The former Fremont of Oakland boys basketball coach, who won more than 400 games with most of those wins in the glory days of the Oakland Athletic League in the 1960s and 1970s, died this week at age 99. He’ll always have a special place in the history of Cal-Hi Sports and this website for what he did in the aftermath of Fremont’s greatest season in 1977.
As the 1977 Fremont of Oakland boys basketball team was looking like it might have the best team in California that season, Nelson Tennis was in his early 40s, living in an apartment in San Francisco and was at a mid-point of what to do for the rest of his life. One of his passions at the time was to closely follow the best California high school football and boys basketball teams (other sports would come a few years later).
There were no newsletters, statewide magazines or hardly anything else at the time comparing and contrasting top teams on a weekly basis so Nelson would take time to personally write up letters and would mail them to the major newspapers. He’d use colored pens, arrows pointing to key statistics and tailored each letter to the person he was writing to. Some of the newspapers, especially in the Bay Area and the Sacramento Bee, thought the letters were so well done that they printed those state rankings. Nelson used the title Cal-Hi Sports.
If you don’t know by now, Nelson was my uncle and during the 1977 high school basketball season I was a senior at La Sierra High in Carmichael (now closed). We had one of the best basketball teams in the fledgling Sac-Joaquin Section for both 1976 and 1977 and I recall at some point in those years actually printing Nelson’s rankings in our school newspaper (of which I was sports editor) since our team had been ranked. I was also helping Nelson collect information for his rankings from our area and also would go down to the state library to look up information for him as he had already started compiling all-time state records. I knew I was going to college to major in journalism (choosing San Jose State later that spring) but wasn’t sure whether Nelson’s “hobby” would ever become something to get involved with.
With my own school having had strong teams, I became more hooked on following the Northern California and state rankings in 1977. This team at Fremont of Oakland was continuing to win in a league Nelson said was one of the best. Our team didn’t go that far in the section playoffs, but when I saw that our section’s championship team from St. Mary’s of Stockton was going to play Fremont in the first round of the Oakland Tournament of Champions at the Oakland Coliseum Arena (where the Golden State Warriors played) it was too much to pass up.
We didn’t even know how to apply for media credentials in 1977 so Nelson and I just paid to go in. He took BART from San Francisco and I drove up to Oakland on my own (only the second time I had ever driven that far from Sacramento). St. Mary’s was 28-5 (partly led by Laurence Held, a neighbor of mine today in Stockton many years later), but had no chance against Fremont. I remember the Tigers dunking off the opening tip and they were off and running. They won 67-47.
By the end of that weekend, the crowds in the Fremont rooting sections were going wild. The school itself was just a few miles away, which likely contributed to the enthusiasm. To this day, there’s only been a handful of head coaches we’ve ever heard being the subject of rooting sections, but at that event the chants of “Alleee-Mahhn-Oh” were frequent and loud.
The coach they were cheering for was Leo Allamanno, who had coached basketball and baseball at Fremont at that time since 1954. He was a World War II veteran and taught the players the art and ferocity of man-to-man defense.
Fremont captured the TOC title with a 61-38 victory over St. Joseph of Alameda (which had a young head coach named Mike Phelps who would later become the winningest in state history, a record later broken). Phil Barner led Fremont with 21 points. The Tigers finished 25-1 and for Nelson’s final state rankings he penned them at No. 1, just in front of CIF Southern Section champion Pasadena (which was 29-3).
After the Oakland Tribune published those rankings, Allamanno looked into finding out more about the author. He contacted Nelson with the idea of honoring that championship team with a rally at the school and invited him. Nelson and I talked and I agreed to help (along with my dad, George) by getting certificates for the players and a framed certificate for the school.
Nelson was shy in front of people for all of his life, but once we got to the school he warmed up to Coach Allamanno right away. Coach asked if Nelson wanted to say anything. He didn’t but Allamanno made it easy for him and he accepted. As the students and others gathered in the gym and the excitement began to build, Coach continued to assure us it would be great. These kids in front of me were all my age or younger so doing anything in front of them caused a lot of nerves for me as well.
In the end, Nelson got up in front of the school and announced in simplest terms what the award was and that their school was getting it. The cheering was loud and all the players were very happy. All I did was read off some names. Allamanno essentially ran the show.
After that rally, a couple of players came up and thanked Nelson. Allamanno also bid us goodbye with encouraging words for Nelson to keep doing what he was doing and said I had a bright future as a sportswriter. Keep in mind who we were at the time and that Allamanno was the popular coach of the top boys basketball team in the state. It was just such a jolt of confidence for both of us that it certainly helped in our development of what Cal-Hi Sports (and Student Sports) later became.
That Fremont team gained in some stature in later years when one of its players, Lester Conner, became a solid regular in the NBA.
Several years later, as Cal-Hi Sports was launching a newsletter, Allamanno was one of the first to sign up. He loved to tell the story of how we once correctly predicted that two Oakland teams, Fremont and Castlemont, would play for the TOC title in 1979 even though it was a time when other section champions from around Northern California (including 30-1 St. Francis of Mountain View) and the state (most notably L.A. City champ Crenshaw) were also in the field. Fremont won the title in that TOC as well.
We’d still get to visit with Coach Allamanno for many years into the 1990s at CIF events in Oakland and Sacramento, but not after he got into his 80s and 90s.
In 2018, Allamanno was honored by his school with the naming of Leo Allamanno Court. He was presented a banner that showed all of his records and league titles.
The school wrote in a tweet this week: “The Fremont community mourns your loss today. Incredible life you lived, giving over 30 years at @FrickUnited and at Fremont. Thank you for your dedication to thousands of students.”
And to high school sports outside of Oakland, too.