Family, friends, former players remember Togo Palazzi's basketball life, love for Holy Cross
Telegram & Gazette
About 60 former Holy Cross players, coaches, colleagues and friends of Togo Palazzi got together on a Zoom call last Monday to wish the HC basketball legend a happy 90th birthday.
Palazzi was in the hospital, at Massachusetts General in Boston, but, virtually surrounded by so much love, as usual, his spirits were bright.
“His eyes were burning like they used to when he had an open shot in the corner,” said former Holy Cross coach and lifelong friend of Palazzi, George Blaney, who was on the call. “And once he made one, he was going to make eight in a row.”
Palazzi’s admirers honored, thanked, reminisced and, of course, joked with him, and at the end of the call, gave the floor to Palazzi, their favorite raconteur.
“He was in his glory,” Blaney said. “He had an audience, and any time he had an audience, that’s when he really turned it on. He was as good as they come.
“He could captivate an audience and just keep telling stories,” Blaney said, adding with a laugh, “they were always stories about Togo, but they were fascinating stories. On the call, we all felt the same way; that was a special time for us.”
Palazzi concluded the call by singing the Holy Cross fight song, “Chu Chu Rah Rah.”
There are proud Holy Cross alums, but none prouder than Palazzi.
“He had a right to be,” Blaney said.
Palazzi, a hero of Holy Cross’ 1954 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship team who played for the Boston Celtics and went on to mentor and motivate young people as a coach and clinician, died Friday.
Togo Palazzi, 90, Holy Cross men's basketball great; NBA player, coach
Palazzi had battled heart and kidney issues, and, in recent years, underwent dialysis several times a week.
“The guy was a tough cookie,” Palazzi’s daughter, Mary Ann, said. “He got to 90. That was his goal, to get to 90.”
Palazzi, who hailed from Union City, New Jersey, raised his family in Worcester and was a longtime Southborough resident. He leaves partner of 38 years, Judith Hoss, his six children, Francis, Vincent, Michael, Mary Ann, Elizabeth and Matthew, 11 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and his sister, Diana Palazzi.
Palazzi's funeral Mass is at 10 a.m. Saturday at Blessed Sacrament Church in Worcester. Burial will be in St. John's Cemetery in Worcester. There are no calling hours.
Palazzi was a top-five player in the nation coming out of Union Hill High School in New Jersey, and he thought he might attend Duke University. That was until he visited the Holy Cross campus and his mother met basketball coach Lester “Buster” Sheary.
“His mother wanted him to get a good education and go to the best school,” Mary Ann Palazzi said, “and Holy Cross was the place.”
Legendary Holy Cross player
Sheary became a central figure in Palazzi’s life. In a 2015 interview with the Telegram & Gazette, Palazzi said he would be so excited to play after Sheary’s pep talks, tears would run down his face. In the 1954 NIT at Madison Square Garden, Palazzi scored 77 points over three games, including 20 in the final against Duquesne, and was the tournament MVP.
The Crusaders appeared on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” TV program and, like their 1947 HC predecessors, who won the NCAA Tournament, the ’54 Holy Cross squad captured the hearts of their classmates and the city of Worcester, which saluted the Crusaders with a celebration when they returned from New York.
“It’s a highlight of my life,” Palazzi said in a 2004 interview with the T&G on the 50th anniversary of the NIT championship. “To have that experience, I’ll never forget it.”
Palazzi, a 6-foot-4 guard/forward, had a terrific two-hand set shot and was a strong rebounder. He ranks 10th on HC’s all-time list in scoring (1,633 points), sixth in scoring average (20.4 ppg) and second in rebounding (1,086).
“You never had to worry about Togo being ready to play,” said Ron Perry, the star point guard of the ’54 team who roomed with Palazzi on road trips. “He always was.”
Palazzi compiled his points in three seasons, as freshmen did not play varsity back then. He was an awesome shooter and a near impossible one-on-one matchup.
“Togo had what I termed the ‘in-the-corner-layup,’ ” the late Tommy Heinsohn, a sophomore on the ’54 team, said in a 2017 T&G interview. “A two-hand set shot. Seeing this guy shoot from the corner, it was like a layup for him.”
The 1954 NIT title was a lasting bond for the team’s players.
