Basketball became Don McConnell’s favorite sport at an early age.
You have to go back to 1956, when McConnell’s family moved to Napa and he took an interest in the game. He was just 10 years old at the time.
The next door neighbor, Pat Mara, who taught at Vallejo High School, demonstrated to McConnell some shooting and dribbling techniques.
“He had a basket set up on his garage and he took me over to his house a number of times to shoot baskets,” McConnell recalled from his home in Napa last week. “He took me to a few Vallejo High basketball games. They were exciting games.”
For McConnell, it was a lot of fun to go to the gym and play 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 pick-up games. He felt like he had the speed, the quickness and the size to play.
“I guess I kind of gravitated toward it just because of my height a little bit,” he said. “I always felt like my defense was pretty strong. I definitely would consider myself somebody that could take it to the basket.”
McConnell’s game began to take off at Silverado Junior High School, thanks to the instruction he got from coach Keith Orr. He learned even more about basketball from Bev Estes, his coach for the two seasons he played for Napa High School as a 6-foot-4 forward.
“I know for me, whether it was practice, it really didn’t matter, I loved playing every day,” he said. “If it wasn’t for basketball, school would have been missing something. I think basketball was a very important part of my life.”
McConnell, the leading scorer on the 1962-63 and 1963-64 basketball teams for Napa, will be honored for his outstanding play as a two-year starter, when he is inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame at a dinner and induction ceremony this fall.
McConnell, a 1964 graduate, and three others were selected by a committee for the Hall of Fame, which is now in its 22nd year. Bill Merrell (Class of 1982), Brent Farris (Class of 1991) and Michael Yanover (Class of 2002) are also in this year’s Hall of Fame class.
The Hall of Fame’s selection committee votes on the nominees after reviewing the nominations and hearing presentations by nominators. A successful nominee needs 75 percent of the total points possible.
Individuals may be nominated in one of three categories for the Hall of Fame: athlete, coach and special.
To date, there are 143 members of the Hall of Fame, whose membership dates to 1912. The NHS Athletic HOF Foundation is a nonprofit organization. The Hall of Fame was formed in 1997, with 36 inductees in the inaugural class.
The purpose of the NHS Athletic HOF Foundation is to honor the school and its athletics department by recognizing the achievements of former athletes, coaches and others who have made significant contributions to the school’s athletic programs.
To be eligible as an athlete, an individual must have graduated from Napa High at least 15 years ago (2003 or earlier).
The Hall of Fame has awarded $90,000 in scholarships to student-athletes over the years. The scholarships are funded by contributions.
“I can tell you that I’m more than humbled by being honored in this way, to be in the Hall. There are really some remarkable athletes in that Hall of Fame,” said McConnell. “It has quite a history. It’s very humbling to be a part of something like that. I don’t consider myself close to some of those people in that Hall at all.”
Napa High Years
As a senior, McConnell led Napa to the North Bay League title and was selected to the All-NBL team. Napa was invited to the Tournament of Champions (TOC) at the University of California’s Harmon Gym in Berkeley.
“I feel my induction is truly an honor for the ’63-64 team. I was just one piece of a great team of 12. I was surrounded by really talented teammates,” said McConnell, 72.
McConnell had already scored 340 points during the season when Napa went to the TOC, which was in its 18th year.
Napa went 1-2, beating San Rafael and losing to Salinas and Hayward. The Salinas team was led by Russ Critchfield, who went on to coach at Vintage High. Also at the TOC were Sacred Heart-San Francisco, Harry Ells-Richmond, Fremont-Oakland and Albany.
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“To us, Harmon Gym was a palace. That was the place,” said McConnell. “Back in the ‘60s, when we got that invitation, the TOC was the big tournament. That’s where all the power was in basketball. It was a big deal. You had the big schools from the Bay Area going to that tournament.”
Napa’s team that season also had Jim May, Paul Vallerga, Jerry Marco, Jeff Schulz, Larry Tronstad, Edward Hubbard, Fred Teeters, Dennis Smith, Tom Brown, Mike McLaughlin and Shev Aguilar.
Napa went 23-5 overall and was 9-1 in the league.
“Our high school team was unbelievably tall for a high school-level team at that time,” said McConnell. “It was an unbelievable high school experience. Not only great teammates with talent, but great guys, too.”
It was Napa’s first league title since 1952 and it put together a 15-game winning streak during the season.
“We kind of clicked and it was a lot of fun,” said McConnell. “As a team, we really developed a lot of confidence. We got the boards and we ran a lot.”
Brown went on to play for the University of San Francisco.
McConnell was nominated for the Hall of Fame by Raymond A. Guadagni, a retired Napa County Superior Court Judge.
“Don was one of the most gifted basketball players to have ever played at Napa High School,” Guadagni wrote. “He always played hard with determination, and a will to win. He also played with dignity and good sportsmanship.”
San Jose State years
McConnell played basketball as a forward on a scholarship at San Jose State from 1964-68. He was a starter and co-captain.
“Going to college, it’s hard to even put in words how great it turned out to be,” he said. “I just continued to meet some really fine people, some great teammates, and some great coaches.”
The San Jose State coaching staff at the time included Stan Morrison, an assistant coach, and a former head coach at University of the Pacific, USC and San Jose State.
In a nomination letter, Morrison wrote: “Don was unselfish to a fault. He was an exceptional teammate on the court and in the locker room as he was always encouraging others and sacrificing when it was appropriate.”
Morrison also wrote: “Don McConnell was a superior athlete. He was very quick, fast, tough, an excellent jumper, determined defender and a fierce competitor. His aggressiveness and his capacity to contribute in virtually every department of the game were his strengths.”
McConnell played for the U.S. Navy Sub-Pacific basketball team from 1969-1971 and was selected for the All-Navy team for both seasons.
Involvement with NHS Hall of Fame
McConnell has been on the Napa High Hall of Fame Foundation’s board of directors since 2002, and has served as president (2007-12) and is a former selection committee chairman. He has also been vice-president.
Don and his wife, Katharine, have a son, Luke, and a daughter, Amy, and also have three grandchildren.
Luke is a Lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and Amy is a teacher. They both graduated from Vintage High.
Don McConnell retired after working for Syar Industries for 28 years. He also worked at Basalt Rock for 14 years.