Mindell leaving lasting legacy at Commerce

The city of Springfield has seen great success in high school basketball over the past two seasons with Springfield Central and Putnam Vocational bringing consecutive Division 1 boys’ basketball titles back to Roosevelt Ave.

While the birthplace of basketball revels in the success of the Golden Eagles and Beavers, one of Springfield’s most revered coaches is being honored for the legacy he leaves behind at the High School of Commerce.

Gary Mindell, who finished his 19th season on the Red Raiders sideline, announced earlier this week that he would retire as both Commerce’s basketball coach and physical education teacher. Mindell ends his 27-year coaching career at Granby High School and Commerce with 332 wins, three Western Mass. titles and a state championship in 2004.

“I kind of knew that coming in to this year, that this would most likely be my last season,” Mindell said. “I just didn’t want to make an announcement too soon or too quick.”

Mindell wanted to coach in Springfield, but needed to wait his turn to gain a head coaching job in the city. He spent eight seasons at Granby, before the Commerce job became available in 1995. He took over a program far from being a powerhouse in the city of Springfield.

Commerce had seven losing seasons in eight years before Mindell showed up. In that span Central, which opened in 1986, had dominated the city with the most talented ball players including future NBA veteran Travis Best. In first eight seasons of the Central-Commerce rivalry, the Golden Eagles were 16-0.

“I took over the program with high ambitions and I brought a lot of passion into the program,” Mindell said.

Enter Commerce Pride.

“That was my motto at Granby and I brought that over to Commerce with me,” Mindell said. “When I took over the program I had to change the whole culture, and one of the things I wanted to do was talk about building pride. Pride in our team, pride in our program, pride in our school, pride in ourselves.”

Commerce defeated Central three out of four times in Mindell’s first two seasons on the Red Raiders bench. In that memorable second season, Commerce won the Western Mass championship and the basketball powers within the city began to switch hands.

“From that point on, all of a sudden, Central wasn’t the king of the city anymore,” Mindell said.

The 2000s were when Commerce built a dynasty. From 2001-2007, the Red Raiders made two appearances in the state championship, capturing two Western Mass. titles and five league titles in a row. The Red Raiders appeared in either the Western Mass. finals or semifinals in each of those seasons.

The highlight of that run of dominance was the 2004 state championship team.

“One of the first times I spoke to him he said, ‘At Commerce they play for championships,’” said Pat Ochoa, the co-captain of the 2004 state championship team. “The goal every year is to win championships and he backed it up.”

The 2004 state championship team defeated a Brookline team headlined by former UConn star and current Charlotte Bobcats forward Jeff Adrien. Commerce went on to narrowly defeat Brookline 53-51, holding Adrien to only four field goals.

“We were so close on and off the court,” Ochoa added. “It just clicked. With Mindell leading us as the coach, it was something special.”

That would be the city’s last boys’ basketball championship until Central and Putnam went back-to-back the past two years. In March, William Shepard led Putnam to the school’s first sectional and state title. Shepard first met Mindell three decades ago when Shepard was in middle school. Their relationship continued at Commerce when Shepard was a star player and Mindell was a volunteer assistant. Shepard would serve as Mindell’s assistant when he first took the Commerce job in 1995.

“I was very proud for him and his school,” Mindell said. “They defended like nobody else. He did a wonderful job of pushing those kids and directing those kids. He got them to buy in to what he was trying to get across.”

Mindell had one more shot to sit atop Western Mass. basketball in 2012. With less talent than some of his other championship teams, Commerce made it to the Western Mass. final and nearly knocked off eventual state champion Central behind the 32-point performance by senior guard Alex Lopez.

“Still to this day I wish I could have given him another championship,” Lopez said. “I’m sure it would have meant everything to coach.”

Lopez will be Mindell’s last star player. The four-year varsity starter was the fourth Commerce player under Mindell to win the John “Honey” Lahovich Award, given the top player in Western Mass. Mike Vaz (’03), Will Dawkins (’04) and Josh Tate (’05) won the other three in consecutive seasons.

Mindell said he had a special relationship with all of his players during their playing careers and to this day continues to keep in touch with many of his former players such as Lopez, now a freshman at Worcester State University; Dawkins, who is currently the Director of College Player Personnel for the Oklahoma City Thunder; and Ochoa, who is a supervisor at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Yeah, me and Coach Mindell talk to each other every now and then,” Lopez said. “Not every day, but we still call each other to see how everything is going.”

“Every time we see him, one of the first things he reflects on is how he there was only one team he won a state championship with and it was with us,” said Ochoa, who is also an assistant coach at East Longmeadow High School. “And he always says he keeps that close to his heart and it’s something that he’ll always cherish and at the same time that feeling is returned right back to him.”

Mindell won’t completely be removed from Commerce. He’ll return in September to coach the girls’ volleyball team. He’ll be able to watch a few Commerce basketball games next season, though he said he’ll most likely be sitting in the back row being as inconspicuous as he can be.

After the holidays he and his wife Jenny will spend January, February and March in Tampa, enjoying retirement.

“Of course I loved every minute of it,” Mindell said. “I would have coached for free all these years. The fact that they’ve paid me is really a bonus.

“It’s all about the passion -- the passion for the game and the passion for the kids.”