Waterford's Buscetto proves heart, not height, is what matters

Waterford's Mikey Buscetto (5) moves past Weston's Christopher Hover during last season's Class M tournament at Waterford. Buscetto, who has already accepted a scholarship offer to Division II Southern New Hampshire, begins his senior season on Monday night against McMahon. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Waterford's Mikey Buscetto (5) moves past Weston's Christopher Hover during last season's Class M tournament at Waterford. Buscetto, who has already accepted a scholarship offer to Division II Southern New Hampshire, begins his senior season on Monday night against McMahon. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Waterford — He'll be the same whiz kid at Southern New Hampshire that he's been at Waterford High, charismatic and creative with his constant companion: the basketball.

The Little Guy Who Could.

Yes. Mikey Buscetto will be a fan favorite in college because everyone watching him will identify with his plight: not the biggest, strongest or fastest, but radiating the old line that if the dream is big enough, the facts don't count.

And to think it all began in Jimmy Kane's garage.

It wouldn't be a bad title for the movie, either: "Jimmy Kane's Garage."

Because what happened there one day perfectly tells Buscetto's rise to a college scholarship in a pithy anecdote.

So there's little Mikey, now a senior at Waterford, the reigning Day Player of the Year, about to lead the Lancers into a season of potential promise, playing basketball as a kid just outside family friend Jimmy Kane's garage.

"It was a picnic. Kids there, adults there," Mikey's dad, Mike Buscetto, the proprietor of Filomena's Café in Waterford was saying recently. "I walk by to get yet another hamburger. My son looked at me and said, 'come on, old man, let's go. One on one.' I said, 'you sure about that?'"

The father, who played at St. Bernard and Quinnipiac, accepted the challenge much as a starving shark sizes up a seal.

"I went up for a rebound," Mikey said, grinning at the memory. "The ball bounced off the rim and I ran to go get it. My dad is behind me. All of a sudden, I felt a shove in my back. Right into the bushes. I fell on top of a chainsaw. Then he looks at me and says, 'Get up.' He said some other things too."

Boom.

And that's the deal with Mikey and the Buscettos: There are no excuses. Ever. "Too small" to play basketball? Nope. Figure it out. Toughness is not an acquired skill. It is a personal decision.

And now Mikey Buscetto's family isn't paying for college. He earned a scholarship, all 5-foot-9 of him, the kid from the burbs, to Southern New Hampshire, one of the Division II elite programs in the country.

Maybe that's why, one night last month when the elder Buscetto celebrated his son and three Waterford classmates at Filomena's during a National Signing Day ceremony, the younger Buscetto took the microphone and told about 200 people, "I want to thank my dad for throwing me into a bush."

Earlier this week, the son said, "My dad never babied me. He made me tougher. Hey, he played in college and he's my size. I carry that with me every day."

•••••

The numbers are staggering. According to scholarshipstats.com, there were 550,305 male high school basketball players in the United States last season. There were 32,852 college basketball players, meaning there is a roughly six percent chance of earning a spot on a team, let alone earning a full scholarship.

And Mikey Buscetto is one of them.

"I bet I've sent 15 kids to Southern New Hampshire. Great spot," St. Thomas More coach Jere Quinn said of program that's been to the Elite Eight four times (as recently as 2015) and twice to the Final Four. "My daughter Colleen played there. Mikey will have success there. He understands the game and his best attribute is his ability to pass and make the players better around him. He gets it."

Greg Gwudz, who led Waterford to its only state basketball championship in 2012, coached Buscetto as a freshman in 2015. This little, puny 5-foot-2 dervish suddenly found himself with the ball in the middle of the state tournament, during which the Lancers beat Rocky Hill and Sheehan at the buzzer and then darn near upset East Catholic.

"Even early on that year, the kids on the team made sure they were always on Mikey's team during drills," Gwudz, now an assistant principal at North Branford, said. "I never thought the whole size thing was a factor. It was hard for him that year because we sent him down to JV for a while. But all he did was play hard. By the state tournament, I knew he was ready."

Now he's ready for his senior year, having spent the summer the way he's spent all the others: playing AAU basketball all over New England and working out in the heat of July and August.

"When I first began to coach Mikey, I knew he was an amazing player and was worried that I would have nothing to offer him," Waterford coach Bill Bassett said. "But a player like Mikey wants to learn how to take their game from where they are now to the next level.  He's never been satisfied. Some of the greatest moments come in practice. Mikey does some amazing combination of offensive moves and I look at my assistant coach and ask, 'How did he do that?' I tell the other guys on the floor that when Mikey is driving the lane, get into a place where you can score. He'll find you."

•••••

It is a hard sell, admittedly. A Buscetto as an underdog? Ha. Good one. Everyone in this region knows a Buscetto and the success of the family. Michael's Dairy, Michael's Arco, Filomena's. And so how could anyone fathom the underdog narrative for one of the region's most recognizable names?

"At 5-9 you are an underdog," Mike Buscetto said. "Look at the stats. How many 5-9 guards from the suburbs get scholarships to play college basketball? He's not 6-2 or 6-3 from Brooklyn, Chicago or Miami. But those are the kids he always played against.

"We always had this thing; 'heart over height.' It didn't matter. He saw big kids that couldn't walk and catch the ball at the same time. He saw just because you were big and strong didn't mean you were the best player."

Still, all the work, all the AAU trips, all the sprints in the summer and shoves into the bushes, hasn't stopped the whispers. Buscetto on scholarship? The father must have pulled strings.

"Thankfully, I don't care too much about what people say," Mike Buscetto said. "Look, those voices are always going to be there. But I always tell my son that what matters is the voice inside you driving you to keep getting better.

"It doesn't matter what anyone says. What matters is someone taking a chance on your child. And they have. No matter who you're friends with, eventually, the kid has to perform. Not many friends give you a quarter of a million (the value of the Southern New Hampshire scholarship over four years) because they love your kid."

Heather Buscetto, Mikey's mom, said, "we've heard that forever. 'Oh, well, it's the Buscetto family.' I feel bad for the people who think like that. Just be happy for the kid."

Lest anyone forget, too, how The Little Guy got here: Making good choices and honoring the family trait of diligence.

"We're not hedge fund people. There's no helicopter dropping money off every Friday," Mike Buscetto said. "No big trust funds. It was hard work. We're common folk, really."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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