Writer Don Harrison, a Fairfield resident for the past 38 years, is a walking treasure trove of information about sports in the Nutmeg State. Now he has released a new book recounting his memories of basketball in Connecticut from his early days as a sportswriter in 1963 to present.
Published by The History Press, "Hoops in Connecticut: The Nutmeg State's Passion for Basketball", Harrison's third book, recalls interviews and interactions with coaches and players at all levels of play and features 90 photographs, including the trading cards of nine University of Connecticut players that went on to play in the N.B.A.
In advance of a book signing at Dec. 10, the 72-year-old writer, editor, Patch contributor, and author talked about his journalism career and lifelong connections with sports.
Harrison was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan, though he spent elementary and high school years in New Haven and East Haven. "I got to go to Ebbets Field three times as a boy," he said. "My first boyhood hero was Jackie Robinson. You could say I became color blind at an early age."
At East Haven High School, he followed the boys basketball team from 8th grade to his senior year, during which time the squad amassed an impressive 118-5 record. "They won three state titles and were runners-up twice," he recalled. The coach, Frank Crisafi, who's 88 now, and star player Ralph Paolillo are both discussed in Harrison’s book.
Harrison had a classmate then whose father worked at Yale, which enabled the boys to go to the university's Payne Whitney Gym to enjoy Yale basketball. "In that era, Yale was as good as ," he said. "Their star player was Johnny Lee, who was on the cover of a 1957 issue of Sports Illustrated."
Harrison’s first job out of school was as a copy boy for the New York Mirror, then the second largest newspaper in the country. "Walter Winchell was the gossip columnist," Harrison said. "I have a vivid memory of him with his fedora cap tilted back, walking through the news room with Natalie Wood on one arm and Steve McQueen on the other."
During Harrison's three years at the Mirror, he was promoted to Sports Desk man. Unfortunately, Hearst Corporation closed the paper in October 1963. On a tip from Sports Editor Dan Parker, Harrison landed sports writing work with the Waterbury Republican. He also moved to Fairfield at that time.
Harrison was lured away by the New Haven Journal Courier for a couple of years before returning to the Republican as sports editor in 1967. He stayed with the paper until 1981. He was twice voted Connecticut Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association.
During that period, the writer met and married, in 1973, his wife Patti, the sister of Don Cook, who was then the athletic director at and now plays the same role at . (Cook wrote the foreword to Harrison’s new book.) The couple was introduced by Florence Barakat, wife of Fairfield University’s men’s basketball coach. The Harrisons started a family that includes daughters Alexis, Erin, and Rachel, all Fairfielders.
Harrison left sportswriting for a time to serve as the director of advertising and public relations at Trans-Lux Corporation in Norwalk. However, he returned to writing in early 1989 as Director of Sports Information at Sacred Heart University, also handling PR and editing the alumni newsletter.
In the summer of 1994, he was promoted to founding editor of Sacred Heart University Magazine and made manager of the school’s news bureau. When cutbacks eliminated his position in 2001, he became founding editor of the Greenwich Citizen, a Brooks Community newspaper. He had a seven-year ride, with many accolades along the way, until Hearst bought the paper in 2008 and his position was eliminated in a company-wide scaleback.
Today, Harrison freelances as a writer, and has contributed to dozens of publications, and he claims authorship of two other books. In 1974, he self-published "Twenty Five Years Plus One," about Fairfield University's men's basketball team, and in 2008, The History Press released "Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State," now in its second printing.
But he's perhaps proudest of his latest state basketball-focused book effort. "One chapter is dedicated to players, including Calvin Murphy, who was the only Connecticut native to be inducted as a player into the Basketball Hall of Fame," he said. "Others include Vin Baker, who played in four straight All-Star Games in the mid-90s, 'Super' John Williamson, and John Bagley."
Relevant to Fairfield, Harrison said, "Roger Ludlowe High School won the 1954-1955 New England Championship at Boston Garden. The coach was Bob Seirup and Harry Hyra was a star player. Hyra’s daughter is actress Meg Ryan."
Harrison summed up, "I think the book will introduce young people to how important basketball has been in our state for many years. It didn't begin with Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma. There's a rich history here and I hope readers enjoy discovering it."
Don Harrison will be signing copies of his new book at Fairfield University Bookstore, 1499 Post Road, on Saturday, December 10, from 1-4p.m.