Elmhurst

Keeping Armand close in my blueberry heart

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 6.52.23 AMAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2020. Above, the author accepts the championship trophy on behalf of Kennedy Recreation Center at the 1973 Serran Basketball Tournament as his coach, Armand Batastini, looks on at far right

In the Providence where I grew up, basketball was king, old-school coaches ruled, and no one did more for up-and-coming hoopsters than Armand Batastini.

The youth basketball legend brought my good friend John Reilly – “Reills” – and me together 47 years ago for an unforgettable season. When our coach passed away last month, I reached out instinctively to my old teammate.

“Sorry for losing touch for so long, brother,” I texted Reills, who lives in Florida. “Just wanted to let you know that Armand died on Saturday.”

“I’ll call you tonight,” came my friend’s quick reply. “A lot for me to reflect on.”

I felt the same way.

For 63 years, Armand mentored countless boys and girls, for which he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Best known for his teams at St. Pius in the Elmhurst section of Providence, he also had a successful coaching stint at the neighborhood’s Kennedy Recreation Center, where Reills and I played for him.

On the phone that night, my friend reminded me that I once said practices with Armand were like “school after school.” During our two-hour workouts three afternoons a week, laughs were as rare as buzzer-beaters from half court. Failing to dive for a loose ball could trigger a favorite Armand trope – “You guys have hearts like blueberries!” – followed by another, more colorful anatomical reference, which would have made our mothers blush.

The man rarely used the whistle that hung around his neck; blessed with a commanding bark, he didn’t need to. But Armand’s heart was always in the right place. In his blue windbreaker and white Chuck Taylors, he was a tireless teacher. And just like us, he wanted to win.

“Remember when we practiced on Thanksgiving?” Reills asked.

How could I forget? My mother was annoyed when I left the house on that cold November morning, but we had a game the next day – against St. Pius, of all teams – and Armand knew the stakes.

“You’re playing for neighborhood bragging rights,” he said as he prepared us to face our parochial-school nemesis. He was right, of course – Kennedy Rec Center and St. Pius stood a mere six blocks apart. Our decisive victory the following night granted us a year of sidewalk swagger.

Before Magic and Madonna were known by a single name, he was “Armand” to us and everyone else. As a point guard under his tutelage for four years, I honed my dribbling skills and rid my game of “lollipop passes.” Our teams were good, especially in 1972-73, when we went 25-6 and ran the table at the Serran Tournament to cap our season. The championship trophy I accepted on behalf of our squad was huge, but the biggest reward that day was seeing the smile on my coach’s face.

Long after I played my final game for him, Armand had my back. As our neighborhood’s state representative, he cut through red tape to learn why I was denied a Pell Grant as a freshman at Brown University and helped me get the award the following year. After my wife, Deb, and I bought our first house – on Modena Avenue in Elmhurst – he stopped by to congratulate us, kissing Deb on the cheek as if she were family. And when my son Evan petitioned me to play AAU basketball – a world I knew nothing about – I knew where to turn for guidance: As always, Armand had the answers.

In 2018, the Pleasant View Recreation Center in Providence’s Fifth Ward was renamed the Armand E. Batastini Jr. Recreation Center. All of us who played for Armand know how deserving he was of such an honor.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of Armand’s life is planned for a future date.

His family may need to rent out the Dunk.

 

Going to church, dog wouldn’t obey my commandments

buddy

Published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 2015.

“Johhh-neee!”

My best friend, Chris, was calling from the driveway outside my house, in Providence. I went to the bedroom window, knocked on the pane, and held up an index finger to let him know I’d be right out. I wished we were heading off to shoot hoops at Nelson Street playground or to buy candy at Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue. But it was Sunday morning. We were going to church.

Pulling a sweater on, I tiptoed past my mother’s bedroom. Attending Mass at St. Pius wasn’t a family affair in my house or in Chris’s, either. Our moms told us we had to go, and Chris and I, ages 9 and 10 respectively, obliged.

Bunking church, however tempting, was not an option. Informants loomed everywhere: grandparents up the street, family friends around the corner, aunts and uncles waving from cars. This was Elmhurst at its close-knit best, and worst. If we strayed on our five-block pilgrimage and played hooky, word would get back to our mothers fast. Penance would be severe.

Chris and I had walked two blocks when Georgie, my dog, whisked by us, nails scratching the sidewalk, tail wagging like crazy.

“I have to take her home,” I said. “Be right back.”

I grabbed Georgie’s collar and scooted her back to my house. She was a 35-pound mutt with a shaggy black coat and watchful eyes. I pushed on the back door to put her inside, but it was locked – and I didn’t have my key. I knew our front door was locked, too. It always was.

The thought of ringing the doorbell and waking my mother was as appealing to me as Brussels sprouts. She’d see I was running late.

Our small back yard was bounded by a chain link fence. I left Georgie there, latching the gate behind me. I hoped she wouldn’t escape.

I caught up with Chris and we resumed our trek. We kicked a soda can up the street and relived our epic day at Rocky Point amusement park the previous summer – until a bark cut us short. I spun around and there was Georgie, half a block away.

