Photo courtesy of La Salle Academy.
By David Cordova.
Over the years, there have been plenty of great programs in New York City’s Catholic High School Athletic Association. One of those teams that gets mentioned the least these days is La Salle Academy.
La Salle has been one of the most historical programs in the city and has won nine Catholic city championships (1943, 1946, 1954, 1967, 1971, 1997, 2004, 2017). The school’s gym, the Dan Buckley Gym, named after their coach, has also been famous for being the gym that was a part of the 1995 film, “The Basketball Diaries,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The school has produced some marquee names such as Dick McGuire (Class of 1943, New York Knicks), Ed Bartells (Class of 1944, New York Knicks), John Roche (Class of 1967, New York Nets), John Candelaria (Class of 1972, had an 18-year Major League baseball career and won a World Series title with the Pittsburgh Pirates) and more recent players such as Shammgod “God Shammgod” Wells (Class of 1995, a former NBA player who is now the Director of Player Development for the Dallas Mavericks and is famous for inventing the “Shammgod” crossover) and Ron Artest, known today as Metta World Peace (Class of 1997, an NBA veteran who won an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010).
“When you put it on paper, La Salle’s basketball history can stand up with almost any school in New York City,” says head coach and athletic director Jerome Pannell. “We’ve got a lot of guys who came through here and worked really hard to help establish tradition, to help establish a culture that we’re trying to restore and reestablish.”
But like any other program, academics always remain first, “The goal is to ultimately get them into college,” says Pannell, “To play in college, to be on TV, to get Division I scholarships, I do, but ultimately my main goal as an educator and coach is to get my kids into college. And to help them become responsible and respectful young men in our society.”
La Salle, which is now located on East 6th Street in Manhattan, is also one of the best academic schools in New York City, and has a 98% graduation rate. When asked about the school, Pannell said, “The school is going through a resurgence and basketball is a microcosm of that. Forr the second straight year, we’ve had a waiting list for admissions, this is the first time in twenty, thirty years that we’ve had that. It’s something that speaks to the quality of effort that we’ve had here, and it speaks to the quality of the program and it speaks to the right kids that are coming to La Salle and enjoying the experience. The school, overall is in an upward swing.”
The original building, which is located on East 2nd Street, which holds much of the school history, is still around, but because of financial difficulties, the school moved in 2010 to St. George’s School, where it is located today, but Pannell sees hope that things will change for the better. “The school has 360 students, given the space that we have in the building, I would say that the incoming class that will be coming in, we’ll be busting at the seams as far as enrollment. But the hope that we’ll go back to our old building, where we had upwards of 1,000 kids in our building.”
In recent years, the program struggled in the A division. This year, they were demoted to the B division, but they made the most of it and taught many a lesson, that the even though it isn’t a division in which there’s a top-tier talent, there are still gems in it.
This year’s team steamrolled through the competition, as they went 25-2, went undefeated in the B division at 11-0, won the All-Catholic New Year’s Tournament in Miami, Florida and beat AA teams such as St. Francis Prep and Thurgood Marshall.
“Our main focus from day one has been to win a city championship,” says Pannell, “If you look on the wall and see where the eight previous championships are listed, it’s been our plan, our kids plan to get to that level.”
On the regular season: “I thought the regular season went well for us, I think we exceeded our own expectations at times, I think we felt like we were going to have a great season again, but I don’t think we expected 25-2. And that being the case, I’m excited, the kids have momentum, and as a result, we’ve continued to play well. And it will continue to benefit us.”
They capped off their CHSAA season by winning the city championship over Sacred Heart, the second place team in the B division, 78-64, on March 3rd at Rose Hill Gym on the campus of Fordham University. A week later, on March 11th, they would win another title as they beat St. Mary’s-Buffalo, 82-50, also at Rose Hill Gym for the CHSAA Catholic state championship.
“I don’t think it’s really settled in yet, but it’s phenomenal, “Pannell says of winning both titles, “it feels great, it’s both exciting, it’s elation. It’s also relieving in some ways too, as I wanted it more for these kids than I wanted it for me. I can tell you that these kids are part of my family. For me, I’m just so happy for them because La Salle has been the punch line for jokes for a long time, and now it can’t be, because we did what we set out to do, and we’re not done yet. Hopefully, we can keep on going, that’s the goal. Our kids deserve all the credit, they’ve worked really hard.”
Up next for the Cardinals, who are ranked No. 2 in the New York State Sportswriters Association rankings, is a matchup with Fannie Lou Hamer, the PSAL B division champion, and ranked behind them at No. 3 in the state this Friday, March 24th, in Glens Falls, for the semifinals state Federation Tournament.
On making it to the Federation Tournament, “We don’t take for granted the opportunities that come. I don’t take the opportunity that we have now to win the Federation championship, which would be the first one in the school’s history. For me, it’s exciting, because it’s a chance to do something that’s never been done before.”
Because of their dominance in this year’s team, there’s a chance that the Cardinals will move back up to the A division eventually. “There’s a reason why we ended up in the B division. Two years before I took over, we ended up below .500. The year before I took over, we were 5-17 in the B division. My first year, we were 15-10. Last year, we were 16-6, so we’ve made a steady climb.” says Pannell, “We’ve actually been moving steadily in the right direction, do we want to move up? Absolutely, we want to move up. We want to enjoy the same success that La Salle has historically enjoyed, but we also know that we’re going to do it in the appropriate time and space and accordingly, based on the kids we have here, because it’s not always a level playing field in this league. That being the case, we plan to restore La Salle to its history and build a new foundation and if we leave the B, we don’t want to go back. There’s nothing wrong with the B, but we would want to get back to a higher level. Alums want to get back to that, administration wants to get back to that and I want to get back to that. But everything in due time and properly done correctly.”
Judging by the level of talent on this team in junior Korey Williams and seniors Isaiah Allen-Smith and Bryce Council as well as the CHSAA B division Player of the Year in James Bouknight, who is also a junior.
On Bryce Council: “Whoever gets Bryce, is getting a steal. No matter where he goes and what he does, he’s one of the best leaders in our school, he is the best leader in our program, he is superior in so many ways, and I don’t think people realize it. The moxie that he’s got, his heart far, far exceeds his height. I think ultimately, Bryce will be a complete steal for somebody.”
On James Bouknight: “Bouknight is untapped potential. Bouknight has come very far, I don’t think they realize how far he has come, because no one knows him from before he got he here. It’d be easy for someone to make the assumption and say that, ‘That kid doesn’t belong in the B.’ He’s at the right place at the right time and his development has little to do with basketball. But his development as a young man far exceeds his development on the court. From his sophomore to his junior year, he’s made strides on the basketball court and in the classroom. He was the league MVP this year, and he’s going in the right direction, and if he continues to go where he’s going, he’s going to be a huge problem for every team we face. Ultimately, it’s his example here as a young man, and the polish in his game that has defined his growth here.”
Will the Cardinals be able to finish out their storybook season with another championship under their belt? All of that remains to be seen. But with the talent they have, they cannot be ignored or overlooked anymore, because there’s a new day at the school on East 6th Street.
“I’m hypocritical of my players on and off the court, and they’ve taken it and used it as fuel, as motivation to drive them and it’s driven us to a city and state Catholic championship,” says Pannell, “And I hope it can drive us upstate and get a little bit more.”