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The Sins of the Coach

Oliva celebrating a 2007 playoff win with his team.  

For good—and now quite possibly for ill—Bob Oliva is a pure product of New York City’s storied Catholic basketball culture. Growing up in the fifties in Richmond Hill, Oliva, the son of a barber, attended public rather than parochial schools, but his life revolved around CYO basketball. His local parish, St. Teresa of Avila, was considered “the Boston Celtics of the CYO circuit,” according to one New York basketball scout; its gym was literally a temple to the game—a converted church whose pews had been removed to make way for a court. Although Oliva wasn’t much of a player himself, he was enough of a gym rat that when he was just 16, he was tapped to coach St. Teresa’s Bantam team, made up of players only four years his junior. The squad went undefeated. Over the next two decades, Oliva rose through the parish’s CYO coaching ranks, winning diocesan crowns for the school at every age level.

When he wasn’t at St. Teresa’s, Oliva could usually be found at the Short Porch, a bar he co-owned that was located underneath the elevated subway tracks on Liberty Avenue in South Ozone Park. Named after right field in the old Yankee Stadium, the bar was filled with sports memorabilia and had a jukebox stocked with Oliva’s collection of doo-wop 45s. Between his championship CYO teams, the Short Porch, and his mint-condition Oldsmobile 442, Oliva was a neighborhood legend. Sometimes when kids would come looking for him at the Short Porch, his business partner would have to remind Oliva that they really weren’t supposed to be in there. “We’re not running an ice-cream parlor,” he’d say.

I’m a good person. One technical foul in 46 years. I didn’t even yell at the refs.

Finally, in 1978, Oliva was called up to the Catholic High School Athletic Association when Christ the King hired him as its freshman coach. Three years later, with the school’s varsity coach sidelined by a teachers strike, Oliva was promoted to be his replacement. A coed high school of about 2,000 students set on a leafy campus in Middle Village, Queens, Christ the King had long languished below the Archbishop Molloys and the Power Memorials in New York’s Catholic-school basketball hierarchy. But Oliva would soon change that. Capitalizing on his contacts in CYO gyms, he lured a steady stream of the city’s top hoops talent to Christ the King, including the future NBA stars Lamar Odom and Jayson Williams. Part of the appeal was monetary: If a promising prospect couldn’t afford Christ the King’s tuition, Oliva found him a “sponsor” to help pay his way. Oliva also had a reputation as the consummate player’s coach. While a number of his peers forced their players to conform to their systems, Oliva was a tactical agnostic, tailoring his game plans to the strengths of his team. “He wasn’t a yeller or screamer,” recalls Wendell Alexis, who played for Oliva at Christ the King before going on to star at Syracuse University. “He used to always say, ‘A pat on the butt is better than a kick in the ass.’ ”

By the time he retired, Oliva had won 549 games, including five city championships and a state title. But it was his demeanor off the court that made him especially beloved. “He was a father figure to me,” says Ed Jurin, who played at Christ the King in the early eighties and later sent his own son to play there. “He was about so much more than just basketball.” If a player’s parents were absent, Oliva would take him out to dinner or get him tickets to a Knicks game; if a player needed extra money, Oliva would arrange odd jobs for him. “He didn’t coach only for his self-glorification,” says one Catholic-league coach. “He was more concerned in having relationships with kids, coach to player.” Over the years, college coaches would try to persuade Oliva to join their staffs, but he always turned them down. “I live for the kids, I guess,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “I’m married to our team.”

As a coach, Oliva was relaxed about rules. When the Royals went to out-of-state tournaments, he set a curfew for his players but rarely bothered to enforce it. He even tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade administrators at Christ the King to loosen its dress code so that players could wear earrings. But there was one thing about which Oliva was a stickler. At the end of every practice, he would typically gather his team for a huddle and then, after a cheer of “One, two, three, CK!,” he would make an announcement. “Everyone needs to shower. If you don’t shower, you don’t play.” According to Oliva, the policy was a matter of hygiene. “He’d literally pull up one of those folding metal chairs, put it right by the shower entrance, and sit there and just stare and watch everybody,” recalls Rich Vetere, who played at Christ the King in the early nineties. “Now that I think about it, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”