“Oh God,” I said. “She got out.”

I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Go home!” I don’t know what I was thinking. Georgie wasn’t Lassie; we were still working on the commands “Sit!” and “Stay!”

“Let’s just get to church,” I said to Chris. “It’s too late to take her back again.”

We picked up our pace. Georgie continued to follow us, keeping her strategic half-block distance. When we reached St. Pius, I convinced myself she’d just wait at the door outside. What could happen?

As Chris and I entered church, our footsteps on the marble floor announced our tardy arrival. We sheepishly made our way to one of the rear pews.

The second reading was just beginning. I caught the attention of a child two rows in front of me. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his smiles, I heard a faint, familiar sound – like scratching on a door. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering: “Is that Georgie?”

I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. I pictured Georgie pawing at the church door, just as she scraped the back door at home when she wanted to come in.

We stood for the Gospel – Luke’s account of the loaves and fishes miracle. But as I listened, something distracted my ear … the click-click-click of nails on marble. Somehow Georgie had gotten in! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew and head for the altar, tail wagging.

The woman next to us murmured, “Good Lord!” The priest continued with the miracle story from the pulpit, unaware of his newest potential convert. I instinctively stepped toward the aisle, but Chris grabbed my arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

Neither of us moved. Georgie was almost at the Communion rail when an usher, in his Sunday best, scooped her up and carried her out of the church. She was good about it – didn’t even squirm.

We waited for the Gospel to end, then hurried out to look for Georgie. She greeted us with leaps and licks of joy. Chris and I took quick turns hugging her and, thankful for our deliverance, started for home. At last, we had a legitimate reason for missing Mass – even our moms would agree.

In our book, that truly was a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, former fabulous woofie of the Fuller family in San Francisco.

Gravy Or Sauce? Stirring The Debate

crushed tomatoes

Sunday is gravy day. Not the brown gravy that you ladle on turkey or pool in a mound of mashed potatoes. I’m talking about red gravy – OK, sauce – burbling on the stove and filling the house with the promise of Sunday dinner.

Is it gravy or sauce? There was no question when I was growing up. My mother was a Pantalone. On Sundays, she made the gravy. My friends’ moms made gravy, too. But as my life took me beyond the Providence neighborhood of my upbringing – filled with first- and second-generation Italo-Americans – my use of the term gravy for tomato sauce brought puzzled looks. You put brown gravy on your pasta?

A quick Google search shows that the gravy-versus-sauce debate is spirited and ongoing. This much seems clear: gravy is usually a meat-based tomato sauce, cooked slowly for hours. (When the sauce has no meat, it’s a marinara, which comes from the Italian alla marinara, meaning “sailor style”.) A deeper search reveals that use of the term gravy to describe tomato sauce is peculiar to Italian Americans in the northeast United States.

On Sunday mornings, I walk across Peirce Street to St. Luke’s for the 10:00 service. The rhythms of the liturgy are familiar and comforting. Shortly after 11:00, I return home and head to the kitchen to begin a second weekly ritual.

I pour a bit of oil in the bottom of the pan. I add the diced onion, followed by sweet Italian sausage and, if I have it, steak or pork. I brown the meat and then pour in the crushed tomatoes and a small can of sauce. I add Italian seasoning, a bay leaf, ground pepper, a pinch of sugar or maybe a carrot to counter the acidity of the tomatoes. I stir, I cover, I simmer, and I wait…

Soon, the gravy’s heavenly aroma wafts through the house, connecting me to my mother’s kitchen, my grandmother’s kitchen, to the kitchens of Italian ancestors I never knew.

Playing Football When You Can’t Find Grass

City Games, Part 1

On Sunday afternoons during football season, I’d go to my best friend Chris Riccio’s house to watch the Giants game on TV, though we rarely made it past the first quarter. Sure, the Giants lost more than they won in the early ’70s, but that’s not what drove us from the television. Watching football made us want to play football. Question was, where?

We lived in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the typical house sits on a small lot – not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you can say “Pete Rozelle.” Sometimes we’d head up to La Salle, but the Brothers usually sent us packing, too. Forgive us our trespasses? Forget it.

So we always ended up back on Rankin Avenue for touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole, Billy and George against Chris and me. Rankin was perfect for street football – no tree obstructions, only the occasional car, and streetlights that let us play through dusk. The macadam roadbed tore up your hands and knees when you fell, but we didn’t care. Just rub the loose gravel out and get back to the two-man huddle… Chris is Fran Tarkenton and I’m Ron Johnson. “Go out to the manhole cover and turn,” Tark tells me. “I’ll pump fake, and then you go long for the bomb.”

Basketball is known as “The City Game” and rightfully so: it’s more suited to the urban hardscape than football or baseball. As I grew older, basketball would indeed consume most of my athletic energies. But back in the fall of 1970, as I sped past the telephone pole and looked back for Chris’s pass, playing touch football on Rankin Avenue was the best game in town.

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