WORCESTER — Mark “Pathfinder” Epstein is a guy from Worcester. He cares deeply about the city – he always has.
He is also passionate about basketball, especially two Worcester hoop legends, Jack “The Shot” Foley and Togo Palazzi.
Both played at Holy Cross and played for the Boston Celtics. This story, and more, was told by Epstein when he gave a moving talk Thursday at the Worcester Historical Museum to officially launch the release of his new book, ‘Jack ‘The Shot’ Foley – A Legend for All Time.
Archive:‘My passion poured out of me.’ Epstein ponders writing biography of Worcester legend Jack ‘The Shot’ Foley
As a thank you for writing the book, Worcester Councilman Sean Rose gave Epstein the ceremonial key to the city and proclaimed Worcester “Jack ‘The Shot’ Foley Day” on Thursday.
Not bad for a guy who hasn’t lived in Worcester for over 30 years, but Epstein is firmly rooted in Worcester. He grew up on Durant Way and his father, Charlie Epstein, owned the once popular Charlie’s Surplus sporting goods store on Water Street.
Wearing a smiley face button on his tie – a nod to Worcester-born Harvey Ball, the world-renowned inventor of the smiley face – Epstein told those in attendance on Thursday that he spent eight hours a day, eight months writing the book to ensure that the contributions of these two late basketball giants are never forgotten.
Epstein and a litany of speakers who owe much of their lives to basketball and coaching, including former mayor Tim Cooney, former Holy Cross head coach George Blaney and Bob Foley – the longtime St. John’s High coach who holds the all-time high school hoops win a record in New England – all have praised Epstein for his book.
Others, like former Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda, have praised Jack Foley for his contributions outside of court.
Binienda began her career as a teacher at South High, where Foley taught, holding court in the teachers’ cafeteria with her stories.
“I finally got a seat at his table and the bell rang (to end the lunch period),” Binienda recalled. “I wish I could have stayed longer to have conversations with him. He was a true friend.”
A South High student who played for Foley, Nancy Mayer Bates, who is now a professional educator at Rutland, was “devastated” when Foley kicked her out of practice.
The next day, minutes before practice, Bates laced up his sneakers and Foley told him, “If you want to be awesome, you have to be awesome every day. There’s no room for going through the motions. “
“Man, was so powerful,” Bates said.
Powerful enough to inspire Bates to become a Parade All-American at South High.
Best shooter of all time
Many speakers have called Foley the best shooter who ever lived.
Some have spoken of the young Foley’s many hours spent at the Holland Rink playground in Worcester, refining his shot, his arms raised above his head when his shot was thrown, making it nearly impossible to block.
The first time Epstein encountered ‘the shot’ was when he walked into the gymnasium at Worcester Boys Trade High School – Worcester Tech today – to play for Foley, who coached the boys after Foley’s NBA days ended.
During the first practice, Epstein recalls Foley holding a basketball and telling his players, “Hold on tight to that basketball. If you do, you can become a great player and accomplish great things.
Epstein played four years of college ball at Worcester State and he remained close to Foley for years.
Basketball has become more than a passion. It put Epstein’s life in a vice.
“I was so excited (with basketball) that I didn’t care about my education, my career and my family,” he said. “I was obsessed with the game and needed to get away.”
Epstein separated in South Carolina after a divorce, but he didn’t make a clean break. He became a teacher, guidance counselor and basketball coach.
“I never strayed from it. If you open me up, Worcester basketballs will bounce off me. It’s who I am. It’s my first love,” he said.
Another love interest for Epstein is Palazzi.
Epstein first came into contact with the man he calls ‘Uncle Togo’ when Epstein was 7 years old and attended Palazzi’s summer basketball camp.
They remained friends for decades, with Epstein speaking to Uncle Togo every week for 50 years.
The voice of Togo
On Thursday, Epstein pulled a small tape recorder from his trouser pocket, pressed the play button, and the audience heard Palazzi’s voice.
It was a snippet of hours of interviews on that phone that Epstein recorded with Palazzi for the book. He then gave the tape to Holy Cross athletic director Nick Smith as a gift for the college archives.
Epstein announced more generosity.
More than 400 copies of his book were donated by the Palazzi family to every boy and girl on five Worcester high school basketball teams – Burncoat, Doherty, North, South and Worcester Tech.
“So they can learn the history of our great city,” Epstein said.
Plus, every basketball player at St. John’s High receives a copy, courtesy of Jim McCaffrey, a former hoop star at Holy Cross.
For those wondering how Epstein got his nickname “Pathfinder”, Charlie gave it to his son when the boy was 11, because dad liked the Pathfinder sleeping bags sold in his store.
With a key to the city and a day named after “The Shot,” Epstein reflected on his book and the lives of Jack Foley and Togo Palazzi.
“This book is not about basketball. These two men are my family, and they should never be forgotten.”
Contact Henry Schwan at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram