When the average gym rat realizes that playing basketball all day, every day, will not pay the bills or feed the kids, he usually stops being a gym rat.
But Ernie DiGregorio, perhaps the ultimate gym rat, figured he would never have to choose between the free-throw line and the unemployment line. He decided early on that, if at all possible, he was going to do little else with his professional life but play basketball.
The plan was to graduate from those dimly lit high school gyms to the polished college courts, and then go on to the National Basketball Assn.'s glittering arenas. He eventually was going to build his own indoor court, complete with glass backboards and a wooden floor, next to his Rhode Island home.
That was DiGregorio's idea of a blissful way to play out his days.
DiGregorio is now 35, and things haven't quite worked out the way he planned. The little man they used to call Ernie D, who once was given his own key to Providence College's gym, says he hasn't played much basketball recently and doesn't expect to play much in the future. Not even in those 6-foot-and-under leagues.
But one day, you may find DiGregorio back in NBA arenas in another capacity--as a referee. Will Ernie D become Ernie T, as in technical foul?
The way DiGregorio figures it, if he can't make a living anymore by playing basketball, he can do the next-best thing, running up and down the floor officiating games. DiGregorio was in town last week to referee games in the NBA summer pro league at Loyola Marymount under the tutelage of Darrell Garretson, the NBA's supervisor of officials.
Realistically, Ernie D could be officiating in the NBA in a few years. Rod Thorn, the NBA's director of operations, said DiGregorio might be assigned to work Continental Basketball Assn. games next season.
That sounds fine to Ernie D, who apparently will do almost anything to make a living in basketball. This, after all, sure beats his previous job as a salesman for a meat-packaging company.
"It was hard to give up playing," DiGregorio said. "Me, I kept trying to make comebacks after I quit because I had a (pro) contract that could let me do what I wanted for a few years. It was tough to believe I wasn't as good as the other players. (But) I have no aspirations of playing anymore. Officiating is the next-best thing."
It has been eight years since DiGregorio, an All-American at Providence in 1973 and the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 1974, last played in the NBA, but only about two years since he last hankered to be there.
Except for a memorable rookie season with the Buffalo Braves, in which his ball-handling and fancy passing was compared to that of Bob Cousy, DiGregorio steadily saw his dream of playing with the big boys fade away. It was as if coaches suddenly realized that, at 5-11, DiGregorio was too short and too slow to keep up defensively in the NBA.
So Ernie No-D, as his critics snidely called him late in his career, took his million-dollar contract and bounced around to three teams before finally quitting in 1978.
But because DiGregorio still receives $50,000 a year in deferred payments under the terms of his original Brave contract, he didn't find it immediately necessary to quit being a gym rat. For several years, he happily spent evenings and weekends playing ball, drinking beer and talking hoops with the boys in his hometown of Narragansett, R.I.
Twice, he had schemes of making comebacks. The Boston Celtics thought about signing him in 1979, and Ernie D (for Determined?) even flew to San Diego in 1980 and lived there nine months in hopes of catching on with the Clippers.
Inevitably, he would return to Rhode Island and wind up playing pick up games with the guys at Branch Avenue Boys Club in Narragansett. And when he wasn't playing, DiGregorio often could be found at Providence College home games or at a local pub watching games on television.
DiGregorio has always been a big man in little Rhode Island. But after his promising career abruptly ended, he took a lot of guff from people wondering what happened. There also has been a certain amount of jealousy, mostly because Ernie D (for Dollars?) collects $50,000 a year for another 23 years under terms of his contract.
But it can become boring being the world's highest paid pickup-game player, so DiGregorio tried several other real jobs. He was briefly a part owner of a bar, tried broadcasting, worked for a landscaping firm and, most recently, as a meat-packaging salesman.
Frankly, DiGregorio didn't like doing anything else but playing basketball.
"When I was 12, I knew what I wanted to be," DiGregorio said. "And I became it. But the last 10 years, I didn't know what the hell I wanted to be."
One morning about two years ago, Ernie D (for Depressed?) was lying in bed watching an NBA game on cable television when he noticed something on the court other than the players.