During a 2017 gathering at the Hart Center for the making of the documentary “College Basketball’s Purple Reign,” memories of that magical season, when the Crusaders finished 26-2, and especially the three NIT games were vivid, and the back-and-forth among the friends lively, as they teased Palazzi about never passing up a shot.
“He liked to score points,” Perry said Saturday. “We would kid around with him.”
Palazzi, whose recall of statistics, plays and situations was impeccable, had a terrific sense of humor.
Palazzi was a two-time first-team All-American.
“His desire to excel is what made him so great,” Perry said. “He was never satisfied with just being ordinary. If he thought he could be better in a certain area of the game, he worked at it. His main goal was to be an offensive threat all the way around. Coach Sheary knew he was going to get 110% effort from Togo.”
Palazzi entered the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame in 1967. His retired No. 22 jersey hangs in the Hart Center.
Palazzi was the No. 5 pick of the Celtics in the 1954 NBA Draft. In 1956-57, Palazzi, Bob Cousy and Heinsohn were Celtics teammates, and the legendary HC trio drove to the Garden from Worcester together.
Palazzi spent four seasons with the Syracuse Nationals and concluded his NBA playing career in 1962.
In March, Palazzi had a thrill when he represented the Celtics of the 1950s at center court during a timeout in the first quarter of a game against the Hawks at the Garden.
Sixteen members of his family, including five of his six children and seven of his grandchildren, attended that night, and many held signs reading, “Let’s Go Togo,” the famous fan chant from his Holy Cross playing days.
Palazzi spent most of his life coaching and mentoring young players.
Palazzi coached at St. Mary’s High in Worcester and as a men’s assistant at Holy Cross under Blaney.
Michael Vicens, who hails from Puerto Rico, played for Perry at Catholic Memorial. In 1974, Blaney offered him a scholarship to Holy Cross. “Coach Blaney was very sincere,” Vicens said. “He said, ‘Mike, you know, you might not play for one or two years, but if you want to come here, here’s a scholarship.”
Palazzi saw to it that Vicens would play — and star — much sooner.
“Coach Palazzi took me under his wings,” Vicens said. “He always said, ‘You’re starting this year.’ He took the time to work out with me. After practice he would say, ‘OK, Vicens, you’re staying.’ He would make me do extra drills, especially on Fridays and Saturdays, sending me a little message that I have to sacrifice my social life a little bit if I wanted to be a better player.”
'He trusted me'
The fast and fiery Vicens finished his HC career with 1,721 points and 730 rebounds, two NIT appearances, an NCAA Tournament and an ECAC tourney. He is a member of the Holy Cross Varsity Club Hall of Fame.
“Togo trusted me, he pushed me, and he made me work hard,” said Vicens, who visited Palazzi in the hospital the night before he died. “He was my guardian angel.”
Palazzi also opened his home to Vicens, who was away from his family in Puerto Rico during the school year.
“I used to just show up any time I wanted,” Vicens said. “I became friends with his kids. His ex-wife was a great cook. There was always a lot of food in the house.”
In 1980, Perry, HC’s director of athletics for 32 years, hired Palazzi as the college’s first full-time women’s basketball coach.
“My father loved coaching women’s basketball,” said Mary Ann Palazzi, who played for her dad at Holy Cross. “He thought we played with more heart.”
Mary Ann Palazzi and Sherry Levin, HC’s all-time leading scorer, were among the pioneers of the women’s program.
Levin, whose extraordinary friendship with Palazzi spanned more than 40 years, first met him at a Bentley College all-star camp her sophomore year at Newton North High School. Palazzi was the guest lecturer.
“He mesmerized me,” Levin said. “I remember going home and telling my parents, ‘I met this guy Togo Palazzi. That’s the kind of coach someday I would like to play for.' ”
On Saturday, Levin fought back tears reflecting on Palazzi and the impact he had on her life.
“To me,” Levin, the Worcester Academy girls’ basketball coach, said, “he was the person that was always a phone call away. When I needed a boost, when I needed advice, he was always there.”
Last month, Levin guided the USA Open women’s basketball team to a gold medal at the 21st Maccabiah Games in Israel.
“I wanted to win that gold medal for Togo,” Levin said. “When we did, I was an emotional wreck.”
A Togo disciple
Levin’s passion for coaching, her positivity and attention to detail all come from Palazzi.
“I’m very much a Togo disciple,” she said. “I’ll carry him with me always.”
Palazzi went 103-28 in his five seasons coaching the Holy Cross women’s team.
