Belleville’s Castro: The Buccaneers’ silent assassin

A little over a year ago, Hector Castro’s mother, Francine Torres, thought it was a wise idea to move her five children from the tough streets of Paterson to Belleville.

For a single mother of five, it was a bold move.

For the eldest of the five siblings, Hector Castro was just a little shaken. He was being shifted from the area where he was born and raised and transferring to a new school, namely Belleville High School, in his junior year.

“I was kind of upset,” Castro said. “It was going to be tough. I was going to be the new kid in a school where I didn’t know anyone. I’m a quiet kid and I don’t socialize well.”

When it came time to register for his new school, Francine Torres didn’t waste any time telling school officials what she wanted for her eldest son.

“She said to one of the guidance counselors that I played basketball,” Castro said.

At that same time, Belleville athletic director Marcellino Marra overheard the conversation between the guidance department and Castro’s mother.

“Marra came in, heard that I played and brought me to an open gym,” Castro said.

It was the birth of Belleville’s new and unlikely basketball superstar.

Castro opened some eyes at the open shoot-around.

“I knew nothing of him,” said Belleville head boys’ basketball coach Jim Catalano, a coaching warhorse for three decades who returned to his high school alma mater last year after stops at Wayne Hills, Boonton, Red Bank Catholic and a long stint at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I could see he was athletic and raw, but I didn’t think he could shoot it well.”

Castro, a junior, came to Belleville after a stay at Paterson Eastside, but never played varsity basketball with the Ghosts’ famed program.

“I just did what I had to do,” Castro said. “I didn’t know if I could do it.”
But Castro instantly made friends with his new teammates, albeit that he was reluctant to play at first.

“Everyone liked me, so that helped,” Castro said. “Everyone came up to me and welcomed me. They joked with me. The coaches seemed to like me.”

It didn’t take long for Castro to endear himself to his new coach.

“He made a play that I never saw before,” said Catalano, who has basically seen everything the sport of basketball can offer. “He blocked a shot out of the kid’s hands, dribbled the ball down the court and dunked it. It was like a highlight film. It was like the first time the rims had been touched at Belleville. He’s about 6-foot-1 and made this play like he was 6-foot-6. No one told me anything about his athleticism. I knew that if he was coachable, we had a player.”

When time came for practice in November, Catalano was eager to see what Castro could do with the rest of his team.

“He has the ability to rise over people who were much taller,” Catalano said. “He’s that athletic. He goes up and over people. He’ll go right over you. He also has zero fear. He plays taller than he is. He has unbelievable instincts and quickness.”

Castro has been the focal point of a resurgence of Buccaneer basketball. Even after a tough 45-40 loss to Livingston in the second round of the Essex County Tournament Saturday afternoon, the Bucs are enjoying their best season in recent memory, proud owners of an 11-5 record.

And the junior forward is a strong reason for the Bucs’ turnaround. He’s averaging 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories. Castro has helped others become better players.

Last week, Castro had 23 points and eight rebounds versus Arts High of Newark, had 21 points and 10 rebounds against Technology, had 23 points and six rebounds against Cedar Grove, had 19 points and nine rebounds against Science Park and had 26 points and 10 rebounds in the Essex County Tournament win over Montclair Kimberley Academy.

That’s some consistency – and it’s that consistency that has earned Castro The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

How consistent has Castro been? Try this on for size. He has registered in double figures in scoring in all 12 games he has played in this season. There’s no sign of slumping.

And incredibly, Catalano believes Castro can be even better.

“After the season is over, we’re going to teach him a jump shot,” Catalano said. “We can’t touch him now, but when we have more time, we’re going to work with him, because he needs more of a repertoire to play on the next level. He has to get a jump shot. But I never saw quickness like he has. He’s only going to get better.”

Catalano likes the relationship he has with Castro. It’s hard to fathom the idea that a 68-year-old walking and talking basketball museum could have something in common with a 17-year-old kid, but the two have hit it off tremendously.

They’re so in tuned with each other that they have nicknames for each other – some of which are printable.

For instance, Castro calls Catalano “Kitty Cat.”

“We now even say, ‘1-2-3 Kitty Cat’ when we break the huddle,” Castro said. “It’s been a lot of fun. We have good chemistry. The team is a hyped group. There are times that I’m down and the team picks me up. We’re basically a good group. He has a lot of names for me. Sometimes, coaches can be really boring, but not him. Our coaches really want to see us succeed. He keeps on me with my school work. I want to go to college and play basketball.”

And as for nicknames for Castro?
“He calls me all kinds of names,” Castro said.

“We kid each other all the time,” Catalano said. “He coined the name ‘Kitty Cat’ for me. We know there are times when we have to be serious, but we have a lot of fun together. I tease him a lot. We have a good time. We have an interesting relationship.”

Catalano wants to help Castro improve.

“I’ve never saw quickness like he has,” Catalano said. “I never thought he could play at this level. He rises high and hard and gets to the ball. I know he can only get better. I know how much he wants to play at the next level. You can see how hard he plays.”

“I know I have a lot of work to do,” Castro said. “I’m still learning the game. I only started playing basketball for real when I was in eighth grade. I only started taking it seriously last year. If I played the game the right way the whole time, who knows how good I could be? I didn’t have Cat as a coach. I have to work on my jumper.”

Hector and the Kitty Cat – sounds like a movie title. Maybe Hollywood beckons.




Belleville junior forward Hector Castro. Photo courtesy of Belleville athletics.





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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”