Benjamin N. Cardozo High School hoops coaching guru Ron Naclerio’s 723rd win of his illustrious career was embraced by the entire NYC basketball community. Following his win over Francis Lewis on Tuesday Dec. 1, Naclerio became the all-time winningest coach in PSAL history.
The 58-year-old Naclerio passed the mark of 722 victories set by the retired Charles Granby, who coached at Campus Magnet (formally Andrew Jackson) for 45 years. Tuesday night’s win also put him third on the all-time list in New York state, behind Archbishop Molloy’s Jack Curran (972), who died in 2013 and East Hampton’s Ed Petrie (754), who retired in 2010. He's sent nearly 100 players to play at colleges with Division I programs and has been the spark that ignited the light of productivity in many a young man.
It’s an accolade of excellence that speaks for itself, but the number of wins pales in comparison to the amount of lives Naclerio has touched since he assumed basketball coaching and “culturing” duties at the academically-enriched Bayside, Queens high school in 1981.
That season, Naclerio’s Judges went 1-21. This season, the invariant Naclerio is aiming for his third city championship and his 29th-straight winning season. During the remarkable transformation he’s grown into a beloved and respected institution. Brick-by-brick, kid-by-kid, he has become the face of Cardozo High School, a Queens gem that prides itself on three things: academia, diversity and basketball.
Using myriad life experiences, unique teaching and coaching talents to selflessly save lives runs in the family for Naclerio. He is the son of a doctor who saved Dr. Martin Luther King's life five years before the Civil Rights Godfather delivered his game-changing "I Have a Dream" speech.
Naclerio: It was September 20th, 1958, 10 years prior to his eventual assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. A crazy lady stabbed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a book signing and the knife penetrated right near his aorta and as Dr. King later said in one of his speeches, “if he would have coughed or sneezed the knife would have further penetrated the aorta, leading to death and drowning in his own blood.”
According to Newsday, King, then 29, had been in Harlem autographing his book "Stride Toward Freedom" about the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott when he was approached by Izola Ware Curry, a 42-year-old woman who was later judged to be mentally ill. Curry attacked King with a 7-inch steel letter opener, driving it so deeply into his chest that the tip of it rested on King's aorta
Naclerio: My dad, who was a heart and lung surgeon at Harlem Hospital was actually on call that night. He actually was going to The Waldorf Astoria, to a wedding with my mom and he was dressed in a Tuxedo. He ran into Harlem Hospital and there were two doctors. They were black and understandably nervous. My father, may he rest in peace, quickly assessed the situation and realized time was of the essence and he quickly removes two ribs from his side, because it was too dangerous to take the knife out from the front and he gets in there and manages to get the knife out and saves Dr. King’s life.
The next morning, he got up really early -- that’s what doctors do who really have concern for their patients -- and changed the dressing. Some paparazzi snuck in and took a picture of my dad doing this for Dr. King and that is the famous picture that you’ve seen time and again, representing this moment in history. For the remaining 10 years of Dr. King’s life, my father and him became very friendly.
I still have the personal letter that Dr. King sent to my dad, Dr. Emil Naclerio, thanking my father for saving his life.
My father went to Dr. King’s funeral a decade later and we also received a beautiful letter from Coretta Scott King after he was assassinated. They became really good friends. In fact, my father became really good friends with “Daddy King, ” MLK’s father. The present he mailed my father was a key chain. What made it even greater was last year October 23rd, his oldest son Martin III came to Cardozo in front of a packed auditorium and thanked me because if it wasn’t for my father, he wouldn’t have gotten to know his dad because he was only 11 months old when his pops was stabbed. He got 10 more years with him. When we hugged on stage the place went crazy. It was Epic.
Naclerio, who was a ballboy for the Knicks as a child, has been the consistent driving force behind Dozo’s rise as an elite high school and national basketball powerhouse and he has embraced the responsibility of holding his basketball players to those lofty standards. His morality, intensity, concern for students and turned-up passion for life has made Naclerio a part of the school’s fabric and its identifying personality.
That was evident by the amount of former students, players, administration and current faculty and student body, coaches, reporters and NYC basketball lovers that were jam-packed into Cardozo’s gym like sardines to celebrate Naclerio’s personal accomplishment as if it was their own.
“You have to be good for a long, long time,” Naclerio told the capacity crowd who watched him set the mark with an 88-72 win. “You have to be lucky. I’ve been blessed with players that have let me coach them up.”
KICKING IT WITH THE KING
I returned to my old high school and sat down with coach Naclerio on the eve of his record-breaking game. We reflected on his legend and took a trip down memory lane, from his humble beginnings to his three city titles in 1999, 2004 and 2014, to his current office; a room full of lockers and a cluttered desk littered with newspaper and magazine articles about the school’s accomplishments, the four NBA players he’s coached (Duane Causwell, Royal Ivey, Rafer Alston and James Sutherland) and the many others he’s trained including current NBA ballers such as Joakim Noah, Elton Brand and Metta World Peace.
