Yeah, you look familiar.’ ’’
Slaven was the one of the first into the Brockton dressing room that night to offer his congratulations.
“Look, we gave it a great shot and I couldn’t have been more proud of these guys,’’ Slaven said Wednesday. “They were a special team then and a special group now, and I love them all.’’
Sawyer is a lawyer and lives in Holliston; Stacy, a Braintree resident, played at Stonehill and Boston State and is an executive in the alcoholic beverage industry; Mazer worked in the mental health field and lives in Boston and Martha’s Vineyard; and Stoughton resident Leven was a two-sport athlete at Quinnipiac and an executive for two paint manufacturers.
They described Slaven as a compassionate and positive motivator.
“When I was coaching Peabody High,’’ said Weitzman, “we played against Brookline and Don and they kicked our butts. But afterwards, he said to me, ‘you coached a great game.’ That was Don.’’
Slaven, a past president of the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association and a member of Brookline’s Hall of Fame, retired from coaching in 1979 and from the Brookline school system in 1990.
A graduate of St. John’s Prep in Danvers and St. Michael’s University, Slaven coached six teams, made 20 tournament appearances, and won 10 league titles. He was 45-19 in the postseason.
Slaven left the Brookline bench in 1975 and coached four more years at Needham High — where his daughters Diane, Kathy, and Julie were standout athletes — and at Don Bosco Tech in Boston.
His 53-year-old son, who is autistic, is the subject of Slaven’s recently completed family tribute to him, a book titled “The Mystique of Michael.’’
A former Special Olympics director for Cape Cod and the Islands, Slaven has also produced a CD of music composed by his father, John Slaven Sr., from the 1940s and ’50s.
“I broke open a locked piano seat and found the torn manuscripts,’’ said Slaven, an Army teammate of the great Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford. “Two of the songs were patriotic and the rest were love songs to my mother.’’
It is that side of Don Slaven, his players said, that transcends the wins, and the losses.