By Zach Braziller
Ron Naclerio held a microphone in his right hand and had the rapt attendance from everyone in every corner of Cardozo’s packed gymnasium Saturday. At that moment, the Cardozo Basketball Reunion stood still as the longtime coach called up the 2009-10 team to stand by his side, underneath the far basket.
The festivities, joy and revelry that typified the afternoon subsided as Naclerio went back to March 6, the day the Judges blew a 12-point lead at Madison Square Garden to Boys & Girls in the PSAL Class AA final. But the 53-year-old Naclerio wasn’t going to discuss that loss to players and friends from the Judges’ past. He was honoring it.
“I wish I had a chance to coach this team for one more season or even one more game,” he told the crowd, his voice cracking. “This is our first time we’re all together since that day. Even though we didn’t win that game, they’ll always be champions in my heart.”
There were other touching moments to the memorable day in Bayside that saw over 1,600 visitors return to Cardozo. NBA free agent point guard Rafer Alston was holding court with strangers and longtime friends. There were newspaper clippings from every single one of Naclerio’s teams from the year he started, back in 1981, and there was an appearance by Karl Nickerson, who was on the first Cardozo basketball team in 1970, but his acknowledgment of this year’s club was the most poignant moment.
“He cares about his players wherever they are,” said Hofstra Associate Head Coach Steve DeMeo, class of 1983. “It doesn’t matter if they won one game or a championship.”
Naclerio graduated from Cardozo in 1975 an all-city baseball player. He went on to star at St. John’s University, reach the College World Series with the Red Storm in 1978 and was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1979. After a three-year minor-league career, Naclerio ended up back at Cardozo and took over the basketball program in 1981.
He has won two city titles, racked up close to 550 career wins and produced NBA players Alston, Royal Ivey and Dwayne Causwell. The reunion, however, is one of his prouder accomplishments.
The event began in 1981, then strictly a day of pick-up basketball. Four years ago, Naclerio started organizing the event well beforehand after a steady confluence of interest sprouted up. Now he has created a Facebook page.
“It’s a tribute to him,” said Broward Community College (Fla.) Coach Bob Starkman, who graduated in 1973.
Thanks to Naclerio, the reunion has become an event; it’s gone beyond basketball. Cheerleaders and Cardozo opponents are now as much a fixture as the Judges’ basketball players.
“It’s like a Queens thing,” said current senior forward Ryan Rhoomes. “Not a Cardozo thing.”
Indeed, Christ the King point guard Corey Edwards, Edison forwards Ede Egharevba and Stephen Nwaukoni and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Danny Green, a St. Mary’s (L.I.) product, were just a few of the non-Judges to show up.
“He’s like a parent,” said Duane Woodward, part of the 1999 championship team who is now playing overseas.
The way Assistant Coach Mike Blissett sees it, everyone in attendance was part of Naclerio’s extended family. He never had children, but his list of kids is endless. And the reunion is his baby.
After the loss to Boys & Girls, Naclerio turned his attention to the reunion. He mentioned it often, like a big game was on the horizon, Blissett joked, saying they were getting closer day by day.
“This is Ronnie’s day,” Blissett said. “This is what he lives for. It’s his Father’s Day.”