St. John's men's basketball coach Rick Ritino started out right here on Long Island. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

St. John’s coach Rick Pitino may have been born in Manhattan, but his basketball legend came of age on Long Island.

The kid from Bayville made a bit of a splash when he earned a coveted spot on the varsity basketball team at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay as a sophomore, and the ripples just got bigger from there.

Before long, he was the sixth man on a powerhouse team that won the 1968 Long Island Catholic school championship. A year later, he was the starting guard with a catchy nickname for a squad that captured the title again in ’69.

Everyone knew “Rifle Rick” and his 28.7-point average by the time the senior made the 1970 Newsday All-Long Island team.

Rick Pitino wore No. 23 at St. Dominic High School in the late 1960s. Credit: Steve Pfost

The first Bayhawks team Pitino played on featured 6-10 All-Long Island star Tom Riker, who would become a first-round pick of the Knicks in 1972.

“The only other sophomore I remember making our varsity was me,” said Riker, who played for South Carolina before becoming the eighth overall pick and spending three seasons with the Knicks.

“There were players that were faster and quicker,'' Riker said, “but Ricky always found a way to score or make the smart pass . . . He got as much out of himself as he could.

“I think you can still see that today in how he coaches and how much he gets out of his players,” he added.

The first-year St. John's coach has led one of college basketball’s most successful careers, taking three different schools to a total of seven Final Fours and coaching two of them to national championship game victories. Some who knew him growing up, like Riker, look back and see the qualities and traits that have led to his success.

“The way he saw the game, you knew he was going to be a coach,” Dr. Robert O’Keefe, his co-captain on the 1969-70 Bayhawks, said recently at his office in Rocky Point. “He told me he wanted to [coach]. His whole life was basketball . . . and we played at camps all summer. Those were fun times.”

“At family events or out with friends, he was always the center of the conversation,” said Jericho High School basketball coach Wally Bachman, Pitino’s older first cousin and a frequent companion in his youth. “There’s something about his voice and his body language that makes people [gravitate] . . . It’s no wonder he’s such a great recruiter.”

“He had a good sense of humor and he was a sharp guy, but I can’t say that I saw him becoming an all-time great coach,” Riker said in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia. “What struck me was the way he was always about making the team better. He hustled. He motivated people.”

A DEVELOPING PASSION

Rick Pitino starred at St. Dominic High School in the late 1960s, making the varsity team as a sophomore. Credit: Steve Pfost

Pitino’s family moved to Bayville when he was entering fourth grade. Before that, they’d lived in the Cambria Heights section of Queens. Sports didn’t play a big role in the Pitino household. Still, he tried out for the CYO basketball program at nearby Sacred Heart Church in which Bachman, who is four years older, played.

The tryout was a layup and a free throw, Pitino told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1996, and it was his first experience with basketball.

“You couldn’t say he fell in love with basketball, but maybe it was a spark,” said Bachman, whose mother and Pitino’s mother were sisters.

The two families were very close and moved to Long Island around 1960, as Bachman recalls, the Pitinos settling in Bayville and the Bachmans in Jericho. The parents still worked in Manhattan — Pitino’s father was an office building manager and his mother was a hospital healthcare worker — and so, Bachman explained, he and his younger cousin spent time after school until their parents returned in the dinner hour.

“Our families were very close and I sort of looked after Rick after school,” Bachman said. “Basketball became a favorite [activity].”

Enrolled at St. Dominic in Oyster Bay, Pitino was further exposed to basketball, and his fierce competitiveness fueled his passion for it. When he started to compete for school teams, he encouraged teammates to spend summers playing in local leagues and attend summer basketball camps.

“He made the JV as an eighth-grader, didn't [even] play freshman ball,” O’Keefe said. “He made the varsity as a sophomore, which was unheard of at St. Dominic. Nobody played as a sophomore.”

Tom McCorry was the St. Dominic basketball coach who selected Pitino for the varsity as a sophomore. Former assistant Pat McGunnigle was in his first season leading the Bayhawks when he picked Pitino and O’Keefe as captains.

“If you think Ricky is driven now, then you should have seen him when he was 13, 14, 15 years old,” McGunnigle, who died in 2022, told the New York Post in a 2012 interview. “You hear guys talk about a kid who's a coach on the floor all the time, I know. But I'm telling you, when you saw that kid, he was so serious, so driven, so focused, you knew he was going to be a coach. Because he already was.”

Serious about basketball as he was, there also was a lighter side to Pitino that his teammates truly enjoyed.

O’Keefe and Pitino went to Holy Cross coach Jack Donohue’s summer basketball camp one year and were assigned to a bunk with counselor Howard Garfinkel, a mover in New York basketball circles and the then-author of the highly regarded HSBI recruiting newsletter.

“The best was when we went to Donohue’s camp,” O’Keefe recalled. “We went up there and we had a bunk counselor and Rick and I got him: We short-sheeted his bed right away.”

Equally amusing was his yearbook quote: “Why should the devil have all the good times?”

