Boys Basketball

Legendary St. Joseph coach bringing a talented team to O’Fallon

He coached former NBA great and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas as well as current Boston Celtics guard Evan Turner, the 2010 national Player of the Year at Ohio State.

He coached during the Vietnam War, before and after the institution of the 3-point line, during the Watergate scandal and throughout the administrations of nine U.S. presidents.

So when legendary Westchester St. Joseph basketball coach Gene Pingatore brings his state-record 949 victories and state-ranked Chargers to the O’Fallon High Panther Dome on Saturday for the Bank of O’Fallon Shootout, there’s nothing he sees that will be new — except a venue he hasn’t visited before.

St. Joseph (16-5), a Chicago area power and one of the state’s top teams regardless of class, will take on Althoff (19-2) at 5:15 p.m. Saturday. It’s a battle between teams tied for fourth in the latest Associated Press Class 3A state rankings.

“I hope we can put on a show,” said the 78-year-old Pingatore — and there’s a good chance of that happening.

Especially since his team includes Nebraska senior guard recruit Glynn Watson, Northwestern senior guard recruit Jordan Ash and a 6-foot-10 junior center in Nick Rakosevic that already has offers from Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Creighton, among others.

“These guys will help us understand what we have to do to get better at to compete against a big Chicago team like that,” said Althoff coach Greg Leib, whose team faces a road game on Friday against state-ranked Carbondale.

His team won the 1999 Class AA state title and the Chargers have visited the state tourney seven times during his 46 seasons. What keeps bringing Pingatore back?

“I’m still an old-school guy and I still have the passion,” said Pingatore, who grew up in Cicero and has been St. Joe’s coach since midway through the 1969-70 season. “I’m hoping to have a few more years, too. I just love the game. I loved it as a player (at Loyola Marymount) and when I went to college even though my intention was not to coach, during my college years I decided I wanted to coach.

“I took it upon myself to come back to Chicago, where high school basketball is great. I thought that would be a good jumpstart to get to college (coaching) and it didn’t happen.”

Instead, he’s spent nearly five decades coaching extremely talented players like Thomas, Turner, former Indiana standout Daryl Thomas and numerous other that went on to excel in sports, life or both.

He was a central part of the famous basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, which tracked the lives of former Pingatore players Arthur Agee and William Gates through their ups and downs.

Before Isiah Thomas led Indiana to a national title and the Detroit Pistons to two NBA championships, Pingatore watched him play as an eighth-grader.

“The first time I saw him I knew he was special,” Pingatore said. “Over the years I’ve been blessed with a number of special players. Those players were special and an important part of my carer, but they’re good friends now too. We stay in touch and we’re like a family.”

The current edition of the Chargers is long on height, scoring ability and dogged pressure defense. St. Joseph’s schedule is as tough as they come with a steady diet of shootouts and marquee matchups.

“We’re a balanced scoring team overall and our size is fair, although it looks like we match up pretty well size-wise with Althoff,” Pingatore said.

“It’s going to be an exciting event and a fun adventure,” Leib said. “The kids will be all hopped up playing one of the best teams in the state and for me, getting to meet a guy like Coach Pingatore is an honor and privilege. It’s going to be a good challenge for us. They’ve got some length and they’re skilled and they’re quick. It’s going to be tough.”

Althoff has one of the state’s top sophomore prospects in 6-3 Jordan Goodwin (19.8 points, 12 rebounds per game), already drawing a lot of Division I looks. The Crusaders also have two Division I prospect junior guards in Brendon Gooch (14.4 ppg) and Tarkus Ferguson (13.5 ppg).

This is not a typical game and the Crusaders know it.

“Coach talked to us and said he wants us to treat it like a state championship game,” said Goodwin, who was asked about Althoff’s unselfish approach on offense this season despite the star power. “I want to do anything it takes to win. If that’s me having four points and 11 assists, I’ve got to do whatever it takes.

“It’s a total team effort, but whoever has the hot hand we’re going to give the a ball a lot.”

Pingatore enjoys much of how basketball has changed and evolved through the years, but there’s one aspect that bothers him immensely.

“If I was starting up as a young coach, I don’t think I would last as long,” he said. “There’s too many outside influences. There’s just too many people involved with your kids where years ago it used to be after the summer, we would just continued where we left off because the kids played together.

“Now we have to start all over from scratch and even then it’s tough because of different people talking to people and telling them what to do. Kids are different today. I never thought I’d say that, but I think that’s the effect of the summer basketball. There’s so many games they play and the games don’t mean anything.”

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