A year ago at this time, Jim Catalano was miserable.
“It was a nightmare,” is how Catalano referred to it.
“It was the day after Thanksgiving and I was at a wedding at Nanina’s in the Park,” Catalano said. “It was where my daughter got married, so I always had a good time there. But my wife turned to me and asked me, ‘What is wrong?’ Then my daughter wanted to know what was wrong. I knew. From 1964 on, I was on a basketball court on the day after Thanksgiving, either coaching or playing. I was going through withdrawal.”
Last year was the first time that Catalano found himself on the outside looking in of a basketball court when basketball season began.
Going back to Catalano’s days as a standout player at Belleville High School through a long and winding coaching road, most of it spent at New Jersey Tech (now known as the New Jersey Institute of Technology or NJIT), and recently with high school stops at Wayne Hills, Boonton and Red Bank Catholic, Catalano had a place to be when the season started _ but not at the start of the 2016-2017 season.
“I knew I had to get back into coaching,” Catalano said.
The 67-year-old Catalano always kept himself busy. For years, he was the principal at Lady Liberty Academy, a charter school in Newark. Just recently, Catalano took a position as the head master at The Patrick School, the institution formerly known as St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth.
But the basketball lifer was outside of basketball.
“I contemplated coming back,” Catalano said. “But it needed to be the right spot. I talked to some people, but nothing materialized. I wasn’t quite sure where I’d be. I knew I wasn’t going to retire. Coaching has been my passion for more than 40 years.”
Catalano received a phone call from a friend who told him of an opening at a place that Catalano knew all too well _ namely the old stomping grounds of Belleville High School.
“That’s how it all happened,” Catalano said. “It happened very quickly. I was brought in and met the superintendent (Dr. Richard Tomko), the principal (Caleb Rhodes) and the AD (athletic director Marcellino Marra) and it was a no brainer. They all sold me.”
It didn’t take much to sell Catalano.
“I grew up in Belleville, so I knew what it was all about,” Catalano said. “I always felt for years that if there was anything I could do to help Belleville, I would. Coaching was never paramount in my eyes. My thinking was if there was anything I could do, I’d do it.”
Catalano was an All-State baseball player at Belleville, member of the Class of 1967.
“Everyone thought that I was going to sign a baseball contract, but I never did,” said Catalano, who was also a basketball standout and was later inducted into the Belleville Wall of Fame. His picture still adorns the walls next to the gym.
“When I said to myself that it had to be right situation, I didn’t think it would be back in Belleville,” Catalano said. “I didn’t even know what that meant. But when the opportunity came up, I had to do it.”
Catalano spent 22 years as the head coach at New Jersey Tech, the last 10 of which he was also the athletic director.
“I had a great run there,” Catalano said. “I just had enough.”
Catalano left New Jersey Tech when it was an NCAA Division II program in 2004, nowhere near where the program is now as a Division I team in a big league (the Atlantic Sun) and with a spanking new campus facility, the $110 million Wellness and Events Center.
Now, he’s home again at last.
“I really hadn’t been back to Belleville in a long time, I guess since I recruited two players to come to New Jersey Tech,” Catalano said. “The last time I walked into the school was when I was inducted to the Wall (of Fame). It was definitely odd.”
One player asked Marra a bizarre question.
“He said to Marcellino, ‘How did you get him to come here?’” Catalano said. “I just felt I had to come in and change the culture a little. But they really have bought into the things we do. It’s all trial and error now.”
The Buccaneers lost their opener Friday night to Golda Och School.
“It’s one game,” Catalano said. “We just have to put our noses to the grindstone.”
The Buccaneers feature cousins James and Kyle Laquindanum in the backcourt. Both are 6-foot-1 junior guards.
“They both start,” Catalano said. “They both can shoot the ball. They both have some skills. They’re learning how to play defense. They’re learning and they want to learn.”
Senior David McAllister is also in the mix in the backcourt.
The Buccaneers have twins Adrienne and Adrielle Henson in the starting lineup. The Henson twins are 6-foot-3 juniors.
“They’re totally interchangeable,” Catalano said. “They can shoot it pretty well. We’re trying to put them into situations that best fit them. They both have a lot of speed and they can go to the basket.”
Senior Jaylen Swan is also in the mix at forward, as is senior Joe Monroig.
“Jaylen finishes well around the basket,” Catalano said. “Joe took six charges on his own Friday night. He hustles. He has the aggressiveness our entire team should have.”
Ethan Luarca is a 6-foot-1 swing player.
“Ethan goes to the basket well,” Catalano said. “He also can shoot.”
Catalano knows he has to mix his lineup up a little to be competitive.
“We have a lot of different things we can do, both offensively and defensively,” Catalano said. “We just need to get some intensity.”
The Buccaneers face Science and North Star Academy this week and will go to the Glen Ridge Holiday Tournament with host Glen Ridge, Bloomfield and People’s Charter school.
Could have Catalano ever imagined a scenario like this one?
“No way,” Catalano said. “I can’t even imagine that I took the job, never mind even coming back and considering taking it. But a year into not coaching, I had to take something that was a challenge. I’ll get over this. It’s really odd and unique how it happened, but I’m excited.
Added Catalano, “Last year, I was miserable, but now, I’m excited again. It’s the best time of year.”
The Belleville High School boys’ basketball program turns to veteran alumnus Jim Catalano (center) to be the new head coach. From left are Ethan Luarca, David McAllister, head coach Catalano, James Laquindanum and Jaylen Swan. Photo by Jim Hague