Remembering The Champs: Q&A with coach Gary DiNola about Schenectady’s 1998 championship

Man smiles in front of poster with his name Gary DiNola and photos

Gary DiNola, head coach of Schenectady's 1998 boys' basketball state championship team, poses with his Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame display when he was inducted in 2018. (Photo provided)

In the coming months, Gary DiNola will once again begin the annual process of planting his two acres of vegetable farm at the home he has shared for decades with his wife Susie in the eastern part of the hamlet of Ballston Lake.

The street kid from Mont Pleasant is good at it, too.

He’s particularly proud of his San Marzano tomatoes, which have found their way into the kitchen of at least one prominent local restaurateur.

DiNola’s produce also finds its way — still — onto the dinner tables of some of the players who helped Schenectady High School win the New York State Class A public high school boys’ basketball championship in 1998.

As head coach, DiNola cultivated much of that team from a young age and turned them into champions based on a firm foundation of preparation, an approach instilled in him by coaches like the legendary Doc Sauers, for whom DiNola was an assistant coach at UAlbany from 1989-94.

That five-year stint at the college level was bookended by DiNola’s successful run as the Mont Pleasant head coach and then his four seasons at Schenectady.

Meanwhile, he was an educator in the Schenectady City School District for 33 years, 25 as an English teacher, before retiring to the farm in 2007.

These days, he likes to say he’s “off the grid,” and the only plays he diagrams are strategies to keep varmints out of his vegetables.

But his memories of that 1997-98 championship season will always be fertile ground, so I recently sat down with DiNola at his home to talk about it.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity:

Question: What’s the origin story of this team, and I’m talking about going way back. How old were they when the core formed?

Answer: OK, 1993-94 was the last year I coached with Doc. The spring of that year, I took Dusty [son Dustin] with me on a recruiting trip. We were driving back, and out of the blue he just said to me — he was 12, 13 — ‘Pops, you know, the best years for us were when you were coaching at Mont Pleasant. You were around all the time.’ Five years with Doc, Division III, being on the road all the time, back then that’s what it was. I was kind of done with my coursework and burned out being on the road. The school was going through transition going to Division II.

I came home and said, ‘Sue, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ But the school district reached out. They went through three coaches in three years. They said we’d like you to apply for the job. I hadn’t really thought about it. I wanted to interview, though.

So I threw it out to the boys and Susie and said, ‘Maybe I’ll apply for the job and call it quits.’ My heart was still in Schenectady. I would’ve never left Mont Pleasant if they didn’t merge. I was the odd man out. You guys all made me coach of the year in ’87-’88, and I was going to be out of a job because I was an English teacher, and the contract with the school district was that phys ed was priority.

Five years later, it was, OK, here we are again. It became an inflection point for me. This was a good opportunity, and the program is a mess. I was teaching English in the school district. So I gave it a shot.

What we did was met with the administration saying, ‘I don’t think I can fix what’s here.’ So I interviewed and told them, ‘I’ve got to blow it up to fix it.’

So we started tryouts. Grade restrictions. Attendance. You’ve got to be in school. You’ve got to be honorable members of society and the community. We basically cut the whole team, told all the returning players, ‘You’re all trying out, this is a whole new slate.’ And some of them didn’t go out. Some of them did. Some of them wouldn’t go to school, and long of it short, I ended up with [Patrick] O’Connor, [Justin] Hoffman and [Willie] Deane as freshmen, playing in a monster Big 10. And it was. It was a monster league back then. Everybody was good. And poor Amsterdam was good, but so was Maginn and CBA and Albany and on.

So we started from scratch. Jan Zadoorian came with me as an attendance officer. He came to the high school. I said, ‘Saus [Mark Sausville], do you want to coach with me?’ He was my first captain, the first varsity captain of the first baseball team I coached at Mont Pleasant.

I said, ‘You’ve got to be in the high school.’ And they both came from the middle schools, and the district played ball with us, they applied for positions and we put our staff together. Had Ray Stack as my academic advisor, and we had our eyes on ’em.

We made sure that they were going to be representative. ‘Use the sport, don’t let it use you’ was our theme. In the locker room. Not to the public, because the public might take that the wrong way. This is a vehicle to get an opportunity.

And I told them my story. My parents were high school dropouts. WW2, senior year in high school, father went to combat,mother went to the factories. I know what sport did for me. So I told them about my history, English second-language household, I’m not preaching about living it out through you, I just know it’s possible.

