By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Most Ashtabula Basketball County Foundation Hall of Famers worked assiduously on their game.
But few could have practiced with the fervor and intensity of Conneaut’s Tom Naylor, who will be inducted into the ABCF’s Hall of Fame at its annual banquet on Sunday, April 7 at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.
Former Conneaut star Tom Ritari, already in the ACBF Hall of Fame, remembers Naylor, who passed away last year, very well.
“He was my best friend in high school,” Ritari said. “Both of us played lots and lots of basketball together. We’d scrape up games throughout the summer. That was out life; that was what we did.”
Tom’s father, L.R. (Spike) Naylor was a prominent citizen of Conneaut, an accountant with an office on Broad Street, who was elected mayor in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. The old Municipal, constructed under the WPA in 1939, was named for him. Spike put up a basketball court in his driveway. Whenever Tom wasn’t out delivering the Plain Dealer (on a route he built from 30 to 70 customers), he was on the court.
Tom went out every day and practiced basketball on it. Even when it snowed, he would shovel the court off and shoot and shoot and shoot. Then he’d go inside to warm up, go back out and shoot some more.
“He had a tremendous passion for shooting,” Ritari said. “Players could be a lot bigger than him, but if he got the ball above his head, it was going in. If they had the 3-pointer at that time, he would have scored a lot more.
“He was the best shooter I’ve ever seen at Conneaut High School, and I’ve seen them all. Matt Zapp (Zappitelli, who holds the Conneaut scoring record and who held the county record for many years until it was broken in 2011-12 by A.J. Henson of Grand Valley) was a great scorer, but Tom was a pure shooter.”
According to Ritari, Tom Naylor was also one of the first basketball players in the area (remember, this was 1962-64) to take up weight training.
“He made himself very, very strong,” Ritari said. “He was about 6-2, 180 or 185, but he could dunk the basketball. He had very strong legs; that came from weight training.”
At that time, the Northeastern Conference was a four-team league and Conneaut (at the time, called the Trojans) dominated it in basketball throughout the 1960s. ACBF Hall of Fame coach Andy Garcia stressed defense first.
“You were not going to score very much,” Ritari said. “It was based on defense first and we played a slow, controlled game on offense.”
Naylor still managed to score his points, though, 150 as a junior, when he was “a frequent starter in the late going,” and 347 as a senior (a 16.5 average). He also totaled 295 rebounds as a senior, an eye-opening 14.0 per contest (shooting 46 percent), and had 64 blocked shots, almost three per game. In one game, he grabbed 24 rebounds, a team high that season.
“Wherever you find a basketball, no doubt you’ll find Tom shooting it,” Garcia said. “You know, Tom wore out four pairs of shoes last season practicing. It takes perseverance in this sport as in any other sport as well.”
Naylor, who was tabbed “Bombing Tommy” by one source, was joined by a strong cast that included 6-foot-4 Don Goodman, 6-2 Vince Mucci, Bob Naylor (Tom’s nephew) and Jeff Garvey, Conneaut’s “Iron Five.” Mike Kehoe served as sixth man and started when Garvey got hurt.
“Goodman, T. Naylor and Mucci are a 1-2-3 punch under the boards and scoring,” the Conneaut News Herald praised.
But it was Tom Naylor who ranked high in county scoring that season and sometimes dominated the Trojans’ boxscores. He had 21 of 38 points in a 38-25 victory over Girard, 21 of 44 in a 44-42 nailbiter against Geneva and 27 of 40 against Ashtabula.
That contest against Ashtabula was notable for another reason: It was the first time Conneaut tasted defeat that season after winning its first 12 games. The Trojans had won their first game against the Panthers, 47-32, but Ashtabula had the biggest man in the county in 6-10 Jim Gilbert (who would grow to 7-feet) and a great supporting cast.
Despite Naylor’s best efforts (27 points, 11 rebounds), the Panthers won, 46-40.
Conneaut assistant coach Jon Hall — still another ACBF Hall of Famer — said afterward: “Tom Naylor proved himself a leader tonight. He was there and came through when the rest of the team needed him the most. I’m proud of him, the kind of game he played.”
The contest was hailed as the best of his career.
The News Herald praised him as “coming through in tight spots to keep his team in contention until the waning moments of the game despite the tension and pressure he must have been feeling.... defensively and offensively, he never let the team slump into the depths of despair.”
Gilbert, meanwhile, led Ashtabula in scoring with 17 points.