When they talk about basketball in Queens, New York, Naclerio is the bridge that fuses the harsh reality of the streets with once in a lifetime opportunities and education for talented basketball players. He’s that permanent band-aid that keeps the ghetto kid from bleeding to death in a sea of challenging conditions. He didn't do it quietly or tactfully. A lot of vein bursting moments. From the outside looking in, he appeared mad on the sidelines.
While we spoke, he sat at his desk for the most part (He’s just as I remember him back in ‘92. He moves through the hallway like he’s running from po-po. He doesn’t like to sit still, his door is always being knocked on and in between questions, he was discussing an incident with his long-time assistant coach Bill Medley concerning a member of the boy’s basketball team).
Gambler: When I was attending Cardozo High School, people would say that you were the only white coach who could walk through 40 Projects in South Jamaica, Queens at 2am and nobody would mess with you. Why was that?
Naclerio: Yeah...Southside...Nobody messed with me. One, because I taught at I.S. 8 (the project’s zone junior high school) which is right near 40 Projects so a lot of the kids knew me. I was helping them as a gym teacher, as a dean and a special ed teacher. So they all got to know me and a lot of those kids ended up coming to Cardozo and playing for me. So it just became that I was always in 40 during the day, having to drop a kid off who just got kicked out of school or something. Our PTA President Mrs. Reid lived there at the time as well.
Here I am on Saturdays giving clinics and people started taking my number and calling me and the next thing you know, going into 40 Projects was nothing. Going into Harlem was no problem because I played in the Rucker...Coney Island, you name it. I was OK because everybody knew me.
Gambler: How’d you go from MLB prospect to coaching basketball at Dozo?
Naclerio: I went to Cardozo and played baseball, basketball and soccer. Then I was an All-American baseball player for St. John's and ended up playing JV basketball for St. John’s. When I got there I would always go by Cardozo 's basketball practice and coach said, “Look you’re coming by here almost everyday I might as well make you a volunteer assistant. So 1975-76 I volunteered. In 76-77 I had to do my internship for my Athletic Administration degree, so I ended up doing it at Manhattan College for Brian Mahoney, who coached me at St. John’s. He was the assistant coach at St. John’s before he got the HC job at Manhattan.
But in my case, it was becoming too much trying to be the baseball player and driving up there with tolls and traffic, so a guy in the athletic administration department said, “Listen, I know you were volunteer basketball coaching at Cardozo last year, so you can continue to do that,” to satisfy my degree requirements.
It was two hours less in traffic, no tolls and he would check in with the coach Al Matican to see if I was there everyday. That’s what I did for the next two or three years as an internship. My junior and senior years at St. John’s, that’s what I continued to do. I was drafted by the White Sox in the 1979 draft and spent two years in the minor leagues. And then my first year in the minor leagues in the winter I did it and then by the second year coach Matican leaves and says, “listen Ron you got your degree, you coach Cardozo in the winter and leave in March and hopefully your baseball career takes off.”
Then I got hurt in baseball and I started head coaching at Dozo full-time.
Naclerio: My first year was tough. The first year being 1-21 you get humbled pretty quickly. I thought I was just going to coach and win, but it wasn’t like that. I went to every clinic, brought every tape and sat down with coach Lou Carnesecca from St. John’s, who was like an uncle to me. I was a sponge. I would go here. I would go there and I would always ask questions and ask more questions and buy every book, watched every game. I started sitting with scouts and a couple years later I thought I would end up in the college or the pros, but I was so obsessed trying to get Cardozo to the level it is now.
I remember somebody asked me, “Why are you coaching at Cardozo?” I go, “Why?” They say, “Because you’re never going to win there. It’s a tough academic school. There’s no housing projects in the zone so you’re not going to have the type of kid that plays. So many kids apply to get into Cardozo, so it’s going to be hard for them to get in. And if they do get in, a lot of them won’t be able to pass.” So he suggested I go to another school where I had a better chance.
Now you look back 35 years later and the guy who said that was wrong.
Shake The Haters, Dawn of The Dynasty
Naclerio: I don't think it was one player who turned the program around and defied the odds. It was a combination of me getting the kids to just buy in and realize that every play, every practice means something. Because I was the all-time, hustle, intensity and desire guy in baseball and basketball and I think that intensity, desire and hustle, I instill in all my players. I always tell them, “If you make one more hustle play. One more rebound. One more closeout. Make the guy you’re guarding take his shot just one more foot out of his range...all those things add up to 8-10 points and all of a sudden you start winning some of the close games. Games you were losing by 20, now you’re losing by 1. And slowly but surely we started winning.