And the district was supportive, and we put a team together and we started the team. We were 6-15 the first year, we played hard, had basically freshmen on the floor. We had one returning player, Justin Henderson, and the next year we were over .500, 12-and-whatever. Lost to Colonie in the first round of sectionals, and they got their legs under them. We played, like, 31 summer league games. We had offseason weight training. Attendance monitoring. Grade monitoring.

So we made it unit-based accountability as a culture. As we evolved as a team, we practiced nights. Imagine that. We had after-school study hall. It was a university program. Paul Hewitt, when he came to visit us and sees the practices and was interested in some of my guys when he was at Siena, he said, ‘You’re running a college program.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that means.’

I just believed in unit-based initiative and unit-based accountability, more accountability to their peers than to me, and they embraced it. I had the right leadership, the way that evolved. Willie was a model student. He was an Advanced Placement student. [Ben] Wiles was a student. [Andrew] Healy was a student, and on the story goes. They embraced each other holding each other accountable, beyond what I saw in the locker room. I always gave them the locker room. The locker room was their locker room.

That’s kind of how we built it. The word ‘Represent’ wasn’t just a word. We emphasized that they were representing 60,000 people, with their name across their chest. Once we became more prominent, started winning and selling out home games, I said, ‘Everybody in this community knows who you are. And they’re watching you when you think nobody’s watching. So you’re accountable. Success brings the double edge.’

The third year we won 19 games or whatever and lost to Albany in the sectional championships. We limped into that game. They had a really good team. We split with them in the regular season. [Alex] Barnhill had a deep contusion injury where he couldn’t jump. Willie had sprained his ankle badly before the Mohonasen game. But we limped into the finals, got beat by Albany, and that’s when I said, ‘We’ve got something here.’

Then it was like, OK, we’re accountable. We played two summer leagues that summer. Those guys, Deane, O’Connor and Hoffman, played a summer league game on the night that they played an Empire State Games game in the morning. The Empires were at UAlbany. That’s how much accountability they had to each other. They showed up.

And Mrs. Deane was the driver, in that little station wagon she had, so she had [James] Plowden and [Davidek] Herron and all those guys. She’d plow them all in there, and I’d drive three or four. We played in three leagues at one point, Clifton Park, Albany and also down in Rensselaer [County].

We had an army of players, so we blended young with old, and there were games where I’d move guys up and move guys down. So the commitment was significant.

Q: Back to the word ‘Represent,’ what was the genesis of that, not only the concept, but adopting that word in the huddles or the locker room or wherever?

A: ‘Represent’ was something I believed in. I came from a generation — I wouldn’t fit today, I make no bones — where you played for the guys in the barbershop. You played for the guys in the bakeries and in the factories. Schenectady was vibrant. In the 60’s, there were 100,000 people in the city.

When I was playing at Pleasant, I’d be in delis and stuff, and guys would come up to you and say, ‘Hey, you guys had a tough go last night, huh?’ I’m like, ‘Who’s that guy?’

So that seed kind of stayed with me when I returned to the neighborhood as a guy that was trying to help them get to where I got. It wasn’t like it was vicarious, I just knew it was possible. And I knew some of them had the ability that they could play beyond the high school level.

It wasn’t a catchphrase, it was something I believed in. I believed in them representing the community, and success was double-edged, and when you make a team, you’re successful. It’s a privilege. It’s not a right. Today, it’s a right, with all the options they have. ‘Oh, you’re not going to play me, I’ll go play AAU.’

But that was my thing, and we really embraced it. We embraced it as a staff, and in time, they came to embrace it. Not proud of the fact that we cut better players than were on that team because they wouldn’t buy in to doing something with it in their lives, going to school, staying off the streets.

The other part of it is, being a native son myself, I had a fair number of people in the community as an army of support, including police officers on street corners. So I would know when my guys were on street corners. Guys like Joey Lazzari and Richie DiCaprio. They’d tip me off and say, ‘Hey, you better keep your eye on this guy, he’s out ’til 2 o’clock in the morning, we shuffled him off a street corner.’ So we had all that dynamic going, as well. The belief, the moray of it, you were representing a community.

Q: So it wasn’t a hollow catchphrase.

A: No. Hell, no. If anything, if it’s even perceived that way, I’d say, ‘Get real.’ It was your families, your future. Your brothers, your sisters. Your neighborhoods. Your color. Your creeds.

And we just stayed with that, and I was not an easy guy to play for and was not an easy person in that you had to buy in or you weren’t going to be a part of it. And I’m not necessarily proud or ashamed of that. It’s just who I am.

