Foots’ Life Mattered
SOUTHAMPTON / 1640 – 1969
“The Queen of American Watering Places…A perfect modern residential community and vacation-land rich in historical lore.”
During the late sixties, in upper left corner of its front page, the SOUTHAMPTON PRESS provides a weekly reminder that Southampton, U.S.A. could rightfully be termed perfect.
Contemporaneously, the PRESS (as do half a dozen newspapers in the region) reports in its sports section (and often page 1) that perfection also exists on cold winter nights in the queen of America’s summer vacationland. For not since March 9, 1967 has the Southampton High School Varsity Boys basketball team suffered a loss. Now, 22 months later with their 30 game winning streak just 11 shy of the Long Island record, these east end schoolboys seem a destiny in the making legend. Certainly, as the current squad appears even more formidable than the unbeaten S.H.S. champs of last year, the 1968-69 Mariners should once again complete a perfect season; once again blow away their larger western Suffolk playoff opponents; and by attaining their second straight county title set a record of 43 consecutive victories. Furthermore, the streak would be continued when play resumes next season, meaning the mark the Mariners ultimately establish might never be broken!
At this point, the excitement surrounding Southampton’s schoolboy basketball champs starts to transcend the simple thrill of sport. Sure. Everybody loves a winner. Plus, what else was there to do in a small summertime town on a dead of winter 1969 night?
Before advancements in technology afforded teenagers a multitude of technological, state of the art recreational diversions, a significant proportion of the Nassau / Suffolk student body would attend inter-scholastic athletic events as a means of entertainment and socialization. High school basketball games could be groovy gatherings where you get loyal, get loud, and let it all hang out on behalf of your beloved maroon and white. It was called school spirit. Even modestly successful high school hoops programs drew a sizeable following in the baby booming sixties and seventies. So as you might expect the S.H.S. team attracted a huge following. The Mariners captivated their community and eventually a larger Long Island fan base by doing more than merely winning every time they stepped on the floor. They provided an exhilarating, entertaining, breathtaking blend of up tempo basketball. Playing with startling swiftness Southampton begot one dramatic transition after another; the Mariners’ relentlessly aggressive defense so quickly causing changes of possession that the distinction between defense and offense became blurred. With S.H.S. scoring almost as soon as they got their hands on the ball; then again scoring almost as soon as their opponents got their hands on the ball, they transformed high school hoops into a warp speed game of take away; which looked like a lot of fun to play if you were playing for Southampton.
In gyms filled to capacity, including playoffs up island against western Suffolk schools of much larger enrollment, the roar of the crowd indicated most present were rooting for Southampton; audience reaction to S.H.S. frenetic pace producing a pounding din. Displays of individual and collective Mariner brilliance elicited appreciative applause, even oohs and ahs from older spectators; and a more visceral response from the very un-silent majority of post pubescent students in the stands. The testoronic howls of “boys to men” combined with ear splitting screams from liberated young ladies created a cacophony of orgasmic thunder at a Mariner mania event circa 1968-69.
Better still, all observers agreed that these kids from Southampton played basketball with a sense of competitive integrity and team first determination that adults could and should apply to the greater game of life.
On January 24, 1969, after winning their first 8 games of what would surely be another championship season for Southampton, 2 Mariner starters, including the most heralded high school athlete on Long Island, are busted by local police for possession of marijuana and banned from “all extracurricular activities until this matter is adjudicated.” The tense situation presents and reveals a multitude of issues facing this multi-racial east end community.
Clarence “Foots” Walker is a star alone among Suffolk County high school basketballers, by 1969 already a Long Island hoops legend. The 17 year old S.H.S. Junior possesses and brilliantly puts into action a heretofore unseen skill set. An indescribable blur of speed, quickness, and ambidextrous hang time agility leaves his opponents gasping and sportswriters grasping; the terms depicting such spectacular play not yet in common usage. In the late sixties local scribes seeking high voltage language befitting the Foots phenomenon, so frequently attach brilliant to the boys name it reads less like an adjective than a bestowed title. Even more impressive, the brilliant Foots Walker’s brilliant magic act is no one man show. His signature sleight of hand ball thievery, flashy passes delivered to dashing teammates in stride, and acrobatic, warp drive scoring sorties, all dazzling tricks performed with appropriate purpose. No self-centered superstar stylin’ here. It’s not Foot’s nature. Nor would it fit the team comes first culture cultivated by his Coach Joseph P. Romanosky.
Foots’ larger than life coach, affectionately known as Big Romo, stood 6 foot 3 and a half inches, weighed 260 lbs. and spoke with a basso profundo voice which commanded respect. Yet while he projected an imposing presence, Romo’s winning personality primarily made people smile and enjoy his company. Romo’s reputation as educator and leader of young men has engendered much good will in the Southampton community. Now he must effectively reach out to those in town who can help and persuade them to save a boy’s life.
News of Walker’s arrest sent a wave of shock through Southampton, U.S.A. Their high school basketball team had been celebrated and honored since The Great War; championship banners hanging in the S.H.S. gymnasium dated back to 1917. And no team in the district had received more attention and praise for their performance and attitude than this one. Since Romo assumed the head coach position in 1961, his teams showed a Martin Luther King like integration of content and character, featuring players of African-American, Native-American, Polish-American, Irish-American descent who were awarded playing time based on merit. Romo’s boys didn’t work basketball. They played it. He encouraged them to be creative and have fun. But, if a boy did dare not try his best then immediately to the bench he went and stayed.
Walker never caused trouble on the court or off. Popular and likeable with kids and grownups, black and white, Foots was a beloved figure in the community. Now this.
Newspaper coverage of the case constantly included the term narcotic and headlines referring to the need to control the widespread use of narcotics among east end teens. Meanwhile, placed in an adjacent column is an advertisement for “The Hamptons Wines and Spirits Co., Inc.” The Riverhead News-Review implied in an editorial entitled, “Narcotic Control” that maybe the arrest of two basketball stars ought to be the case where we “make the punishment stick. In a climate of panic over the “growing drug epidemic” on Long Island conjuring the image of a star player caught shooting up in an east end alley, Clarence “Foots” Walker might have been left to rot in a residue of shame and isolation for at most smoking weed; one kid doing so among scores of hundreds his age doing likewise in the streets of his hometown.
But, after a nine game suspension, Walker returned to his team who having carried on undefeated in his absence, enthusiastically, even lovingly embraced his presence, as Foots would then lead the Mariners to another championship.
That Foots Walker would be afforded another opportunity to pursue his pro basketball destiny is a tribute to the determined decency of Coach Romanosky and several other behind the scene powers in town who decided that a young life matters more than punishment or pontification.