SCHENECTADY — State championship-winning basketball coach Gary DiNola broke ground a year ago with his induction into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame.
He was the first honoree to make a significant impact at new Schenectady High School, which included foremost his bringing along of a young and inexperienced bunch and molding them into a 28-1 team that in 1998 captured the city's heart.
Willie Deane was the unquestioned floor leader of that team with his points and playmaking ability, and Monday night he will set the pace like his mentor did before, but as the first athlete from new Schenectady to hear his name called.
"The selection committee has shifted a bit to get into the more modern era," hall of fame chairman Bob Pezzano said. "We have broken the ice. That's not to say we're only going to have people from the modern era going forward. We still have people who are world record-holders, college hall of famers and champions to be considered. There are so many from the past who have contributed to the rich history we have."
Deane's selection as the first new-era athlete, though, makes so much sense.
"I think the committee made a perfect choice," DiNola said. "This will be the celebration of an incredibly talented young man. I wouldn't miss it. He is an academic, an extraordinary citizen, and between the lines, he had a warrior mindset."
Deane not only produced and won at Schenectady, at Purdue and in the pros, but and he did it with a mix of flair and humility.
"I was fortunate enough to be on teams that had the pieces and good coaches," the 39-year-old Deane said. "It was on us to develop chemistry and put in the work and accept roles. No one man can achieve a championship on his own."
But one man, like Deane, can have an awfully big impact.
"Willie never took a play off in practice or in a game," DiNola said. "As a player, he had a blue flame in him."
He will in time have hall of fame company from some of his contemporaries like James Thomas, his running mate on that state winner in 1998, and Jason McKrieth and Rashaun Freeman, who anchored Schenectady's second New York basketball champion in 2001. Their coach, Mark Sausville, and Schenectady baseball standout Casper Wells, lacrosse star Tim Cox, basketball sensation Sheila Dixon and soccer stalwart Gabby Santorio are also on the Hall of Fame candidate list that has more than 200 names.
"It's about right," Deane said of the timing to include representatives from new Schenectady, which in conjunction with the Linton-Mont Pleasant merger began fielding teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "The generations that came came before us deserved to be honored first because they set the stage and the records for us to chase."
Deane said he was glad to see DiNola go first. The Mont Pleasant graduate's four years coaching at Schenectady mirrored Deane's varsity career there.
"When coach 'D' arrived, he had a plan. A lot of people didn't know what it was, me included," Deane said. "I didn't expect to be there in the mix as a freshman, but he decided to go with younger players."
While Deane's overall game blossomed under DiNola's tutelage, he always had the scoring touch. His 1,500 career points rank third in Schenectady City School District lore behind the late Dave Modest of Linton (1,508) and Brendan Mitchell of Mont Pleasant (1,658), while the 662 points he produced as a senior rank No. 1.
Among Deane's memorable senior moments was a breakaway slam dunk in an early-season game with Niskayuna that gave the guard 1,000 points. The all-state first-team selection scored in double figures in every game that season, and averaged 22.8 points.
"He was almost like a great broken field runner," said Pezzano, who coached Deane in the Empire State Games the summer before his monster senior year. "He was an outstanding offensive player who could change directions and get to the hoop and finish. He developed a nice jump shot, and that made him an even more effective scorer."
Deane scored big in some of his biggest high school games, totaling 28 points when Schenectady beat Colonie 71-37 for the Section II Class A title and 28 again when the Patriots topped Hempstead 61-51 for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association flag. He was named the tournament most valuable player after both of those victories.
"Willie was determined to lift the city," DiNola said. "In many ways, he put the city on his back along with the other guys."
While Deane won three championships competing in Bulgaria, and others in France and Italy in his lengthy professional career overseas, he said the 1998 state title run will always hold a special place for him.
"That was probably the one that stands out most for me, because it was the first one. That started it all for me," Deane said. "What better place to win a title than where you were born and raised?"
Deane helped his Schenectady teams win five, 13 and 19 games before his last team tied the Section II record for victories with 28. Schenectady lost that season only in the New York State Federation Tournament of Champions to a squad from Rice that was ranked No. 11 nationally.
"I remember as a freshmen going through the bumps and getting blown out by teams," Deane said. "That made it all worth it at the end."
Deane played a year at Boston College before heading to Purdue where, as a junior and senior, he led the Boilermakers in scoring and was named their most valuable player. He averaged 17.8 points as a senior and earned All-Big 10 first-team honors, and earlier this year he was selected as one of Purdue's 50 Legends of Mackey Hall.
"With all the great players who played at Purdue, to be on the list with them, it's quite an honor," Deane said.
Deane, who also played professionally in Turkey, Russia, Spain, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine, was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Capital District Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
"He has never forgotten where he came from," DiNola said. "Every summer when he was playing overseas he did things to improve the quality of life of young people, and he did it quietly and graciously with a number of initiatives. I am proud of who he has become as a man and what he represents in giving to others."
An author of children's books, Deane is currently finishing up his master's at Purdue in business, leadership and innovation, and making inspirational speaking appearances at local schools.
"It's all about giving back now," said Deane, who with his wife Han has two children, 8-year-old Sue Han and 4-year-old Seline. "A lot of people from the area, unfortunately, leave when they have achieved some level of success. I think it's valuable for people to come back to the area to enrich kids and show them, 'I'm from this area and I made it. You can, too.'"