The Sins of the Coach

Photo: Thomas Prior

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.

Oliva celebrating a 2007 playoff win with his team.Photo: Frank Koester/New York Daily News

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 goodperson. 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?’ ”

Oliva also had unusual motivational techniques, according to one former Christ the King player. On multiple occasions, the player says, Oliva would videotape interviews with him. “He’d say, ‘Take your shirt off. Pretend you just finished a game and you’re in the locker room. You’re going to be a pro one day, and you’re going to have to do interviews, so you’ve got to be ready for that,’ ” the player recalls. “He’d start asking sports questions, but then he’d eventually start asking sex questions, like ‘Tell me about the size of that guy’s cock’ and ‘Did the girl swallow?’ ”

Oliva’s ultimate motivational tactic, this player says, was taking him to a prostitute as a reward for a good performance. “We’d be driving around in his car after a game or a practice, and he’d say, ‘Do you want to get blow jobs?’ He’d go to Atlantic Avenue to pick them up,” says the player, who claims Oliva took him to prostitutes on at least five occasions. “He’d be in the front seat, I’d be in the back. Sometimes he’d have a girl, too, but he’d always be watching you, he’d always be turning around. He always had to watch.”

Jimmy Carlino is 49 years old. He lives in Florida and has been unable to hold down a job for the past few years, although in the past he’s worked as a stockbroker, strip-club manager, and horse-racing consultant. Until 2008, he was in regular contact with Oliva, visiting him in New York or hosting him at his place in Florida. But since Carlino accused Oliva of sexual abuse, the two have communicated only through third parties and lawyers. “Jimmy still considers himself a bit of a traitor for reporting him,” says Bob Hoatson, a Catholic priest who is counseling Carlino. “He hopes at times the guy doesn’t get into trouble.”

Carlino wouldn’t comment for this article, on the advice of his attorney, but people familiar with his story say that he first met Oliva when he was about 7 years old and his father took him to CYO tryouts at St. Teresa’s. Carlino began playing in Oliva’s intramural league and soon was receiving instruction from the young coach on the side. Oliva began taking Carlino for pizza after games, paying him to help clean up the Short Porch, and having him over to his apartment to marvel at his trophy collection. When it was time for Carlino’s confirmation, his father asked Oliva to be his godfather.

For years, Carlino has told people, his relationship with Oliva was nonsexual. But at around the time of his confirmation, Carlino has said, the relationship changed. One night he was at Oliva’s apartment when Oliva asked, “Have you ever seen a naked woman?” The coach brought out an 8-mm. projector and removed a reel of film from a cardboard box. Soon a porn flick was playing on the wall of Oliva’s bedroom, and Oliva was asking Carlino if he was excited. The coach then showed Carlino how to masturbate, Carlino has said, first by doing it himself and then demonstrating on Carlino. It was the first of many times, according to Carlino, that Oliva would molest him. Sometimes, Carlino has said, Oliva would get him to undress by asking to measure his penis, always telling him that it had grown. When Carlino grew tired of the porn movies at Oliva’s house, Oliva would entice him by taking him on out-of-town trips to watch baseball games and then molest him in hotel rooms. On several occasions, Carlino has said, Oliva took him to a brothel called the Open Lens near JFK, where on one occasion he watched Carlino have sex with a female prostitute. Carlino has alleged that Oliva molested him for four or five years, stopping only after Carlino suffered a serious back injury and was bedridden for several months during his junior year of high school at Archbishop Molloy.

For most of his adult life, Carlino either suppressed memories of his alleged abuse or kept them a secret. He’s subsequently explained that “if [Oliva] did a million things for me in my life, 999,999 were good things. He just did one bad thing.” But in the spring of 2008, Carlino could no longer keep that one bad thing to himself. Carlino was visiting a friend and former Christ the King player in Florida when the friend passed on some gossip. Mark had recently told another former Christ the King player that Oliva had molested him. What did Carlino think about that? Carlino, who had long believed he was Oliva’s only victim, decided it was time to confront his godfather. He had his cousin, a lawyer in Florida, draft a letter to Oliva demanding his resignation from Christ the King and $750,000 for the pain and suffering the coach had caused him. Oliva refused Carlino’s demands.

The matter might have ended there had it not been for Carlino’s allegation that Oliva molested him on trips outside of New York, including one to Boston. While the statute of limitations had long ago expired on any abuse that might have occurred in New York, it had not in Massachusetts, where the statute-of-limitations clock stops ticking once a suspect leaves the state. Investigators in Massachusetts began looking into Carlino’s claims, and Oliva allegedly started trying to cover his tracks. Sam Albano, a friend of Oliva’s since the early seventies, hadn’t believed Carlino’s accusations when he first heard them. But then, Albano says, Oliva came to him for a favor. As it happened, Albano was visiting Boston at the same time Oliva had taken Carlino there in 1976. All three men had gone to see the same Yankees–Red Sox doubleheader, and Albano bumped into Oliva and the then-14-year-old Carlino outside Fenway Park. Now, Albano says, Oliva wanted him to tell the investigators in Massachusetts that he had stayed at the same hotel as Carlino and Oliva, which Albano says wasn’t the case, as he eventually testified to a Boston grand jury.

Ray Paprocky, who’d played for Oliva at Christ the King and later served as one of his assistant coaches, also initially believed Oliva was innocent. It wasn’t until Mark confided to Paprocky that Oliva had molested him that Paprocky confronted his mentor. Paprocky says he asked Oliva about Mark in October 2008 during a meeting at the Triple Crown diner in Bellerose. “That’s where Bobby admitted everything to me about my friend,” Paprocky says. “But he tried to claim to me that it was consensual because my friend was 17.” Paprocky ultimately told this story to the Boston grand jury, too. Later that month, Oliva was indicted.