Q: So you’ve got all this building. What was the expectation going into that ’97-’98 season?

A: We were going to win a state title. Day one.

Q: And is that a stated goal before …

A: No, no, it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t ‘Oh, we’re gonna go …’ It was, ‘We are good enough.’

’98 we were unranked preseason in the state, and I played off of that. ‘We’re nobodies. We’re still nobodies. We’re still doormats.’

And the thing that we had to undo — and I’m not afraid for you to touch on this — we had to recruit our own players. They lost that fight, the public schools. We had to recruit our players hard to keep them home.

I was in Steinmetz Homes, I was in tenements, Ray Stack and I, with Barnhill, with Karohn Williams … Jakie [James Thomas] started at Gibbons, transferred back. Willie was at CBA in seventh grade, transferred back in eighth. His mother and I were classmates in high school. Susie said, ‘Are you going to take care of my son?’ I said, ‘Susie, he’s been to my basketball camps when I was at Mont Pleasant.’ I let Willie in the camp at Mont Pleasant, in the ’80’s, when he was 6. It was 8 [to qualify], but at 6, he looked 8. He was burly and kind of chubby. So we date back to elementary with a lot of these guys.

[Jason] McKrieth, his mother, they spent Christmas Eves with us. She said to me, ‘My son isn’t just going to be a basketball player.’  I said to her, ‘Terry, I teach academic subjects …’

But we got to the point with our relationships with them where this house, on Christmas Eve, they were all here. Even the ’01 team, [Josh] Colafemina, Freddie Harris … those are my fifth-, sixth-grade guys. So we built a culture.

The other part of ‘Represent’ was we had a [claps hands] no-pay, [claps hands] free [claps hands] basketball clinics on Saturday mornings during the season, and all my players came, on their off day. And they worked the camp with the youth. So that fifth-sixth grade group was the 2001 team.

Q: When you had to recruit your own guys to stay at the public school, how did you sell that and was it a tough sell?

A: It was easy. Everything I’ve said to you I said to their parents. ‘Your son will go to school. He will work hard to be representative. He’ll stay off the street, or he won’t be part of the program, so I’ll tell you right now, if you’ve got some other deal [at a private school] … they’re going to be accountable [at Schenectady].’ ‘Well, I want my son to be accountable!’

We’re going to have evenings, we’re going to practice some nights because we used to share the gym with women’s sports. I couldn’t do preparation the way I wanted.

You get mentored by [Jerry] Welsh and [Doc] Sauers for multiple years — and you know both of those cats — OK. I studied. I came to understand the discipline of basketball through incredibly talented people that do it.

And I couldn’t do it on a halfcourt. I couldn’t prepare 12-man break in half of a gym the way I would want to do it, once I realized we could be pretty good. So to do that, we would practice at 4:30. So what do you do with your guys from 2:30 to 4:30? They come to A-1, which was my classroom, I was still teaching a full section, five sections of English and took that very seriously. And we set up a study center and raised 50-50s, bring a 24-cut [pizza]. I had all the right guys in town, fish joints, and Anker’s Fish Fry and all my former students …

Q: You tried to push those smelts on me …

A: … I did, I did, those smelts! So this isn’t hyperbole. You witnessed it, let me put it that way. You saw the clinic after school when we were waiting to go to practice. But that’s kind of how we did it. So to get them to buy in, I think you had to sell, looking back, what was possible in their lives. In their lives. Twenty-five years later …

Q: Clearly, they bought in …

A: … I’m most proud of my work, in terms of our work, the staff’s work and our community’s work, is what they became as men. And fathers. They’re five-star fathers, man. When you see my emails and they write to me … ‘Stand proud of the father you’ve become.’

In fact, when Willie sent me a little clip of his son G-Han, there was a piano sitting in there [points to another room], he carted it out of here, and it’s sitting in his house and his kids all play piano now.

But the representative thing was about what was possible. Use the sport. Don’t let it use you.

Q: From a purely basketball standpoint, can you describe the various roles that the key guys had. I know by the time you got toward the end, you were only going seven deep, but describe how they meshed as a team and how they accepted their roles.

A: Well, we dignified our Blue Team at a higher level than we dignified our starting team. So our practice dynamics and our breakdown drills, there’s 12 guys, so there’s six groups of two with a Blue Team and a Red Team. So Kevin Owens was teamed up with O’Connor. Healy was Willie’s workout partner, OK? Plowden was Jakie’s workout partner, and on the story goes.

So all of our breakdown drills, they were competitive. We did time-and-score every day in practice. And I learned that from Bobby Knight, I learned it from Dean Smith, because King Rice and I would have long conversations. When he was a young kid, I coached him in the AAUs, and he’d come here and work my camps in the summer when he was at UNC. And I’d say, ‘What were your practices like?’

Barry Copeland got me some Lute Olson and Bobby Knight practice tapes, because I knew him when he was an assistant at Syracuse way back.

One of the things I began to realize, as a developmental teacher of the game — not a coach, I like the word ‘teacher’ better — is that you’ve got to prepare them to be coaches on the floor when the money matters. You stay close enough in your games, you’re playing crappy, but inside of four minutes, inside of five minutes, if you’re in a reachable position, you want your guys to be better prepared for time-and-score.

So everything was geared toward having them become coaches on the floor in money time. In those dynamics, I would skew the dynamics. So with my first unit, when we were getting ready to play against pressure teams, I’d play 7-on-5. Never played 5-on-5. We’d press with seven against our five.

Q: So everybody’s getting doubled …

A: Every. Our press trap drills, you couldn’t dribble the ball, you could only pass and circle the ball. Then we’d divide the court into four quadrants, two men on the endline, two, two, two, two [diagrams on the dinner table]. Four sets of two defenders, one set of guys trying to advance the ball up the court without dribbling it. So pass. Cut. Double team. Teaching trapping. Teaching L-traps. Teaching them how to trap and pressure, but teaching them what real pressure was.

Never blew the whistle. Physical. Hacking. Banging.

So then when we advanced from all those little breakdown drills to team dynamics, the end of practices were always competitive time-and-score. After they were fatigued, and then we’d say, ‘OK, Red Team, you’re down by six, put three [minutes] on the clock, Saus.’

‘OK, Blue Team, you have two timeouts, both teams are in the bonus. Play.’

I’d officiate.


‘Technical.’ Every time they’d question, every time they’d even give me a look, boom. So I’d put them in disadvantages all the time. And as Willie and Jakie and O’Connor — independently, because they come out here to get their vegetables, I see them all the time — they’d say, ‘Coach we [expletive] hated you. Man, there were days we’d want to just …’ And I’d say, ‘Well, that was good, then, I did my job.’ I got them to make me the enemy, building the bonds.

Q: That’s like the line about Herb Brooks from ‘Miracle.’

A: I wanted them to declare war on me, and they evolved as leaders. That was the thing with those guys. They bought in, and they were representative.

We extended their day. I wouldn’t fit today. I’d probably get called in and, ‘Well, how many hours are you occupying the boys?’ But they loved Sundays, because we did shooting games. Brought doughnuts. Bagels. Orange juice. Gallons of milk. We assembled after church hours, let’s meet at 1 o’clock. From 1 to 3 we healed the injured guys, we had a fun practice, shooting comps [competitions]. And my staff would show up on Sundays, too. It was a seven-day-a-week commitment.

Q: With those expectations you mentioned, going 28-0 …

A: We finished second in the league in ’97, but limped into the last three or four games, we had injured guys, but I wore them out in ’97 because having gotten [NCAA Division III] two 16s and a final 8 with Doc, you kind of learn how to bring them along in postseason with fresh legs. In ’97, I took their legs from them because we were limping through the last three or four games, and by the time we got to the postseason, we were pretty worn out.

Q: Which leads us to the following season, and you guys go 28-0, what factors had to go right to keep it together for 28 games. Obviously, health is one of them …

A: Nutrition. Health. Distractions. Navigating all the real-life stuff they all deal with.

Q: Were there any particular games during that regular season where it was a close call to stay undefeated? The closest margin was against Albany High, and it was still eight points.

A: I wasn’t at that game. My father was at the Cleveland clinic, surviving. We didn’t think he was going to live. In fact, they told us he wasn’t going to live. Saus was all nervous. I said, ‘Just let ‘em play and don’t overcoach it. You know our systems, you know how we play.’

And Albany was good. There was nobody bad in that league. The Maginn team was good. Amsterdam, that team would win the Big 10 today, or whatever the league is now. It was a good league, man. We pounded all the non-leaguers, the Suburbans.

But he did a great job keeping them at the right pace.

We went on a tear after that. And we knocked that postseason … we played good teams, look at the team out of Syracuse we had to beat [Corcoran]. They were freakin’ legit, with Tommy Gunn. They had a bomb squad. He was a great player at Middle Tennessee State. Hempstead was really good.

James Plowden played a significant role in that [Corcoran] game. I told him, ‘I don’t care how many fouls you burn on him [Gunn], but every time he brings it, you bring a hard foul. Don’t pound him into the ground, but make him work, and don’t be afraid to bump him.’ He came off the bench in that game and gave us a physicality that we needed. 

Q: How did Jason McKrieth fit in with these guys, being the freshman? It was a senior-heavy team …

A: Willie was his advocate at the start of the season, because they had played a lot of ball together in the park. The point is, those guys wanted to get better. They lost the sectional final the year before, and they came back with pride.

McKrieth’s mother did not want him to play varsity as a freshman. I had to meet with her, Terry, rest her soul. College-educated, from Springfield, Massachusetts. She said to me, ‘I don’t want my son just playing basketball and just being a basketball player.’ I said, ‘I know that, Terry. But I think he’ll develop, he’ll be around quality people. You can call Susie Deane and other parents and see what I’m about.’ And she gave me the green light.

So he goes home, and the first two days, we didn’t have a ball in the gym. We did all conditioning and drop-step work and mechanical things you do without a basketball. We used to do bad-pass drills. Put you on the wall and throw bad passes at you.

So he reluctantly became part of the team, and I massaged him gradually into it. By midseason he was my sixth man. He played with such anxiety, being so young, 14, that when I’d say faceguard a guy, don’t worry about helping, he’d glue you like a glove.

The kid from Hempstead, Lateef Myles, had six or seven 3-pointers the night before. He was a great player, and that was the turning point in that Hempstead game, when I went small, I think I pulled [Justin] Hoffman, put McKrieth on the floor, and we just faceguarded Myles. He killed us in the first half. Jason played his ass off, against probably a 19-year-old, to-be-Division-I kid, and swung the game.

Q: What did it mean to those guys to win the public high school championship, and I know that’s a rather broad question …

A: I think it was a defining moment in their lives that, what was possible, happened. It was a defining moment in terms of catapulting them to recognize that they came to understand what representation meant, because as a result of that, they were held much more accountable in the community. To their peers, to their community, to their families, to, obviously, the public at large, to the doubters.

I’d have to counsel a lot of those guys about the sad part of humanity is that not everyone embraces people of accomplishment. There were many who enjoy bringing people of accomplishment down to their level of failure. I never wanted to frame it that way, but the message was you have much more to lose than many of your peers right now as a result of what you’ve become a part of.

We had college coaches there all the time, a non-stop flow, once they became recruitable. And word got out to guys like Doc and Jerry and others, and my reputation as a preparation guy, they knew they were getting products that were college-ready.

McKrieth, Thomas and Deane, as men, well into their years, with reflective time, all said to me, ‘You were such a better preparation guy than any of the guys we played for.

Q: After you guys won the state championship, can you give me some examples or stories of response from the community that illustrate what it meant to them.

A: It was a city divided, with a school that had been merged. The feedback we got after — and I felt this strongly — was that they did more to merge the two sides of town, and I’ll say it proudly, they carried the city on their backs in that respect.

They were a conduit to bringing a city together for a common cause, in this case a celebration. They had the parade, the city council, white-black, rich-poor, black-white, white collar, blue collar, all of that merged. And you saw that if you were at the games. I mean, a couple thousand people went up that Northway from all sides of town. So what it meant for the city was it became an inflection point on becoming a city of one, school-wise.

I learned about the difficulty of that through King Rice, because King used to spend a lot of time with us in the summers, when he worked my camps. [Rick] Coleman and he and [Rob] Middlebrooks were the three best players on the Binghamton team, and their coach and I became friends.

When Binghamton North and South merged, it was civil war. They won a state championship in football, and when he would tell us how difficult it was, I drew on that. This is an opportunity, getting back to being representative, I’d say, ‘You’re representing the whole city.’

I think they came to realize the double edge. ‘I have a sense of accountability now that I didn’t have before.’ Walking around with your jackets and your sweaters, and I think they got watches, was one thing. But, yeah, I’d like to think it was an inflection point for them for what was possible. And I like to think it was also the academic accountability that we mandated. We would monitor their schedules to make sure they were taking competitive courses and weren’t just coming through with minimum requirements.

And I think I can answer the question today more than I could then. I like to think the foundation of accountability and using the sport, taking full advantage of it, had something to do with that.

I’m most proud of what they’ve become, as men, and fathers, and as community members. Every one of them, if you delve into their narratives, they’re giving back to the communities.

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Categories: -Sports, High School Sports

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