Legendary New Haven coach reflects on chance to start his career despite the color of his skin

New Haven

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — Recent protests for change have been mostly peaceful here in Connecticut, unlike the late 1960s and early 70s when race riots rocked the country, including New Haven.

While the world was in turmoil, a truly special friendship was being cultivated between a black man and a white man, who shared the love of basketball.

At that time, there may have been only one African American head coach in Connecticut — at least in boys high school basketball.

“None, none, and it took a courageous man, a courageous person,” explained Bob Saulsbury.

That courageous person was Salvatore “Red” Verderame. Verderame was the first coach at Wilbur Cross High School after the school changed from a commercial school.

His teams won five state titles, including four in a row, and when he decided to step away, at first for just a while, he tabbed Saulsbury, who was just happy to be considered.

“That’s what I wanted. I wanted to know that a black person could assent to that position if given the opportunity.”

Like Verderame before him, Saulsbury authored a dynasty of his own. In addition to those nine state titles were 497 wins and being the number one team in the country in 1974.

He coached, but he also taught, and during that time of conflict, he taught his young men life lessons. This after Verderame taught all of us something special as well.

“It makes me cry to think about…we have so much against us.” 

Sports has a way of bringing people from all backgrounds together, much like basketball brought these two men together. What needs to happen to bring forth change in the country?

“I think number one respect,” Saulsbury said. “Have respect for each other. I mean that doesn’t mean you have to go to someone’s home and fraternize with them and go to their church or synagogue. It’s just, respect that person, that’s what I’d like to see.”

In 2014, the Cross High School gym was renamed in his honor.

RELATED: Tribute to be held to honor New Haven coaching legend

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