WORCESTER — Mark “Pathfinder” Epstein is a Worcester guy. He cares deeply about the city — always has.
He’s equally passionate about the game of basketball, especially two late Worcester hoop legends, Jack “The Shot” Foley and Togo Palazzi.
Both starred at Holy Cross and played for the Boston Celtics. That history, and more, was delivered by Epstein when he gave an emotional 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.”
Archives:‘My passion has poured out of me.’ Epstein reflects on penning bio of Worcester legend Jack ‘The Shot’ Foley
In a show of thanks for writing the book, Worcester City Councilor Sean Rose gave Epstein the ceremonial key to the city and proclaimed Thursday “Jack ‘The Shot’ Foley Day” in Worcester.
Not bad for a guy who hasn’t lived in Worcester for more than 30 years, but Epstein is firmly grounded 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 native Harvey Ball, the inventor of the world-famous smiley face — Epstein told those in attendance Thursday that he spent eight hours daily, over the course of eight months, writing the book to ensure the contributions of these two late basketball giants are never forgotten.
Epstein and a litany of speakers who owe a big chunk of their lives to playing and coaching basketball including former mayor Tim Cooney, former Holy Cross head coach George Blaney, and Bob Foley — the longtime coach at St. John’s High who holds the all-time high school hoops win record in New England — all praised Foley’s shooting ability.
They also shared anecdotes about his life, including his love of snakes and his normal attire – boots and flannel shirt.
Others, such as former superintendent of Worcester Public Schools Maureen Binienda, praised Jack Foley for his contributions off the court.
Binienda started her career as a teacher at South High, where Foley was teaching, holding court in the teachers’ cafeteria with his stories.
“I finally got a seat at his table, and the bell rang (to end the lunch period),” recalled Binienda. “I wished 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 today is a professional educator in Rutland, was “devastated” when Foley kicked her out of practice.
The next day minutes before practice, Bates laced up her sneakers and Foley told her, “If you want to be great, you have to be great every day. There’s no room to go through the motions.”
“Man, was that powerful,” said Bates.
Powerful enough to spur Bates on to become a Parade All-American at South High.
Best shooter ever
Many speakers called Foley the best shooter who ever lived.
Some spoke of young Foley’s many hours spent at Holland Rink Playground in Worcester, honing his shot, with his arms held high above his head when his shot was released, making it almost impossible to block.
All that practice paid off, because Foley scored 61 points in one game, still a Crompton Park League record, according to his brother, Frank Foley. The superb shot carried into high school, where Foley averaged 42 points per game his senior year at Assumption Prep.
At Holy Cross, Foley averaged nearly 29 points per game.
The first time Epstein met “the shot” was when he walked into the gym at Worcester Boys Trade High School — Worcester Tech today — to play for Foley, who coached the boys’ team after Foley’s NBA days were over.
During the first practice, Epstein remembers Foley holding a basketball and telling his players, “Hold on tight to this 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 with Foley for years, calling him his “big brother.”
Basketball became more than a passion. It put Epstein’s life in a vise.
“I was so wound up (with basketball) that I wasn’t taking care of my education, my career and my family,” he said. “I was obsessed with the game, and I needed to break away.”
Epstein split to South Carolina after a divorce, but he didn’t make a clean break. He became a teacher, guidance counselor — and basketball coach.
“I never got away from it. If you open me up, Worcester basketballs will bounce out of me. It’s who I am. It’s my first love,” he said.
Another love for Epstein is Palazzi.
Epstein first came into contact with the man he calls “Uncle Togo” when Epstein was 7 and attended Palazzi’s summer basketball camp.
They remained friends for decades, with Epstein talking to Uncle Togo weekly for 50 years.
Thursday, Epstein pulled a small tape recorder out of his pants pocket, hit 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 handed the tape to Holy Cross Athletic Director Nick Smith as a gift for the college’s archives.
Epstein announced more generosity.
More than 400 copies of his book were donated by the Palazzi family to every boy and girl on the basketball teams at five Worcester high schools — Burncoat, Doherty, North, South and Worcester Tech.
“So they can learn the history of our great city,” said Epstein.
Additionally, every basketball player at St. John’s High gets 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 the game of basketball, it’s a way of life in Central Massachusetts. These two men are my family, and they should never be forgotten.”
Contact Henry Schwan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram