By Jim Hague
When Bob MacDonnell was beginning his basketball coaching career some 30 years ago, he was coaching CYO basketball at Our Lady of Mercy in Jersey City.
One of his first pupils was a young point guard named Joe Macchi.
“He taught me two principles back then,” Macchi said.“He taught me discipline and defense. That was driven into my mind back then and stayed with me.”
Last week, MacDonnell and Macchi had a reunion of sorts, as MacDonnell served as the camp director for the Kearny PAL Basketball Camp at Schuyler School.
MacDonnell has been coaching basketball ever since, including his latest job as an assistant coach at Berkeley College in Newark. Macchi became a standout player at Marist, then Jersey City State College. He went on to become a head coach at St. Peter’s Prep and currently serves as the Director of Recreation in Jersey City.
More than 50 youngsters participated in the week-long camp run by MacDonnell.
“I think it’s very important that we have camps like this, to keep the interest of basketball in Kearny,” MacDonnell said. “Some of these kids never played organized basketball before. It was a first-time experience for some of them. So we wanted to make the experience as positive as possible.”
MacDonnell, who was a subvarsity coach at Kearny High School for many years, said that he was pleased with the turnout.
“I was pleasantly surprised with the turnout, especially since we had kids from four different towns,” MacDonnell said. “I actually enjoyed it. We were able to blend the kids who were learning for the first time with the more experienced kids. There were some talented kids there. It wasn’t like we were working from scratch.
Added MacDonnell, “I realized that a lot of these kids, especially the ones from Kearny, could play. The talent level is unbelievable and that’s without any real training or coaching. The kids just love to play basketball and they want to play.”
Macchi, who guided St. Peter’s Prep to its first Hudson County championship in more than 30 years in his tenure there, was happy with the way the kids listened and took to what he had to say.
“The game is the same,” Macchi said. “It’s still basketball. I was glad to have that audience and I was able to show my love for the game. The passion is still there for me and it’s there with these kids.”
Macchi was hopeful that the campers took just a small morsel of what he preached home with them after the camp was over.
“If they took only one thing, then it was worthwhile,” Macchi said. “I can’t expect them to absorb everything. We tried to do things that would be beneficial to them down the road. We gave them drills that they can work on at home.” Macchi said that he conducted a question-and-answer session with the campers after he was done.
“I was really impressed with the questions they asked,” Macchi said. “They proved to me that they really wanted to learn.”
Zach Latka is a 15-year-old sophomore at Kearny High School.
“I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun,” Latka said. “I worked on my dribbling, my passing, my shooting. It’s going to help me a lot to prepare for the upcoming season.”
Latka has been spending the summer playing AAU basketball for the Kearny PBGC.
“Coming to the camp will encourage me to play more,” Latka said. “I want to play basketball in college, so this was a good step for me. I’m going to work hard to get to my goals.”
Gralen Vereen is a 12-yearold who attends Schuyler School. Vereen is one of the up-and-coming talents that caught MacDonnell’s eye.
“The thing I learned more than anything else is having the right attitude,” Vereen said. “I know that I have to work hard to get better, but I need to have the right attitude when I play.”
Vereen said that he’s a big Oklahoma City Thunder fan and follows the play of All-Star Kevin Durant very closely.
“Someday, I hope I can shoot like him,” Vereen said. “I need to grow a little more, too.”
Michael O’Donnell is a 13-year-old rising star from East Newark.
“I had a lot of fun,” O’Donnell said. “The coaches were fun and the counselors were fun. It’s really going to help me a lot. I think I learned about good sportsmanship, that no matter how bad things get, I have to remain focused. I also can’t let things get in my head when I make a mistake; that I have to keep playing.”
O’Donnell was also encouraged to keep playing.
“I think coming to the camp taught me that I have to work hard to become a better player,” O’Donnell said. “Basketball is more than just shooting. You have to do a lot of different things.”
Like O’Donnell’s favorite team, the Chicago Bulls, and his favorite player, Derrick Rose.
“I’m not there with him yet,” O’Donnell said. “But maybe someday.”
Going to a summer camp can put a dream in the head of practically every kid.
“I’m extremely happy with the way it turned out,” MacDonnell said. “Without a doubt, this is where it all starts.”
MacDonnell was thankful for the support he received from the New Jersey State PAL, headed by director Tim Dowd, who also made an appearance at the camp. The New Jersey State PAL and Berkeley College were the cosponsors of the camp. MacDonnell is a retired Kearny police officer.
“It brought back memories to the days when I first started playing basketball,” said MacDonnell, who played high school basketball at Marist in Bayonne. “This was a positive first step for a lot of them.”