A couple of really good kids started coming, and now instead of getting below average guards and trying to make them average, I was making average guards above average. Then I started getting real lucky in the late 80s and early 90s where I was getting above average guards and making them really, really good. Thank God, I’ve had a lot of great players over the years.
The odds were stacked against Naclerio on every level early in the game. The school’s principal was even trying to force him out as head basketball coach. The administration wasn’t always as supportive as it is now.
Naclerio: I had a principal in 86-87 who wanted me out. He tried to fire me because he didn’t like the fact that certain type of kids wanted to come here to play basketball and he thought that would make the school bad and when he tried to fire me, the kids picketed and protested and I got a good lawyer, Tom Rome. The next thing you know, he got rid of me for nine days, but I was back for good after that. I reflect back on how my life would have been if he was successful at firing me... like maybe that was my chance to do something else.
Without Naclerio, Cardozo may have never sent their first pro player, 7-footer Duane Causwell to Temple University to play for John Chaney in 1987.
Naclerio: “The Lollipop.” That was Duane. It was an exciting experience for me because he was a kid that couldn’t play basketball. He was at Andrew Jackson High School and the coach basically cut him and how we actually got him to Cardozo is funny:
I’m playing softball after my baseball career is over and we have two fireman playing in the game that aren’t going to get off until 9am and the game starts at 9am in the morning. We needed to get two players to fill in until the other players arrived, so we wouldn’t forfeit the game because 9:15 is forfeit time. So I walk across the street and I see this big kid with a basketball and I go, “Hey you. You play basketball?"
He goes, “Yeah.” He looked like he was 12 years old. I go, “Are you good?” He goes, “Yeah.” I say, “Where do you go to school?” He says, “Andrew Jackson.” I knew he didn’t play for the team because I knew all the boys who played for the rival high schools. He told me he planned on going to Cardozo or Martin Van Buren High School because the coaches were calling him. I knew he was full of crap and said, “Do you know who I am? I’m the coach at Cardozo and I never called you.”
So I gave him my home phone number on a softball box and when I spoke to his mother she told me that he was struggling at Jackson and if he didn’t get into Cardozo or Van Buren, she was sending him down south to live with his grandparents in South Carolina. She couldn’t get him in and called me crying. I told her to just go down to the head office and just beg. She took my advice and someone wound up sending him here. He got in and we started working out everyday. Everyday.
If he was fired, it might have been Naclerio’s shot to go for the green instead of growth, but a letter he received from Causwell as a freshman at Temple University is a classic example of why he’s remained at Dozo. True coaches follow their hearts and continue to coach no matter the level of prestige involved in the position or the number of 0’s at the end of their salary.
Oct. 19, 1987
What’s up Coach,
How’s everything. I’m doing well and practice is going good so far. They really got me working hard especially on balance, but they are impressed with the way I’m learning. I’m getting everything down that they are telling me...cause you taught me basically everything.
I’m real grateful for what you did for me. I owe you a lot because if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be where I am today. You took so much of your time and put it in with me to make a ballplayer out of me and if I continue to make bigger strides to my goal (Pros) I owe most of the percentage to you.
You were more than just a coach to me. You were just like family, a big brother. When we came to Cardozo we were scared and you took the fear from us and gave us confidence to be players. So take care cause you mean a lot to me.
Love Duane “Lollipop” “$BigTime” “10-DownCauswell”
P.S. I won’t let you down.
Naclerio: Those were nicknames I used to call him. "Lollipop"...he was a big teddy bear ya know? Then I used to call him “Big Time” because I thought his self esteem needed to be boosted for him to believe he was good enough to be big time. He was so big, that if you put him on the ball, the opposition couldn’t inbound the ball against him. That's where "10-DownCauswell" comes from.
Gambler: So once you started winning and established Dozo as a city force, how was/is your relationship with coaches around the city?
Naclerio: I get along with everybody. I mean I’m sure there are guys that talk nice in front of you and speak negatively of you behind your back. But what I found out was in my first year when I went 1-21 everybody loved me. The next year, when I went 21-4 and then the following year 18-6, all of a sudden some coaches didn’t really like me. The competitive juices started flowing and somebody you gave a spanking too, now you can’t give a spanking too anymore.
Gambler: What’s been your main philosophy as coach here?
Naclerio: The harder you work, the luckier you get.
ON HIS SUGE NIGHT
Gambler : What was your tactic with your players. We know you were aggressive, but were you steady in one philosophy or did you mix it up?
Naclerio: I’ve calmed down over the years. In the 80s and 90s I was totally nuts. If you cut class I would have a fit. I remember I had a student Mel Johnson and I told him, “The next time you cut class, I’m going to throw you out of a window.” And he cut class and I actually had him hanging out the window by his legs and the Chinese kids were running bye saying, “Coach crazy. Coach crazy.”
