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Living basketball history at Buckley Gym

NEW YORK -- While the Lower East Side has been transformed into a hip, trendy and refined New York neighborhood, there is still one genuine piece of history left: a small, aging court on East Second Street, Dan Buckley Gym, home of the La Salle Academy Cardinals.

"It's a basketball landmark," said Bill Aberer, La Salle's athletic director and former varsity head coach. "Years ago you can say Power Memorial was because of the legendary players that they had there. Tolentine was also a real good gym. But they are all gone. It's just La Salle as far as an old-time Catholic High School Athletic Association gym."

The gym was built in 1936 and completed in 1938, when the school finally decided to replace its old basketball court that was held up by stilts, thus unstable for games.

At the time, the gym was renowned as state of the art. The court wasn't slippery, the free throw lines and out-of-bounds lines were clear, and most importantly there wasn't a pole erected in the middle of the court. George Mikan and his DePaul University squad worked out there, as well as the City College of New York, New York University, and Dick McGuire's Knicks.

The Cardinals enjoyed their greatest success with coach Dan Buckley, after whom the court was named in 2005. Buckley won 462 games, the most in school history, and four city championships during his 22-year tenure.

During his time at La Salle, Buckley coached talented players like Tom Owens and John Roche from the Class of 1967, who both went on to play in the NBA, and John Candelaria, who led La Salle to a championship in 1971 before embarking on a long Major League Baseball career as a pitcher.

The opponents in the late '60s and early '70s weren't too shabby, either. Power Memorial's Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became the NBA's all-time leading scorer, played in the gym in 1966. Former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins came in with his All Hallows team the same year. In 1970, it was former NBA stars Len Elmore and Brian Winters, and two years later Nazareth's Mike Dunleavy Sr. challenged the Cardinals.

Other schools in the league built new gyms throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. La Salle didn't have the money to follow suit. The gym, which is now the oldest in the CHSAA, still shows off the same boundaries from 70 years ago, just with the addition of two new half-court lines and a 3-point line that leaves shooters just 2 inches along the baseline.

The changes to the gym are almost unnoticeable. Because of league-wide regulations, the baskets now have glass backboards. Pull-out bleachers and a new scoreboard have also been added, which caused the teams' benches to switch sides.

The logo at center court has been updated to a macho-looking cardinal busting out of its shirt, but the capacity remains 175 people. The small crowd creates an intimate, loud setting for any game.

"It was always a great atmosphere with even 100 people. One hundred sounded like 10,000 in here," said Tom Konchalski, the analyst and owner of High School Basketball Illustrated. "Noise would just reverberate off the walls here."

Senior Jarrel Joye, who is only 223 points away from the school's scoring record, thinks it still does.

"The noise is great. It's the best part of playing at home," the 6-foot-2 guard said. "The noise really helps us create energy, which helps us get the win."

La Salle's program enjoyed modest success in the late '70 and early '80s, but was reborn when Aberer took over as coach in 1986. In his attempt to restore La Salle's prominence, he began to schedule archrival powerhouse programs St. Raymond's and Rice High School on consecutive Tuesdays in January.

In February 1994, one of those games became a classic. Rice brought a USA Today No. 1 national ranking into a packed Buckley Gym. As a snowstorm raged outside, Shammgod Wells scored 40 points to lead La Salle to a 56-45 upset.

"All of the schools had canceled their games, so we were the only game in town," Aberer recalled. "It was impossible to get a seat, but we had about every newspaper represented here because they had nowhere else to go. The atmosphere was really big and loud. It was a great, great game."

Since demand for tickets was high, Aberer set up chairs along the floor out of bounds and underneath the basket. Although the added chairs shrunk the court even more, even the opponents enjoyed the intimacy of the gym for those games. Tickets for these Tuesday games ranged from $1 to $5, depending on their importance.

"We loved playing there. All of my players were from the city and played in the city, so they were used to playing in small gyms and small courts," said former St. Raymond's coach Gary DeCesare. DeCesare, now the associate head coach at DePaul University, is the only opposing coach with a winning record at Buckley Gym during Aberer's tenure.

"At a La Salle-St. Raymond's game, it was something special," DeCesare said. "It was great players on the floor, great coaching, and there was that loud, intense atmosphere in the building. We always looked forward to it."

Aberer won 326 games and two city championships in his 20 years as the Cardinals' coach. One of those titles came in the 1996-97 season, when a menacing 6-foot-6, 240-pound post named Ron Artest patrolled the tiny gym.

The Cardinals went 27-1 that season and the McDonald's All-American dominated his foes.

Despite the rich history of Buckley Gym, La Salle entered discussions with next-door neighbor Nativity Church to buy its property and construct a new arena. With the downturn in the economy, however, the talks have stalled.

"I don't think they would ever build a gym for a high school like that again. In today's modern high school you would never see a gym that small," DeCesare said. "Coaching in college, I've had an opportunity to go around high school basketball games all over America. The gyms in the Midwest are fabulous and the facilities are great, but as a college coach, I have never seen a gym like La Salle's."

Dylan Kitts is a senior at Xavier High School in Manhattan. Check out his Fan Profile.