“My father was the greatest coach,” said Mary Ann Palazzi, who called playing for her dad, “the greatest gift of my life."
“He was the greatest coach because he learned from Buster Sheary how to coach,” Mary Ann said. “I remember when he first started coaching women, Buster and my brothers were up in the stands at the Hart Center. Buster said, ‘Hey, Tog, you’ve got to do this 1-3-1 press, and you’ve got to do it better.’ My father always listened to Buster Sheary. We worked our butts off. My father used to make up plays that best fit the players we had. He was a great teacher of the game of basketball. It was phenomenal.”
Palazzi stressed rebounding.
‘“You’ve gotta get the rebound!”’ Mary Ann said, “and he would yell at me that I wasn’t getting rebounds, then he would see the stats and say, ‘You got the rebounds.’ We were two peas in a pod when I played for him.”
The Palazzis’ mother, Virginia, passed away in 2019. “She was a rock,” Mary Ann said.
Late in a game against rival Boston College, Mary Ann recalled, Levin missed a shot, Karen Grutchfield grabbed the rebound, was fouled, and would head to the line for two free throws.
With perfect touch, Palazzi tempered a potentially tense situation.
“My father always had rosary beads in his pocket,” Mary Ann said. “He called a timeout, called Karen over and put the rosary beads in her hands and said, ‘You can do it.’ She hit the two free throws, and we won the game.”
Palazzi’s last head coaching job was the men’s team at Framingham State from 1991-97.
For 20 years, Palazzi assisted Sheary in conducting youth clinics. Palazzi continued to lead the clinics for decades.
He developed players individually and was a guest motivational speaker for many area teams.
During Torey Thomas’ freshman season at Holy Cross, in 2003, the Crusaders lost a string of close games.
“We were struggling with free throws, we were mentally struggling,” recalled Thomas, a former star point guard.
Coach Ralph Willard brought in Palazzi to talk to the team.
“He had an infectious spirit,” Thomas said. “What resonated most with me is to always believe in yourself, to be tough in all situations and remain stoic. (He said) you might go five plays doing bad things, but that sixth play could be your play, whether it’s a big steal or shot or rebound. ‘You’re a play away from a play.’”
A man of wisdom
Thomas, who played professionally for 15 years overseas, and Palazzi forged a special relationship.
“He always gave me good wisdom,” said Thomas, who was on the birthday Zoom call. “He was a grandfather figure that wanted you to succeed, that knows how much Holy Cross means to you. You could never think how close of a relationship you could have with someone who played generations before you. He never missed a beat. Our relationship was unique. I will always cherish it.”
For years, Palazzi was a fixture in his seat on the upper level of the Hart Center, where he would cheer on the Crusaders.
Palazzi had a beautiful heart, a big appetite, and passion for people. His favorite song was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” In his amazing nine decades, Palazzi certainly did it his way.
“Whenever he came in contact with someone, he made them special,” Blaney said. “That’s such a knack. Not everyone can do that, make you feel special. Everybody he met he made feel special.
“Of all the things I’ll remember,” Blaney said, “I’ll remember that he was my best friend for my whole life. A man is lucky to have friends, and when you have a friend like that, it’s really special.”
On a late July weekend, when his health was failing, about 30 Holy Cross friends, including Blaney, visited him in his hospital room at UMass Memorial Medical Center — University Campus. So many more, whose lives Palazzi touched, called to check on him. The voice mailbox on his famous and often-used flip phone, was full for weeks.
“It means a great deal,” Palazzi said during a phone conversation on July 25, “because I love them, and I love where I’ve been and who I’ve been with.
“I’m so proud,” Palazzi said, “that a kid coming out of Union City, New Jersey, coming up to a school called Holy Cross, coached by a man — you never knew there were such powerful people in this world — Buster Sheary was a great, great coach, and he laid the groundwork for me.
“The philosophy of the college is ‘Do it for others,’ ” Palazzi said, referring to the Jesuit value, “men and women for others.” “Hopefully with my work, not only as a player, but mainly as a coach, whatever I was able to do for others, especially young people, that is what carries on. What I could do for others and what they do for others, I think that’s kind of a thing I would want on my gravestone — ‘Do it for others.’
“We talk about that being the Holy Cross way of doing things. That’s the way we love Holy Cross. It’s a special place.”
Contact Jennifer Toland at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jentolandtg