“He’d say,‘Take yourshirt off.You’re going to be a pro and do locker-roominterviews.You’ve got to be ready for that.’ ”

Albano and Paprocky say they’ve approached Christ the King officials to ask them to investigate whether Oliva may have molested other students, to no avail. Bernard Helldorfer, a member of Christ the King’s board of trustees and a lawyer for the school, says Christ the King has handled the matter properly. “The legal system is going to take its course, and we’re content to stay out of it since it didn’t involve any student and didn’t involve Mr. Oliva while he was employed at the school,” Helldorfer says. “We’re not trying to go out there and search for victims who might not even exist.”

That position is “a typical Catholic response to all this,” says Hoatson, the priest who in addition to counseling Carlino runs a group called Road to Recovery, which offers support to victims of clergy sexual abuse. “The school is responding the way the bishops have responded to the priest stuff,” Hoatson says. Basketball coaches in New York’s top CYO programs and Catholic high schools are akin to “little priests,” Hoatson says. “The moment a priest gets ordained, he’s viewed as godlike. And the more successful Oliva was on the court, the more he was viewed as godlike. Oliva, because he was in a Catholic school, was in a culture that promotes power and authority. Oliva had a kingdom at Christ the King.”

Bob Oliva offers me a drink and asks if I want to watch a video. It’s a warm evening in February, and we’re sitting in the living room of his condominium in Myrtle Beach, where he’s been lying low since he resigned from Christ the King. Still, it’s not hard to see that the school remains very much a part of him. Just outside the front door hangs a sign emblazoned with the Christ the King logo and the words ROYALVILLE SOUTH; inside, the walls are lined with photos of his championship Christ the King teams (in addition to snapshots of him with Michael Jordan and LeBron James and a painting of a black baby and a white baby in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird jerseys entitled Let’s Play). Oliva, who gave up the toupee several years ago, is wearing a crimson sweatshirt and gray sweatpants with the word “Royals” stitched on them. Rising from his chair, he heads into the bedroom to fetch a DVD. “I’m going to show you something here, if you want to stick around for a second,” he says. “Are you sure you don’t want something to drink?”

Oliva’s lawyer in the Carlino case, a top Boston criminal-defense attorney, refused to comment for this article, so in late February I went to the golf community where Oliva now lives to try to get his side of the story. When I arrived at his apartment, he wasn’t home. Outside, a couple of young boys rode their dirt bikes around the parking lot, and their mother directed me to another neighbor who was a friend of Oliva’s. “We talk about things we have in common,” said the man, a retired math teacher from upstate New York, “like our attitudes toward young kids.” He was surprised I was writing a story about his pal. “I knew Bob was an accomplished basketball coach, but I didn’t know he was so famous.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him the real subject of my story.

Oliva’s friend said he was probably at the nineteenth hole, which is where I found him, drinking beers with some golfing buddies. I waited outside the clubhouse and approached him after he left. For a moment, Oliva was taken aback. “How did you find me?” he asked. But then he agreed to talk. “C’mon, follow me,” he said, and he got in his Hyundai to drive back to his condo.

Sitting at a small table covered with Social Security paperwork, Oliva denied the allegations against him. He didn’t molest Jimmy Carlino or Mark, he said, never took anyone to prostitutes, and didn’t ask Albano to lie. “I think it’s a situation where they’re trying to get money from me through a lawsuit,” he said. “I’m devastated by [Carlino]. Crushed.” But his protests had a pro forma quality to them, as if he didn’t expect anyone to believe him. I asked him whether, as people had told me, he was going to plead guilty. “I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do,” he said. But if he wasn’t guilty, why would he even consider a plea deal? “I’m not even considering it,” he said. “I’m considering it, but I’m not—I don’t want to discuss that.” Was there anything he especially wanted to say for this article? He was quiet for a time. “I just want to end my life here or whatever,” he said eventually. “My life is, you know, I’m not coaching, I’m not dealing with kids no more, I’m not teaching, I’m retired. I’m old now, and what do I got? Ten years left to live?”

The video Oliva wanted to watch was of the night in 1999 when he was inducted into Christ the King’s hall of fame. “You had to have a presenter, and my presenter was Carlino,” he said. “He was in Florida. He came up just to do this for me.” He fumbles with the remote control, and eventually the TV lights up with a blurry picture of the Christ the King cafeteria, where a handsome young man in a tan suit is giving a speech. “Bob Oliva is not about basketball or baseball or sports. He’s about people,” Carlino says. And “if there were more Bob Olivas out there, we wouldn’t be having the problems we’re having today with the schools.” Then: “The greatest man I’ve ever known, I’ll ever know, my godfather, Bob Oliva.”

Oliva seems buoyed by the video, as if the things Carlino said about him a dozen years ago could somehow erase the accusations he’s facing. He reminisces about the former players who have stood by him and shows me a recent text message from the Villanova coach Jay Wright: “Bobby O., my assistant told me you were well. Glad to hear that. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” He talks about his favorite players and rattles off his personal top five. He brags about his successor and former player, Joe Arbitello, who steered Christ the King to a state title in 2010. “He’s like my son. I love him. I talk to him two times a week.”

It’s dark out now, and it’s time for me to go. “I’m glad you came,” Oliva says. “I really am.”

Before I leave, though, Oliva has one more thing to tell me. “You know, I’m not a bad guy,” he says. “I mean, forget this. I’m not. I’m a good person, everyone will tell you that, you know? One technical foul in 46 years. I didn’t even yell at the refs.”

The Sins of the Coach