By MICHAEL LETENDRE
For Mike Giovinazzo, the long time basketball coach from Bristol Eastern, his odyssey through high school hoops has finally come to a conclusion.
The end of the 2015-16 was to be his last as he passed the baton to his long time lead assistant, Bunty Ray.
It wasn’t just a very successful 34 year scholastic career coming to an end for Giovinazzo but an amazing 45 year odyssey that saw the mentor work his way up from the grade school ranks to ultimately run the program at Bristol Eastern and take it to new heights.
“I started [coaching] in 1972,” said Giovinazzo looking back. “I coached basketball for 45 years. It’s been a long time that I’ve been in the gym in the winter. So, this is my first time out.”
His roots in hoops started long before getting the head coaching gig at Eastern for the 1982-83 campaign.
Along with former mentor and Eastern head coach Jim Bates, the Lancers have been in good hands since 1974.
Giovinazzo was named interim JV coach at Eastern when Ed Conlin stepped down in December of 1976 and the young coach picked up a quick win, defeating Newington 55-51 behind 17 points from Dave Anderson.
From there, Bates and Giovinazzo worked hand-and-hand for years at Eastern and the duo took the 1980-81 squad all the way to the finals of what would become the Class L (it was the Class A title game then) championship game.
And for years, Giovinazzo – along with several other coaches from the school, including current soccer coach Bill Sweet and girls basketball coach Tony Floyd – soaked up every morsel from Bates to become the outstanding mentor in high school hoops.
“You could never really match the way coach Bates coached,” said Giovinazzo. “I had the opportunity to also play for him in American Legion baseball. So, I saw two sides of him. To try and be like him would have been impossible but I got so many things from him that I incorporated into my own style. There’s no question he was the greatest influence on me as a coach, a basketball coach.”
And there Giovinazzo was, starting in 1982, as the coach blazed a trail that saw him finish up with 340 victories, which was more than any other boys hoops coach in school history (Vin Punzo, the second coach in program history, nabbed 122 wins in 12 seasons).
A graduate of Bristol Central High School, he was able to establish himself at Bristol Eastern as one of the up-and-coming coaches in both basketball and baseball – all from his own home town.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate” to be able to coach in Bristol said Giovinazzo. “I still take a lot of ribbing from my old classmates from Bristol Central that I coached at Eastern but it was a natural thing for me to do following coach Bates so there was no question that I was going to do that.”
“But yeah, it’s pretty special being able to stay in your own hometown and coach all those years. I feel very fortunate.”
Any time the Lancers took the court, his players had all the tools to battle the opponent, through detailed scouting reports and come tournament time – just as Bunnell found out in 2015 Class L postseason play – under Giovinazzo, Eastern was never an easy out and opponents had to sweat to the very end.
Giovinazzo was so precise with his scouts (scouting reports), his players probably found out what opponents ate before the game, the kind of socks they liked to wear, and any tendencies you could imagine.
Just in a scout of former Bristol Central standout Daquan Brooks, Giovinazzo knew what to expect from the All-State guard, all his tricks, and he had his Lancers prepared for games against the Rams.
Of course, Giovinazzo would be quick to praise all his long time coaches for those scouts like Mark Redman, Chinky Driscoll, Bunty Ray, DJ Parent, Ryan Raponey and a long list of other assistant coaches along the way for that information.
But a whole team of dedicated individuals makes a squad successful and that notion made Giovinazzo very successful in turn.
Sure, there were some dark days – record wise – to start his varsity career but as the players got used to Giovinazzo’s successful method’s, the kids committed to the program, and the Lancers gained a reputation of being one of the toughest teams to battle in the then recently formed Central Connecticut Conference (CCC).
The Eastern program started to see some real success in the mid-to-late 1980’s right into the mid-1990’s and that flowed along the same lines of Giovinazzo’s 1986 baseball championship.
And his fellow coaches: Floyd, Dave Mills in football, and Gale McMahon in volleyball all won championships during that same timeframe.
It was a bit of a golden age for sports at Eastern and the basketball team nearly mirrored that success.
The 1986-87 basketball squad, behind the likes of Kevin Sheppard and Linsie Esau, began a run of eight straight tournament showings and the run ended with a group of ten extremely talented seniors, highlighted by Todd Ziogas (Pace), Brendan Floyd (CCSU), and Chris D’Amato (ESCU, NCAA Division III World Series champion and MVP in baseball), as Giovinazzo and the Lancers went 18-4 which was the mentor’s most victories in a season to that point.
In the 1990s, Giovinazzo guided the Lancers to two CCC South Championships (1994 and 1996), elusive titles to Eastern with the likes of Bristol Central, New Britain, and the Meriden schools in the mix for basketball.
And the CCC South championship that came in 1996, a team that started the campaign at 2-5 but won 12 of 13 games (the team went on an 11-game winning streak) to capture an 11-3 CCC South ledger, good enough for a share of the league title.
That squad, headlined by the likes of Shawn Paul, David Giovinazzo, Jimmy Deschaine, Timmy Tycz, Keith Viens, Jon Kozlak, and current Bristol Central girls coach Steven Gaudet, was one of Eastern’s smartest squads ever.
The group memorized the scouting reports, played for each other, and knew how to win the close game.
The 15-7 campaign saw the Lancers fall in the end to eventual Class L champion Norwalk but had the second longest winning streak in school history to get there.
“Occasionally, a group will come along and you would say ‘I’ve got to stay a few more years because I want to coach these guys,’” said Giovinazzo. “We certainly had our down time over the years but there would always be a group of guys that would come along that you would want to see through their senior years and that [1995-96 squad] was certainly one of those teams but there were many of them along the way.”
Giovinazzo had many tournament successes during later years, including an amazing win over then No. 4 ranked Notre Dame of Fairfield on March 6, 2000 when No. 29 Bristol Eastern saw all five starters score in double figures to pull off an amazing 70-65 victory on the road to shake up the Class L tournament bracket.
Those successes continued but in 2009-10, Giovinazzo took a little bit of this, a little bit of that and turned that year’s squad into a Class L state contender.
At 13-1, it was the program’s best finish in the CCC South ever, leading to a school tying 20-wins, and the Lancers’ third overall trip to the semifinal round of the CIAC playoffs.
The group, featuring Xavier Wade, current assistant coach Christian Pierce, Tom Tarantino, Ray Ortiz, and Chris Colon, fell to future Minnesota Timberwolves’ guard Kris Dunn and New London by a final score of 66-46 – ending the campaign as the tenth rated team in Connecticut in most state polls that year.
And the last time the Lancers were in the state tournament picture, in 2015 Class L first round action against future champ Bunnell of Stratford, the 28th ranked team was just five minutes away (with a 49-44 lead in hand on the road) in pulling off the upset of the tournament before falling late.
The wins and losses came and went for the program but the most important part of Giovinazzo’s day was about teaching the game of hoop, and, in turn, teaching the game of life to his players and students.
Along those lines, he had a philosophy he hoped all the players who came through his program would take out of high school:
Did you compete to the best of your ability every day?
Did you learn lessons that you could use in your adult life?
And did you form friendships that will last a lifetime?
Just about every one of his players could say yes to those three questions and that meant Giovinazzo was successful as a coach.
“Because that was my prime motivation in coaching, I felt that I stressed it every day and that I lived it every day,” said Giovinazzo of his philosophy. “If you played for me, you pretty much mirrored my attitude toward competitiveness in athletics. I feel like I accomplished that.”