I remember one kid that I saw so much potential in but he had no father in his life. His mother said, “Coach anytime you want to come by and ring his neck, feel free.” So one time, he did something to make me want to ring his neck and I went over there. He locked himself in the room and I ended up kicking the door in and he jumped out the window of his house from the second floor, right by Andrew Jackson High School. I can go on and on with stories of my early years at Dozo. That’s why it’s so much fun when the kids come back and they tell me things that I did, that now I really can’t believe I did.
I was one of those teachers that understood that kids couldn’t fail in school, because I knew that if they did, their lives would be miserable. It’s one thing losing a heartbreaking basketball game, that hurts. But it’s another thing losing a kid’s life to the streets. To drugs. To crime. You don't want to live an ugly life... avoiding those pitfalls is very important. And if you can’t go to class, try your best and come to practice, you’re certainly not going to get a good job and try your best and work your way up the ladder of success without it. That’s impossible.
There are kids who are now in their late 40s and early 50s that call me all the time. I would say there are 50 to 100 players that are calling me every week or every month.
Gambler: How has H.S. Basketball changed in the last 25 years or so?
Naclerio: There are less good basketball schools. Kids all flock to one or two schools and most of the coaches now aren’t into the X’s and O’s or the fundamentals...Now it’s just go out and steal players, grab players, recruit players and whoever does it the best is usually the most successful coach. That’s the one thing I don't like about it, but I’m lucky now. With Cardozo being such a great all-around school, kids want to come and the success breeds success, but I’m working just as hard. I have a scouting report on every team we play. Pages and pages of data. So I'm still obsessed, emotional... writing down each player’s tendencies and strengths and weaknesses.
I put in thousands of hours that the school never paid me for just coaching, preparing, helping, molding and building. That’s the only way you get from where we started to what we have now.
Now there’s talk about nominating Naclerio for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Some high school coaches have gotten in and Naclerio is the coaching king of New York City public school basketball. That’s a good look and legendary in itself.
Gambler: Did you ever think you would get the record or have 23-straight years of 20 or more wins?
Naclerio: When you start talking prep school and catholic schools the rules are different. I’ve done it at a public school. Not trying to pat myself on the back, but when I reflect on the journey I say, “My God,” this really has been something.
Gambler: Philosophy on AAU Ball?
Naclerio: I originally loved it and was a proponent of it. I would go to all of the AAU events , but over the last couple of years I don’t like it because there are a couple of people in AAU that are a little shady. Money is filtered down into the AAU game. If you get the better players you can get this contract or whatever. And in defense of AAU coaches, it's different because you can’t really prepare for a game. You don’t get to practice with certain players before a weekend tournament.
You don’t have the time. Basically, when you start traveling you are playing two, three or maybe even four times a day, so kids get used to playing lazy. They don’t run back on D...there’s a fatigue factor. They take winning for granted when they win and when things get tough a lot of them accept losing. So I don’t like the way AAU is running these days and you have seen guys like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant express their displeasure with the direction of AAU basketball. It’s the main reason why a lot of the kids are not fundamentally sound, but then again there are some great AAU coaches and terrible high school coaches.
At the end of the day, no matter where they play, you see the kids grow and you see them succeed. One of the sad things is, I have more kids who have played for me that have passed away than I have had city championships. I've had seven pass away. Two the streets got, one had a rare blood disease, one had a heart attack. One guy was stuck in a love triangle and was killed in Harlem. A couple of sad situations.
Gambler: How come you never left Dozo and pursued your dream job?
Naclerio: I've had a couple offers, but what I really wanted, I never got it. I wanted to be at St. John’s or with the Knicks or the Nets. If something came along, or if I could join forces with NBA Cares and try to help kids and people on a much larger scale like I’ve always tried to do at Cardozo and throughout Queens and the inner-city, then that would be even better than a position some place else. The NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the league seem to be receptive to it so far so we will see. I’ve also spoken with USA Basketball and they are interested.
What have players and coaching consistently said about the makeup of your Cardozo teams?
Naclerio: I’ve heard kids say to me that when kids tell people they play basketball at Cardozo, the usual response is, “You play for Naclerio? Naclerio’s crazy (laughter)”
When people say I’m crazy, I always tell them that you can call me crazy. If being crazy is me wanting you to go to class, try your best, get passing grades, come to practice, become a good teammate and become the best person you can socially and me forcing you to do that, then I'm good with the label. In the old days it was called “ringing your neck.” I would go to kids houses and yell at them and stay on them. I would remind them of school work to be done by calling and texting all times of the night. If that’s crazy...then I’m crazy