NAUGATUCK — The roots of basketball in the borough — particularly at Naugatuck High School — can be traced back to the tiny gymnasium nestled in the confined basement at the Naugatuck YMCA on Church Street.
“That’s where I got my start, in Little Pal,” Naugatuck High head boys basketball coach Mike Wilson said. “This year we had two freshmen, Avery Hinnant and Ese Onakpoma, who were playing in this league last year and now they are starters on the high school team. A program like this is essential to our success.”
The Little Pal basketball league began in 1950. At the time, it was known as the Little Pro hoops league and had 100 boys ages 9 through 12 on four teams. Sixty-nine years later, the league is thriving with 335 youngsters, 33 teams and five age divisions.
“I’m a Little Pal coach for my daughter’s team, so I see the importance of having a feeder program like that,” Naugatuck High girls basketball coach Gail Cheney said. “You talk to some of the others coaches around the (Naugatuck Valley League) and they don’t all have that kind of program to teach the fundamentals.”
The league has endured for over six decades due to the countless number of volunteers who have given of themselves over the years. Volunteers like Bob Burns Sr., Gene Massa, Mike Bisson, Bob Mezzo, Dave Ranno, Scott Robinson and Dan Starziski, who helped to organize the girls program.
“I played for my father’s team in 1965 and won the league championship” Bob Burns Jr. said. “My dad coached all three of his sons, nephews and grandchildren. I ended up coaching with him for over 20 years.”
Little Pal basketball has a way of getting in people’s blood.
“Little Pal basketball is a staple in Naugatuck,” said Ranno, who played, coached his son and was a referee for over 20 years. “That league molded me into the person I have become. Basketball is a game, and the thing I wanted to impress on the kids was to have fun and create memories that will last a lifetime.”
Three years ago, Catherine Proto took over as the sports and recreation director at the Naugatuck YMCA. Proto came to Naugatuck with a sturdy basketball background. She spent six and a half years as the manager of scouting for the New York Liberty of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and a one year as an assistant coach with the Connecticut Sun after serving three years as an assistant coach for the Seton Hall women’s basketball team.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without the countless hours of dedication from our volunteers,” Proto said. “They just have a heart for the kids and Little Pal. It takes somewhere around 48 volunteers to manage this program. There have been people over the years who have dedicated themselves to this program for 20 or 30 years. That is why it’s such a success. Adam (Purcaro) is a perfect example of the kind of person that has helped this program succeed.”
The Little Pal program continues to grow and reach new heights under the innovative effort of former Little Pal player and Naugatuck Greyhound hoopster Adam Purcaro.
“This is where basketball started for me back in 1997,” said Pucaro, who now coaches his daughter Alexis and her friends on the Jr. Lady Huskies sponsored by Naugatuck dentist Dr. Alicia Almeida. “This program becomes part of your extended family and years later you see these people and it’s like seeing family.
“This is my opportunity to give back and to keep this tradition alive. My own basketball career could have gone farther had I done better in academics. So I felt it was important to link the two together, basketball and academics.”
That idea sparked the creation of an April clinic run by Purcaro called the Little Ballers. Fred Scheithe, a basketball coach at City Hill Middle School, comes down to the clinic, and this year they will have former Boston Celtics Ryan Gomes in attendance as well.
“Being a good student and a good player proceeds becoming a good person, and that’s what this program, Little Ballers, is all about,” Purcaro said. “The key lesson we want to teach is ‘it’s we before me.’”
One of the most important transitions to take place in going from Little Pal to high school basketball is learning to be teammates after being rivals for so many years on the YMCA court. Scheithe has a unique perspective on how that transformation begins.
“I’ve been coaching for 35 years and the rivalry part was probably more intense when we had two middle schools,” Scheithe said. “They start out as teammates at the middle school and become competitors as the Y. That team/competitor concept helps them to become better players and builds that camaraderie before they go on to high school.”
For information on Little Pal and the Little Ballers clinic, contact Proto at the YMCA at 203-729-9622.