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Saving Dr. King top story for Naclerio

Dr. Emil A. Naclerio, member of the surgical

Dr. Emil A. Naclerio, member of the surgical team that operated on the Rev. Martin Luther King, at King's bedside in Harlem Hospital in New York. (Sept. 21, 1958) Credit: AP

Ron Naclerio's office in the basement of Cardozo High School doesn't have a window. The computer in the corner looks to be a decade old, and the furniture likely dates to the early days of Ed Koch's tenure as New York City mayor.

What this cave of a coaching office lacks in modern amenities, however, it more than makes up for in memories. Nearly every inch of the four walls is covered with newspaper articles, most of them about lives Naclerio has touched in his 30 years as coach of the best public school boys basketball program in Queens.

Naclerio, who earned his 600th victory Feb. 1, can tell you the tale behind each of them. He has stories about the three NBA players he's coached - Rafer Alston, Royal Ivey and Duane Causwell - and he has stories about the 81 players he sent to play at colleges with Division I programs. He has stories about less famous players, guys like Michael Bissett, who came through the program, went on to college and now works as a policeman in Brooklyn.

Naclerio's favorite story, however, isn't about a former player. It's about how his father came to possess the yellowing piece of paper that hangs on the wall behind his desk. It is a story that on the surface has very little to do with basketball yet has almost everything to do with why Naclerio became the coach and person he is today.

"This," said Naclerio, pointing to the wall, "is the letter of thanks Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to my father."

Naclerio was a toddler when his father, Dr. Emil Naclerio, became a part of history by helping to save the life of the famed civil rights leader. Dr. Naclerio, a 42-year-old thoracic surgeon who was on call at Harlem Hospital, and his wife were headed out for the night to a theater on Sept. 20, 1958. But when they arrived, there was a message waiting for him. He was needed at the hospital.

"He dropped my mom off and shot up to Harlem in his tuxedo," said Naclerio, 53. "He had no idea who the patient was."

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, the artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

Naclerio, one of three doctors working on King, didn't realize who King was until he was well into the 2 ½-hour surgery. Afterward, Dr. Naclerio told reporters that had King coughed or sneezed, the weapon would have punctured his aorta and "he would have died in a minute."

The next day, Dr. Naclerio left his Bayside home early to return to King's side, and a newspaper photographer sneaked past security and snapped a picture of Dr. Naclerio by King's bedside. Today, the younger Naclerio treasures that picture and the letter King later sent his father - Dr. Naclerio passed away in 1985 - thanking him for "his skilled surgery," as well as a letter King's widow, Coretta Scott King, wrote him after King's assassination in 1968. The experience permeated Naclerio's childhood as his family went from being aware of who King was to becoming supporters of the civil rights movement. Naclerio has tried to pass that sense of history to his players.

"He gave me a copy of the letter as a player when I first came here in 1987," said Bissett, who has been an assistant coach at Cardozo for the past 10 years. "It meant a lot to me as a young black man. It showed me how someone like his father, by just doing his job, could make a big difference."

Those who have played for Naclerio over the years feel he has made a big difference in their lives. At least 50 of his former players were on hand to watch him get his 600th victory, a 65-48 win over All Hallows. Last summer, 1,700 former players, relatives and friends attended the annual reunion and pickup game he organizes every July. Now some of them are buzzing about the fact that an independent film producer has been making a docu-reality television show of his life called "The Teacher."

"He's one of a kind," assistant coach Bruno Cotumaccio said. "Nobody works harder. And nobody cares more about the kids. He really cares."

Naclerio, whose 25-1 team just won its third Queens title in four years, said he learned his work ethic and sense of compassion from his father. A former standout baseball player at St. John's who spent three years in the Chicago White Sox farm system, Naclerio never imagined when he took the job at age 21 that it was going to be a long-term commitment.

"There's no way I thought I'd still be here right now," he said, gesturing to his office filled with memories. "But what can I say? I'm still here and I still love my job."

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