“Gilbert and Naylor were having a battle royal on the scoreboard,” a writer said.
In the next game, Rowe handed the Trojans their second straight loss, 68-56, ending a six-year domination by their neighbor.
Conneaut finished the season at 17-4, sharing the NEC championship with Ashtabula, both 5-1 in the league. The Trojans won their first tournament game, beating Jefferson and their ace, Mickey Zigmund, 54-43. Naylor had 11 points, Zigmund 10. But then came the shocker: Geneva, which had lost both its games to Conneaut in the regular season, beat the Trojans, 40-37, in the second game despite 30 points by Naylor. Yes, Naylor scored 30 of Conneaut’s 37 points.
“Tom Naylor, indestructible on the boards, probably would be Player of the Year if there was such a selection,” one source said.
As it was, Naylor joined Gilbert and Zigmund (both of whom will also be inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame this year), as an All-NEC selection, along with Ashtabula’s Gib Jepson, Geneva’s Tom Booth and St. John’s Terry Melaragno. Naylor also won scoring honors, scoring 100 points in his six NEC games. At first, it was thought that Gilbert had tied for that honor, but a recheck revealed Gilbert had just 98.
After he was also named Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County (with Gilbert and Zigmund again), he was described in this way: “Probably the best shooter and hardest worker was Conneaut all-time great Tom Naylor.
“Tremendously strong, he led an inexperienced Trojan team to the county’s best record of 17-4.... Tom, who has offers from 30 colleges, including Cincinnati and Michigan, posted his season-high game tally of 31 points against Pymatuning Valley.”
Despite the claim of 30 college scholarship offers, a later article was headlined “Naylor finds scholarship not easiest thing to get.”
In that article, his father, L.R., said, “He knows he will have to knock on some doors and introduce himself.”
Though one article claimed that Naylor was “approached by 75 colleges,” it was a letter from his superintendent at Conneaut, John Yesso, that helped him land a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
Addressing Bradley coach Charles K. Orsborn, Yesso enumerated Naylor’s pluses, including the following: “he has desire,” “he is a hard worker, in the upper third of his class,” “he won state and national honors,” “he has size, 6-4” (that was a stretch), “he is coachable,” and “he is dedicated and loyal.”
Eventually, Naylor settled on Bradley.
Janette Speer, Naylor’s sister (who still lives in Conneaut), remembers Tom had an offer from a school in Casper, Wyoming, that his father favored.
“But he liked Bradley,” Speer said. “My father told him he would be a small toad in a big pond. He wasn’t tall enough.”
It didn’t work out.
As Ritari remembers it, the Braves had recruited a player from East Tech, either Charlie Parnell or Mel Parnell, who played Naylor’s position. At 6-2, or, generously, 6-3, Naylor was restricted to playing shooting guard or small forward in Division I.
Freshmen couldn’t play varsity basketball at the time. Naylor played on the freshman team, but not as a starter.
Bradley was a good team at the time, having won the NIT (a better tournament than it is now) the year before. And Naylor probably wasn’t fast enough to play the positions he was tall enough to play.
“He was probably outquicked, probably more on the defensive side than the offensive side,” Ritari said.
After his freshman year, Naylor transferred to Edinboro, where he roomed with his old pal, Ritari.
“He had to sit out a year,” Ritari said. “He had 50 points in an intramural game that year, in a game with a running clock.”
But Naylor had trouble with his academics and quit school.
“He went into the army,” Ritari said. “He played volleyball and basketball in the army. When he got out of the army, he wandered around to Columbus, California, Mexico and Florida. He was a general labor type person. He died in California, last year sometime.”
For a while after the army, Ritari remembers, Naylor worked for the Ohio Education Association in Columbus as a courier or mailroom person.
Not much else is known about his life after college. Speer remembers Tom married a woman the family didn’t care for.
One of the reasons we don’t know more was friction within the family. L.R. married twice and “there was some animosity,” Speer said. “Bob (Naylor’s) dad and I are brother and sister. I’m of the second marriage; Bob’s dad of the first. We were not close then, but we are now.”
Ritari was and is surprised Naylor wasn’t more of a success. According to his old friend, Naylor had true charisma.
“Tom and I would bring these guys in and play on the courts in Conneaut. Tom was a great leader, he’d grab people and say, ‘You’re gonna play.’
“He was a self-starter, a self-made type of leader people were attracted to. He attracted kids to go out and play basketball that never even realized they wanted to.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.