“HE JUST WANTED TO WIN”

In no way was Pitino making that first St. Dominic varsity team a fluke. Former teammates admired his focus on fundamentals and attention to small details and appreciated the skills that contributed to the winning. And as he blossomed, they looked toward his leadership.

“He was the sixth man my senior year, but he wasn’t sitting around on the bench,” Riker said. “Ricky played . . . McCorry put him in the games because he was a very good player and made us better. He was that guy who always made the right play at the right time.

“He probably should have been a starter that year, but I think McCorry held him back because he was only a sophomore,” he added.

“Rick just had that feel for the game, you know?” O’Keefe said. “He knew how to motivate people. He was a great dribbler [and] good shooter, but mostly he knew the team game. He wasn’t about individual stats or anything. He just wanted to win.”

From the pages of Newsday: Rick Pitino's clips

The St. Dominic team that Pitino co-captained wasn’t as strong as the 1968 and 1969 championship squads, in part because he was sidelined part of the season with a wrist injury, according to Newsday accounts from that year. Nevertheless, Pitino earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Massachusetts.

Pitino went to Madison Square Garden to see the Minutemen, led by Roosevelt’s Julius Erving, play in the 1970 NIT against eventual champion Marquette. After the game that day, March 14, he went down to the court and signed his scholarship offer on the Garden floor.

With the Minutemen, Pitino became primarily a playmaker — he was their assist leader his last two seasons — and he wasn’t the only future coach in his recruiting class. Al Skinner from Malverne High School, who coached Rhode Island and Boston College after a pro career that included an ABA title with the Nets, was a teammate.

“Rick came to me and said, ‘Cousin, I need you to take a ride with me,’ and when I asked where we were going, he said, ‘We’re going on a train [because] I got offered a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts,' '' Bachman recounted. “We got on the Long Island Rail Road at, I think, Hicksville and took the train in. I’ll never forget watching Julius Erving and then Rick went down to the court and signed . . . It was a beautiful moment.”

Before St. John’s played Michigan in its first game at the Garden this season, Pitino smiled as he recounted that day.

"I actually signed my scholarship papers after watching Marquette, when they turned down the NCAA and came in with Dean the Dream Meminger and Al McGuire and . . . killed Dr. J and UMass,” Pitino said. “I signed after the game . . . on the floor of Madison Square Garden. So it’s always been very special. And rightfully so, it deserves the distinction of the world’s greatest arena."

The Red Storm’s next game on that court will be the Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Seton Hall Thursday, 54 years to the day after he inked those papers.

AN APPLE OF THE ISLAND’S EYE

Wally Bachman. Credit: James Escher

People get a kick out of seeing someone from their youth ascend to fame on the national stage. It was like that for those who knew Pitino growing up on the Island, and they delight in the little stories that marked someone’s path

Bachman recalled the impact Pitino felt from attending Garfinkel’s storied Five-Star Basketball Camp each summer beginning in the late 1960s. The camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, drew many of the top coaches in the county as instructors and many of the top Division I recruits as campers. The connections Pitino made there became a great resource on his climb to the top of the college basketball world. Garfinkel even suggested that he get into coaching as a grad assistant at Hawaii instead of playing professionally overseas, which Pitino did.

“Rick was always surrounded with quality, top-of-the-line coaches,” Bachman said. “He was a sponge. He listened to things, he picked things up and he applied it.

“He loved Five-Star and was always talking about it.”

Pitino and Billy Donovan at the 1987 Final Four. Credit: AP/Susan Ragan

The first time Pitino truly garnered the national spotlight was the 1986-87 season, when he reached the first of his seven Final Fours with the Providence Friars and Rockville Centre favorite son Billy Donovan. His friends from St. Dominic relished seeing him on the sideline and would gather for the televised games.

Dr. Robert O'Keefe. Credit: Barry Sloan

“Watching that was outstanding — we wouldn’t miss a game,” O’Keefe said. “All the guys that were on the team — myself, Mike Kelly, Jack Mount — we all stayed in touch. And we all got together [to] watch the games.”

He added that it was a special thrill for them to be together for “the one that got him there — when he beat Georgetown [in the Southeast Regional final in Louisville] — that was the big game. He won and they made the Final Four.”

Bachman views that season as a transformative one in how Long Islanders saw Pitino.

“He became the miracle man that could take kids that were not as talented as those [other] Division I players and make them into that Division I player,” he said. “He could take a Billy Donovan, who's just a normal player, and . . . help shape him into the disciplined guy he became. It was like he had that magic wand to bring guys to a higher level.”

And now seeing him at the helm of St. John’s — the program most beloved on Long Island for decades — brings a special satisfaction to those who knew the young Pitino well.

O'Keefe's only regret is that it took this long for Pitino to arrive at St. John's.

“[St. John's fans] have been disappointed for the past 20 years, but you know he's going to win,” O’Keefe said. “He's won everywhere. He's going to take this team and he's going to make it a nationally prominent team. He's going to sell out the Garden next year every game. I wish they’d done it 20 years ago.”

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