Many teams play, but one team keeps b’ball league rolling


By Patrick Bergman Clark

On a recent evening the men charged with making the ball bounce for the Greenwich Village Basketball League met at the Dapolito Recreation Center on Clarkson St. in anticipation of the winter 2010 season.

They confirmed that league play would begin in mid-January, discussed the possibility of finding additional gym space for games and decided that trophies probably weren’t necessary for the league’s oldest youth.

“And what about the uniforms?” asked Fred Rottman, a league parent in his first year as part of league administration. “Last year, the kids were swimming in them. They wound up cutting the sleeves off and taking technical fouls.”

“Uniforms,” sighed Richard Battaglino. “I remember one year this guy was so mad over the uniforms. What happened was, we told him his team would wear red, and he made all the kids go out and buy red sneakers to go with them. When the uniforms came in they were the wrong color. Boy was he mad.”

Battaglino could fill the role of league historian, which would be fitting for a man who has filled just about every other role over the course of his half-century involvement with the league.

Outside of the meeting, Battaglino recounted the story of the league’s beginnings. There was Thomas Chimera, the league commissioner, who was a State Supreme Court justice, and there was joint sponsorship from the Kiwanis and Lions clubs of Greenwich Village. There was also a mission: keep kids off the mean streets and engage them in a positive activity that could bridge ethnic, class and neighborhood divides. Boys aged 9 to 15 played together in a single division that rotated its games between six local gyms.

That was 1958. There have been some changes along the way, but 50 years later the Greenwich Village Basketball League continues in adherence to that same mission.

Battaglino joined the league in 1961 as a 12-year-old point guard for the St. Joseph team and has stayed involved in one capacity or another ever since.

“One thing I remember is that Chimera would order the championship trophy from Italy,” said Battaglino. “Imagine this powerful, important man taking the time to pick out a trophy that was special, that was always a little different than it had been the year before. That said a lot to me at the time — that the league was important enough to warrant his careful attention.”

When Battaglino played, the league was off limits to boys who played high school basketball, which posed a dilemma for the Sullivan St. native when he made varsity at Xavier High School. He was playing for G.V.B.L. powerhouse St. Anthony’s by then, and rather than choose between high school and parish, he decided to flout league regulation.

“Joe Lanzone was the St. Anthony’s coach,” he recalled. “And when he found out I was playing at Xavier he sat me down in his office. He told me, ‘Richie, we play by the rules here.’ And I was crestfallen, because one, I had let Lanzone down, and two, because it had meant a lot to me to play for St. Anthony’s.”

Battaglino’s exile didn’t last long, however. A few years later, as a freshman at Fordham University, he talked an adviser into awarding him course credit for covering the G.V.B.L. for The Villager. For the next three years, he became a different kind of gym rat, shuttling between the league venues to record game results and leading scorers.

“There were always problems then,” he remembered. “The ref wouldn’t show up, or there would be an argument over which kids were eligible. On a given night, I was the one traveling from gym to gym, and it became natural for me to get involved with running the league.”

Since then, Greenwich Village basketball has been something like Battaglino’s second career, and he’s filled every role from fundraiser to organizer and, for a number of years, supervisor at the gym at St. Anthony’s on Sullivan St., where the league played games.

“I don’t know of another league like this,” he said. “A free league that is open to anybody. Teams come to us from all over the city, asking to play in the league, because they don’t have anything like this in their community.”

Brief as it was, Battaglino’s absence from the league did coincide with the arrival of another player destined to become a G.V.B.L. mainstay. Ray Pagan grew up on 16th St., just outside the league’s official 14th St. northern boundary, but recalls being recruited to join the league as a 14-year-old in 1966.

“It was a guy named Red Costanzo,” said Pagan. “He saw me playing somewhere, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come down and play with me?’ I played one year, and the next year they asked me bring in my own team.”

For Pagan, it was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to youth sports organizing. As a Parks Department employee at the Dapolito Center, Pagan has run basketball, flag football and girls softball leagues and provided support to the Greenwich Village Little League and Downtown United Soccer Club. Recalling his early days in the G.V.B.L., he remembered the excitement surrounding league contests.

“It was always a big deal when we came down,” he said. “It was ‘uptown’ versus ‘downtown,’ and they used to pack the gyms for the games. I remember one time, we almost didn’t make it out alive. One of their guys gave a hard foul, and one of my guys came flying in and got in the kid’s face. Matter of fact, it was Costanzo who told me, ‘I can keep [the crowd] calm for about five minutes, but you got to get your guys out of here fast.’”

Battaglino remembers that a watershed moment in the league’s history came in 1977. At its inception, the G.V.B.L. had been sponsored by the Kiwanis and Lions clubs of Greenwich Village. The Lions split off to found a separate league early on, but until ’77 G.V.B.L. had relied on the Kiwanis for support.

“Emanuel Popolizio was our commissioner at the time,” said Battaglino. “And the president of the Kiwanis came to him and asked, ‘What is this league doing for the Kiwanis?’” Popolizio, who would later become head of the New York City Housing Authority, gave no ground to the Kiwanis man. “With or without your club, this league will go on,” he reportedly answered.

“The next year,” continued Battaglino, “we incorporated.”

Eddie Di Tomaso joined the G.V.B.L.’s board of directors in the early 1980s. A Greenwich Village native, he was already too old to participate by the time G.V.B.L. came around, but grew up playing basketball at the Lower West Side Center on Sullivan St. in preparation for varsity ball at Stuyvesant High School and Brooklyn College.

As a director and in his current role as league president, Di Tomaso has made it his work to keep the league free, fair and open. That has meant finding sponsors to take the place of the Kiwanis, and it has meant staying flexible with regard to eligibility requirements.

“We always wanted to keep the ringers out,” said Di Tomaso. “But then, if a kid wants to play, how do you turn him away?

“A lot has changed over the years,” Di Tomaso continued. “When I first joined the board, I used to find a couple of the bigger kids from the neighborhood and put them in the gym. I’d tell them, ‘If anybody starts something, throw them out the window.’ ”

Those days are long gone, said Di Tomaso, who added that the most common complaint in recent years has been playful trash-talking.

Back in 1958, G.V.B.L. enjoyed access to six gyms — the Parks Department’s Carmine St. Recreation Center (now the Dapolito Center), the Children’s Aid Society’s Lower West Side Center, St. Anthony’s, St. Luke’s and Judson Memorial churches, and Greenwich House. By the 1980s, play was concentrated at Children’s Aid and St. Anthony’s, and by the early 1990s, the league was playing all of its games at Dapolito. Meanwhile, participation has exploded. 

Battaglino’s old Villager articles describe a league with 11 teams, but last year G.V.B.L. fielded 46, and Battaglino said that some years the number has been closer to 60.

The result can be a chaotic experience as kids pour in and out of the gym for their games, leading the league to seek additional space for coming seasons.

The crunch for gym time was the issue that drew Rottman, a league parent and coach, to volunteer his energies to the G.V.B.L.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Rottman said. “It’s really a credit to the Parks Department for making the Dapolito Center available and making a space for our kids to play. But you can never have too much space. More space means more kids can play.”

But floor time at indoor gymnasiums is a precious commodity in Downtown Manhattan, however, and despite Rottman’s efforts, it appears that G.V.B.L. will play all or most of its games at Dapolito again this season.

“Obviously, it would be nice if we could get some more space,” said Battaglino. “I would love if we could return things to the way they were, playing at gyms all across the community. But whether we have one gym or 10, the important thing is that the league goes on.”