The first time it happened, Mark says, he was 16. He was a basketball-crazy Catholic kid from Queens, and like a lot of teenagers who fit that description in the late eighties, he was eager—even desperate—to please Bob Oliva. A fortysomething man with an owlish face and an ill-fitting toupee, Oliva appeared to be an unlikely teen idol. But as the basketball coach of Christ the King Regional High School, he held a powerful allure. Since taking over the Queens school’s varsity squad in 1981, Oliva had turned Christ the King into a national basketball force—one that sent its stars to universities like North Carolina and Syracuse and, with any luck, to the NBA. But it was the marginal kids, the kids who weren’t being recruited by top schools, who most looked up to Oliva. If the man they called “Mister O.” took a shine to one of them, he could make a few phone calls, cash in a few chits, and get those kids college basketball scholarships, too. “He was like a god,” Mark says. “He controlled my destiny.”
Fortunately for Mark, he had become one of Oliva’s favorites. When he started playing for him, Mark recalls, “he’d break me down, getting on my case about how I wasn’t ever going to be any good. But then he’d build me up, telling me I’d improved.” Before long, Mister O. began inviting Mark, along with some of his other favorite players, to watch ball games on TV at the house in Richmond Hill where the bachelor coach lived with his elderly father. The home was decorated with an impressive collection of New York Yankees memorabilia and pictures of some of the best Royals, as the Christ the King players were known, to have suited up for Oliva. To an adolescent sports junkie, it was the coolest apartment in the world. Oliva would even serve his underage guests beer.
One night, a few weeks before basketball practice started, Oliva invited Mark to come over. They watched a game in the living room, drank some beers, and talked about sports. But as the evening wore on, Oliva “started asking me about my girlfriend, what I did with her, stuff like that,” Mark says. Mark dutifully answered, and eventually Oliva stopped him. “He said, ‘Talking about this makes me horny. I think I got a porno around here somewhere,’ ” Mark recalls. “And everything just kind of slowed down. He was sitting there, and he started jerking off. Then he said, ‘You can do it, too.’ ” And then Mark, having consumed half a dozen beers and nervous about disappointing a man he revered, also began to masturbate.
Mark, who is now a tall and confident man in his early forties, tells me his story one night at a bar in Queens. He does so reluctantly, and only on the condition that I not use his real name or any other identifying details about him in this article. “It’ll get back to where I work and live,” he says. “That’s something I don’t need.” But Mark isn’t the only person making sexual-misconduct accusations against Oliva. Three years ago, Jimmy Carlino—who played Catholic Youth Organization basketball for Oliva in the seventies and became so close to the coach that Carlino’s parents made Oliva his godfather—told the Daily News’ Michael O’Keeffe that Oliva had molested him as a teen, mostly in New York but also when the two took trips together out of state. The 66-year-old Oliva has denied the accusations, but in January 2009, he resigned as the coach of Christ the King—blaming heart problems brought on by stress—and moved from his lifelong home in New York to South Carolina. “He’s dropped off the face of the earth,” a Catholic-league coach who was friendly with Oliva says. “I haven’t heard from him in over a year.” Last March, prosecutors in Massachusetts indicted Oliva on two counts of child rape, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, for molesting Carlino during a trip to Boston in 1976. On April 4, Oliva is scheduled to appear at a pretrial hearing, where sources close to the case expect that, in exchange for no jail time, he will plead guilty.
At the bar in Queens, Mark continues to tell his story. He says that Oliva did not touch him that first night but that the coach was not so hesitant on future occasions—in his apartment, in his car, sometimes even at Christ the King. “He had keys to the school, and he’d take me to the gym to play H-O-R-S-E at 2 a.m.,” Mark recalls. “There’d be drinking, and then he’d molest me there.” All told, Mark alleges, the abuse continued for two years. It did not stop, he says, until he left New York to go to college on a basketball scholarship, which Oliva had helped him secure.