How one year at Morton College made all the difference in hoop star's lifeJanuary 15, 2013
Special contribution by Jim O'Connell (Morton College, Ill.)
Chris Palermo’s path to Morton College went through Addison and Arkansas. He spent only one year at Morton College, but it made all the difference in Palermo’s life.
Palermo, now 45 years old and the vice president of capital equity markets for Raymond James, started at Arkansas-Monticello, the only school to offer him a scholarship coming out of Addison Trail High School in 1985. The “culture shock” was too much for Palermo, who decided he wasn’t cut out to be a Boil Weevil and returned home after a week.
The 6-2 guard needed a school and new Morton College men’s basketball coach Conte Stamas needed players. Palermo’s father, Ross, worked at UIC, and that provided an opportunity to work out with the men’s basketball team. Stamas struck up a conversation with UIC assistant Rick Kilby, who recommended Palermo.
Interestingly, Kilby replaced Stamas as the head coach at Morton College two years later. But that’s a story for another day.
“Conte Stamas had tried to get me to go Elmhurst (College), so I knew him,” Palermo said. “He had just accepted the job at Morton College. He said, ‘You help me out and I’ll help you out.’ I didn’t have any other offers.
“Conte Stamas was good for me,” Palermo added. “It was the first time I was playing the point guard. He taught me to let the game come to me. He kept things loose and saw the big picture.”
Although Palermo missed out on Arkansas-Monticello reaching the NAIA championship game and playing against two future Basketball Hall of Famers in Dennis Rodman (Southeastern Oklahoma) and Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas), he definitely had a season to remember.
“I only spent a year at Morton College, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” Palermo said. “I’m still friends with Tim Egan (a hospital administrator) and Rob Yanatti (a police sergeant in Villa Park). I had a goal to go Division I and I reached it. It was good.”
The three-point line was a year away from being adopted in the college ranks, but Palermo still scored an eye-popping 863 points in averaging 28 points and 7 rebounds per game during the 1985-86 season at Morton College. He shattered the school’s single-season scoring record by 179 points and left as the Panthers’ ninth all-time leading scorer in helping the Panthers finish 12-19, an eight-game improvement in the win column from the previous year. It also the third-highest win total by any Panther team in 28 years.
Palermo was selected to the Skyway Conference’s First Team and Region IV’s Second Team. Above all the accolades, it opened the door to Palermo’s lifelong dream – an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship to St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York.
Palermo was recruited by Bob Valvano, whose brother, Jim, won the NCAA title with North Carolina State in 1983 and delivered the memorable “never give up” speech at the 1993 ESPYs eight weeks before dying from cancer.
“Wisconsin-Green Bay offered me after I committed to St. Francis,” said Palermo, who also drew interest from Tennessee State. “But I didn’t want to take back my commitment to St. Francis.”
Plus, Palermo’s stock was at an all-time high. He could have come back for a second season and left as Morton College’s all-time leading scorer, but…
“I had such a good year, I didn’t think I could duplicate it,” Palermo said. “Playing against better competition helped me when I got to New York. At the JUCO level, it was easier to drive the lane and get open. In the Northeast Conference, it took a lot of work to get open. Willie Little at UIC really helped me out, letting me practice with his team in the summer.”
While the ECAC Metro and later the Northeast weren’t the ACC or Big Ten, there still was a high quality of play and memories. Wagner’s Terrance Bailey led the country in scoring and Marist produced 7-4 Rik Smits from the Netherlands. Smits was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft that resulted in a 12-year career with the Indiana Pacers.
There’s the memory of trying to use his left hand on Smits and getting his shot knocked “10 rows into the stands.” There’s the time when working in the basketball office, Spike Lee called, wanting to use the St. Francis gym to film a Nike commercial. Palermo though it was a teammate playing a practical joke. It took a little convincing for Palermo to believe this was the real Spike Lee.
“He was very patient about it,” said Palermo with a laugh.
Palermo developed a friendship with Matt Doherty, a former North Carolina player from Long Island who did color commentary on the St. Francis games. Doherty later coached at North Carolina, Notre Dame and Southern Methodist.
St. Francis was 11-16, 11-18 and 14-16 in Palermo’s three years. He worked his way into the starting lineup late during his junior year and scored the game-winning basket in a win over Wagner, a contest he was named the game’s MVP. But Rich Zvosec replaced Valvano for Palermo’s senior year and things changed.
Still, Palermo doesn’t play the “what-if” game. Palermo was a self-made Division I player. He’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning and shoot 200 jump shots in the family driveway before going to school. Now Palermo channels his competitive energy toward helping his 13-year-old daughter, Priscilla, who is ranked in the Midwest for girls tennis players under the age of 14.
“To go to practice and give 100 percent isn’t good enough,” Palermo said. “You have to fight the resistance to take a day off. You have to keep going and work harder. That’s what got me ahead.”
For life beyond basketball, St. Francis turned out to be Palermo’s best move.
“I wanted to major in finance and St. Francis was one stop away on the subway from Wall Street,” Palermo said. “Most of the business students got their brokerage licenses and were able to do internships. Plus, all the professors were in the business field. You were able to get a lot of hands-on experience.”
Palermo, who has been married for 16 years to Nenette, a dentist, just went to an alumni event for St. Francis College in the Loop. He was the only St. Francis graduate present without a New York City accent.
“Chicago is the second biggest market for St. Francis alumni,” said Palermo, who lives in Lombard. “It’s everyone who grew up in Brooklyn now working in Chicago. People were trying to figure out how I went to school there.”
Life recently came full circle for Palermo when he and his father attended Morton College’s game against Olive-Harvey in January to reunite with Stamas, who is back for his second stint as Morton College’s coach.
And Palermo posed for a picture with Demarius Miller, who led the country in scoring last season. It was a reversal of roles for Palermo, who was the young “hot shot” when he took a similar style of a picture 27 years ago with the “old guy” - Carl Strumillo, who still holds the school single-game scoring record with 58 points and whose single-season scoring record Palermo broke.
“I was thinking about that,” Palermo said. “Now I’m the old guy in the picture and he’s probably looking at me wondering if I could play.”