How did a Queens kid, who never played a day of high school basketball, make it as a walk-on for St. John’s University, one of the highest-regarded college basketball teams? A dream, a bit of perseverance, and most importantly, some encouragement from dad.
One day in the late 1980s, Billy Mitaritonna returned from school to his home in Rosedale, Queens, and went upstairs to cry in bed. He had just been cut from the Archbishop Molloy basketball team—again. It was his sophomore year. Another year of not making the team, and another step further away from his dream of one day playing college basketball. However, a few wise words from dear old dad encouraged him to keep going. “My father sat me down and said, ‘so what, you got cut. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough,’” Mitaritonna recalled. Coming from his dad, who coached him through CYO basketball, the words meant a lot. His father was a longtime basketball player who went on to play for the Washington Generals, but lost to the Harlem Globetrotters for three years. “He taught me at a young age, how to lose gracefully. Nobody knew how to lose better than him,” Mitaritonna joked.
But during his speech, Mitaritonna’s father told him one other thing. “I’m going to make a prediction. One day you’re going to play in college,’” Mitaritonna recalled his father saying. His father, Angelo, would turn out to be right. And he would go on to encourage his son to put his success story down in writing many years later, which inspired Mitaritonna to write his book, “Last of the Redmen: Memoir of a St. John's Walk-On.”
While Mitaritonna never did make it on to the Molloy team, he found another outlet to keep playing the game he loved—the Rockaway Summer Classic.
“My best friend from Molloy was Joe Burns from Beach 139th Street and his parents would always have my family down to the beach. Joe knew I was interested in playing basketball, so he helped me get into the summer league at St. Francis de Sales,” Mitaritonna said. Playing for the SFDS Summer Classic would be the stepping stone that launched Mitaritonna towards his dream.
“One day, Bugsy Goldberg, who ran the league and still does, said there was this coach coming down from Maine that was looking to start a new program at Westbrook College. The coach had reached out to Charlie Marquadt, one of his former players who played for St. Joseph’s College in Maine and said he was looking for players, so Charlie invited him down and said, ‘you gotta look at this kid, Billy, who plays on one of the teams here.’ On July 10, 1990, I came off the court at St. Francis de Sales and I was introduced to Coach Jim Graffam,” Mitaritonna said.
Coach Graffam wound up recruiting four kids from the Summer Classic—Sean O’Rourke, Paul Peterson, Bernard Soto and Mitaritonna, four kids who had never played for their high school teams, but they all became members of Westbrook College’s Division 3 basketball team.
Although now living in Manhasset, Mitaritonna says he credits that experience in Rockaway for his big break. “I will forever be in debt to Rockaway Beach, where the people always treated me like one of their own. What Coach Graffam, Charlie and Bugsy did was give me a chance when no one else wanted to. It was like a dream come true to get asked to play college basketball,” he said.
Mitaritonna wound up playing for Westbrook College for two years, until both of his parents became ill, which forced him to move closer to home, but he didn’t give up on his dream. Instead, he transferred to St. John’s University. “In senior year at St. John’s, I was lucky enough to try out for the team and make the Division 1 team in the Big East. In 1990, I went from never playing a minute of high school basketball, to playing two minutes in 1993 against Columbia University,” he said. Mitaritonna played for 12 minutes total as a walk-on and scored one point for St. John’s, during the last year the team was known as the Redmen.
At least one fan was always in the stands, cheering Mitaritonna on—his dad. “He was pretty much at every home game and for him to sit in the stands and sit back and smile and watch his prediction come true was amazing. I knew I wasn’t going to play a lot. I just wanted to be a part of the team, but he was able to watch and say, ‘wow, Billy is part of this program,’” he said.
Angelo was so impressed by his son, that years later he encouraged him to put his story down into writing. “It was Christmas, 10 years ago, and he said, ‘you should write a book.’ I was like, what? I have three kids, I’m teaching, I’m coaching, and I’m so busy with life, but he encouraged me to start writing it in my time off in the summers,” he said. Mitaritonna started writing down his story but didn’t have an ending until after his father passed away in 2017. “That gave me the impetus to finish,” he said. Mitaritonna’s book was published in November 2018 and has been a hit ever since.
Mitaritonna says his memoir serves as a story that teaches a lesson. “My father told me to write the book so that it can help others, whether it be young people or adults, and inspire them to always keep fighting and working toward your dream, no matter what it is, and to never let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough,” he said.
Mitaritonna hopes to pass on that lesson, not only through his book, but in everything he does. “My father taught me a lot of lessons about sports. The one I’ve always taken and brought into my coaching was that, everyone on the team is important and no person is bigger than anybody else. Everybody is going to play their part for the team to be successful and that’s what I use when I coach,” he said. Following his own college basketball career, Mitaritonna went on to coach the Hills West High School team in Dix Hills for 17 years, leading the team to several big championship wins. But now he’s switched his focus to another young player—his own son, Brendan. “I’m coaching him in CYO basketball right now. He’s in 7th grade. I look forward to one day bringing him down to Rockaway Beach so that he can play for the St. Francis de Sales Summer Classic.”
Mitaritonna’s book, “Last of the Redmen: Memoir of a St. John's Walk-On,” can be found on Amazon. For more info, check out lastoftheredmen.com.
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