James McClendon, Editor-in-chief
It was a couple of hours before tipoff and Utica College head men’s basketball coach Jim Spartano had just learned that the singer they had lined up to perform the national anthem was nowhere to be found. Greg Roberts said in a reserved voice that he was a pretty good singer.
Spartano was skeptical at first, but after hearing Roberts’ voice, he asked him to sing the anthem.
“Spartano was so taken aback that Greg was such a great singer,” said Jim Murnane, Utica’s current assistant athletic director. “He wowed everyone and became the permanent singer for basketball games.
Roberts began working at Utica College in 1989 as a janitor for basketball games. Before the 1990s, UC searched for talented singers to perform the anthem before football and basketball games.
That search would end with the arrival of Roberts.
Roberts worked tirelessly to make sure the Clark Athletic Center ran like a finely tuned machine. If there was a problem with the facilities, he was the guy you went to. He could often be found washing uniforms in the basement, fixing the filter of the pool or working on the scoreboard in the gym.
During a women’s basketball shoot around, head coach Michele Davis noticed that the shot clock was not working properly. Her first instinct was to find Roberts because she knew he could fix the problem. Without hesitation Roberts pulled out a ladder and headed toward the basket.
Davis turned around just in time to see Roberts standing on the rim, working on the malfunctioning shot clock.
“He was not a young buck by any means and he was standing on top of the rim,” Davis said. “I was scared he was going to fall and break his neck.”
During his time at UC, Roberts’ reputation as the guy who can fix your problems grew.
“Anytime you needed anything you went to Greg,” Davis said. “He always had an answer for you no matter what.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why teams play better at home. There are many factors that contribute to this trend, such as the fans, familiarity with the court or not having to travel.
For UC Hall of Famer, Doug Herring, the key factor was Roberts. The way he took care of the gym and the way he made sure the correct uniforms were washed and laid out in front of the lockers before game time, was so important to Herring.
“Preparing for home games was a peaceful experience for me,” Herring said. “There was no added stress because I knew that Greg would take care of the little details that helped me play well.”
Roberts was a member of the UC staff from 1989 until 2003, when he retired. He was called out of retirement in 2005 because he was desperately needed in the gym.
According to ucpioneers. com, between 2002 and 2013, the men’s basketball team had a home record of 89-58. During that same time period the Pioneers had an away record of 66-85.
Comparing this trend with years where Roberts was not at UC strengthens the argument of how important he was to the success of the basketball team at home. Between the years of 2013 and 2015, the Pioneers had a home record of 11-22.
Work’s Never Done
It was August 2013 and the football locker room was being moved to its current location piece by piece.
Murnane was part of the team responsible for this relocation project. He remembers telling Roberts that he did not want him to help move these enormous lockers but it was not in Roberts’ DNA to just sit around while there was work to be done.
Murnane watched as this frail man lifted three lockers with a hand truck and slid them into place.
“He was like 90 pounds,” Murnane said. “I actually ended up yelling at him because he grabbed the hand truck away from us.”
Roberts weight loss was an effect of the stage four colon cancer that was attacking his body. He was originally diagnosed with cancer in the mid-80’s but he was able to fight it off and it went into remission.
Unbeknownst to those around him, his cancer would return and spread.
Roberts passed away on Oct 3, 2013, at 72. He died surrounded by family and friends at the Faxton-St. Luke’s Healthcare Center.
Roberts was loved and respected by just about everyone that was privileged enough to know him.
UC graduate and former basketball player, George Schultz, was deeply saddened by the news of his death.
“I couldn’t believe he was gone,” Schultz said. “It was like I lost a relative.”
Herring also shared fond memories of his time with Roberts.
“I knew once I heard his voice before our games that it was time to go,” Herring said. “Now whenever I hear the national anthem I think of Greg.”
Now just three years removed from his passing Roberts’ memory is being honored at UC. A recording that was made of one of his national anthem performances can be heard playing in the gym before basketball games.
A new generation of athletes arrive and wonder why they are listening to a recording of someone singing the national anthem, but soon they will learn that the game doesn’t really begin until Roberts’ voice is heard.