Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends": Maine's Jeff Cross

August 7th, 2012
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series, CHN writer spent some time with Maine great Jeff Cross. Cross' story is a remarkable one, as in five years he went from a player who struggled to make his high school team to ECAC North Player of the Year. Cross is now the director of merchandising at Converse.

Jon Teitel: You did not start playing organized basketball until high school. Why did it take so long to get you on the court? 

Jeff Cross: I always played basketball but was not very good at it.  Being a big kid my favorite sport was football, and I was quite good at it from a young age.  The other thing that played a huge role was that I started snow skiing with my family when I was age 5 and I loved the sport.  This took up the majority of my winters; even today my wife and I ski 15-20 times a year.  I still tried out for basketball each year in high school because that is just what you did as a football player/jock.

I was cut as a freshman and sophomore.  My junior year the head coach (New England Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Danny Parr) said that I was getting better and that if I wanted to play he would keep me as the 13th man...on a 12-man roster!  I eagerly accepted but only played in 4-5 games despite being 6-7.  My senior year I grew another inch and was much better but was still riding the pine.  We had a game at Nashua before Christmas and our starting center missed the bus after sliding into a snow bank on the way to school.  I started that game and had a double-double in a very tight win over the best team in the state.  To make a long story short, I started the rest of the season but only got my chance because Lenny Best missed the team bus! 

JT: Why did you decide to go to Maine? 

JC: Nobody recruited me out of high school so I did a prep year at Worcester Academy.  I grew two more inches to a legit 6-10, and Coach Tom Blackburn turned me into a very good player.  By the end of the year I was getting phone calls from the likes of Jim Boehiem and being offered full scholarships to some very good Division I schools.  Maine Coach Peter Gavitt contacted me early in the year and said that I was on their radar screen, and he did a great job of keeping me a priority.  He really was the sole reason I picked Maine. I had a very strong connection with him.  So while it is hard to believe, I picked Maine over Syracuse! 

JT: You had three teammates also named Jeff during your junior season. Was it hard for the coaches to call out different plays for different guys named Jeff? 

JC: No.  I was the go-to guy so if he said "Jeff" we all knew who was getting the ball. Just joking!  Everyone liked to make a big deal about the 4 guys named Jeff but we all went by our nicknames anyway.  I was "Crossy", Jeff Topliff was "Toppy", Jeff Wheeler was "Wheels", and Jeff Sturgeon was "Sturge".  There really was never any confusion and they were a great group of guys.

JT: One of your more famous teammates was Rick Carlisle. Are you more surprised that he won an NBA title as a player or as a coach? 

JC: I only played with Rick for one year at Maine because he transferred to Virginia after his sophomore year.  Rick was an amazing ball-handler for a 6-5 guy; he had massive hands.  I only saw Rick get picked once in his life. It was when he was at Virginia and he was being guarded by some little-known player from North Carolina by the name of...Michael Jordan!  I am not surprised at any of his success to be honest.  Rick played on one of the best teams in the history of the game.  As for coaching, Rick had the best basketball mind of anyone I have ever met, period.  I would have been surprised if he did NOT win a championship in his coaching career. He is that good and that talented.

JT: You were named all-conference during each of your final two seasons at Maine. How were you able to remain so consistent from year to year? 

JC: A lot of hard work and very good coaching.  Coach Gavitt did wonders for my career and really turned me into a player who loved defense and rebounding.  I was a good offensive player but my game was fueled by the boards, blocked shots, and defense.  Head coach Skip Chappelle constantly challenged me to take my game to a new level and I worked hard to do that.  He always said that I should strive for (and see) improvement in part of my game every week.  There were always ways to get better no matter how insignificant the improvement may seem. I took that to heart.

JT: In 1983 you were named ECAC North Player of the Year. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor? 

JC: It was quite an honor and quite exciting.  I had made my high school varsity team out of mercy because Coach Parr liked me, and only five years later I was POY in a Division I conference.  It really was a team effort to win that award. I never could have accomplished that without some amazing coaches (Parr, Blackburn, Gavitt and Chappelle) and teammates.  The "Jeffs" played a very large role as well, but the one person at Maine who had the biggest role in my success was Kevin Green.  

I met Kevin at Worcester Academy during my prep year while he was recovering from a brutal injury he sustained during his junior year of high school.  Kevin was the most dedicated and focused athlete/person I had ever met at that point in my life.  Kevin ended up walking on to the basketball program at Maine and became a starter.  He was also my roommate for four years and was always there for me through good times and bad, just an amazing guy!

JT: In the summer of 1984 you were drafted in the third round by Dallas. Did you see that as a validation of your college career, the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA, or other? 

JC: It is funny because I actually grew up dreaming of playing in the NFL, not the NBA. The Steelers and the Cowboys were my favorite teams.  Basketball was still very new to me.  It was very exciting and a huge honor to be seen in the same light as some of the best basketball players on the planet. It was almost surreal.

JT: In January 1986 you signed with the Clippers and played 21 games for them. What is your favorite memory from your time with the Clippers? 

JC: Unfortunately my career was cut short by my third broken foot after my first year with the Clippers.  I was a fringe NBA player, and with three different breaks over six years I was also a physical liability.  My favorite person by far was Cedric Maxwell. Growing up in New Hampshire I was a huge Celtics fan, so being able to play, practice and hang with Cedric was a dream.  He is one of the funniest people I have ever met and a terrific basketball player.  It was also cool just to be playing on that team because it was a virtual who's who of All-Stars. Maxwell, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, etc.

The thing that I will never forget was the night that I played against the Rockets and their Twin Towers of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.  I played a career-high 20 minutes that night and had seven rebounds and three blocked shots.  There was one sequence when I blocked Olajuwon cleanly two or three times in one possession.  I was leaving the locker room after the game and I saw him standing there.  He went out of his way to come over to me, shake my hand, and say, "Big man, I have no idea who you are but you played a really good game tonight!!"  Not only did that make my day, it made my career. 

JT: You currently work as Director of Merchandising at Converse. How do you like the job, and what do you hope to do in the future? 

JC: I have been in the sneaker business since 1990 and have worked for Nike, Reebok, Puma, and Converse over the past eight years.  I love the business and love my job at Converse: I hope to work here until I retire.  As far as my future, I want to spend as much of it as possible with my beautiful wife of 26 years Carol and stay closely in touch with my two amazing sons.  Carson is a RHP on the Connecticut baseball team and my youngest son Elliott will be attending New Hampshire this fall is and is the most amazing person I know. He inspires me daily.  Oh yeah, I also want to ski a ton!

JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? 

JC: I want to be remembered as a guy who worked hard, did the little things that it took to get better, and was a bear on defense and the boards.  Most importantly, I want my teammates and other people to look back and say that I was a real nice guy. 
Cross is also on Jon's list of best pro players in America East history.

Boston University: Gary Plummer (1985)
Hartford: Vin Baker (1994)
Maine: Jeff Cross (1986)