By PAUL GOTHAM
Coaching in now his fifth decade, Irondequoit’s Chris Cardon was to be among those inducted to the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend. Circumstances surrounding the coronavirus outbreak have forced organizers to postpone the event.
Earlier this week, Cardon spoke about his career, the changes he has made in his approach and why he is looking forward to his 35th season on the bench.
This weekend you were supposed to go into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame. Does entering with long-time Section V Boys’ Basketball Chairman Jack Purificato add meaning to that honor?
“Yes, it does because Jack has been a good friend and a good friend of Section V. I’ve been on some committees with Jack. I don’t know everything he’s done, but I know a lot of the work he’s done. People would be amazed (by how much he’s done). Ed Stores, Jr. has taken over and is doing a really good job with it. I feel like Jack has been through it with me. We lost three finals in the last 10 seconds. Jack was there to give me certificates. Then we finally won a few. Jack was there again to give me certificates. It seems like he’s been on this journey that we’ve taken with our basketball program. Jack’s always done it the right way. I’ve appreciated that about him, and that’s what we tried to do.”
What was your first reaction when you found out you were being inducted to the hall of fame?
“I go ‘Are you kidding me? What are you nuts?’ There are so many good guys worthy of this. (Section V NYS representatives) Dan Dickens from Cal-Mum and Ed Orman (York) got the ball rolling. Tom Downey got in last year. Jimmy Johnson, he should be in it. It’s mixed feelings. It’s a little embarrassing because I think there are so many people that not only deserve to be in before me, but there are so many people that are the reason I’m in (Mark Schaller, Brian Maginn, Dan Foley, Derrick Kemp, Dave Lombardini, Mike Seeley, Kyle Trevas and Sam Schrier). I look at all the guys I’ve worked with like Joe Drum, Doug Childs and Kevin Damann. I worked with Tim Mabb for over 30 years.
“Then all the guys who played for us. They’re the guys that won games. They win the games. You try to put them in the right spots. Like a couple years ago, we play John Nally and Pittsford Sutherland (2018 Class A1 semi-final). It was our second year we went to the states, and they’re kicking our butts. We’re running our stuff, but they’re defending so well. Finally, we go ‘Forget it.’ We’re going to go pick-and-roll with Patrick Thomas and Gerald Drumgoole for the whole fourth quarter basically. We put them in those positions, but they made the plays. It should be community shared. It’s definitely a shared award. I’m just lucky to be part of it. I’m lucky to be along for the ride.”
Not many people know it, but your first varsity head coaching job was at Eastridge. How did you get your start at what is now your cross-town rival?
“I went to Corning Community College first then to Cortland (SUNY). When I got out of Cortland in January of 1981, I started that fall coaching at Hoover Drive Junior High in Greece. I did a little soccer, and then I started doing basketball. I coached basketball there a year. My next year I did Olympia’s freshmen, and then Joe Drum who was the coach at Olympia told me there was an opening at Eastridge. And I go ‘Yeah?’ He said ‘I think you should go for it.’ I said ‘Why would I do that? Don’t you want me anymore?’ He said ‘No, no. You have a lot of energy. You work a lot of camps. You’re into it and what they would get in energy and enthusiasm would surpass what they would get in experience.’
“I went for the job. I was following Al Masino who had been there a while. I interviewed with him because he was acting principal. I was up against a college coach. I’m guessing they maybe thought the college guy wasn’t going to stay there real long. I got the team and I got it late, late spring. I had a meeting around the last day of school. Al’s son, Mike Masino was really good. He went on to play Hobart. He was graduating. Of the groups coming up, we had a good eighth-grade group. Long story short, three of those guys transferred out.
“We played in the summer league in Rush-Henrietta. I was able to get them in that. I had a really good group of guys. I lost my only big kid for a lot of the season in the first game in the Newark tournament. It was really tough then because we played in the east side of the county, so you’re playing Fairport, Webster, Rush and at the time Sutherland and Mendon were both in the top 15 of the state. It was a really daunting schedule. We had to play Notre Dame of Elmira in the Newark Tournament as well. We won a couple games then the kid came back that we lost for 10 to 12 games. We beat Rush. It wasn’t a great a Rush team, but still it was a good win. We got in the sectionals and we won one game. We beat Marshall at Marshall. We finished something like four and whatever.”
How did you end up at Irondequoit?
“I was filling in as a teacher at Eastridge. There was a guy on the recall list and he decided to come back. They didn’t think he would. In December of that year, I got a job working one day a week at Laurelton-Pardee Elementary School (in the Irondequoit District). I subbed the rest of the time. It just didn’t look like I was going to be able to get in at Eastridge. Talking with my dad, he said ‘If you’re not going to have a job there, maybe you need to look at other options.’ I left after a year, went to Arcadia and worked with Doug Childs. Did the JVs there for a year and then I got in at Irondequoit. I was filling in for a year. I did the JVs. I had (current football coach) Dan Fichter on my team and (current college referee) Robbie Snedden. Kevin Damann was the varsity coach. He left, and I got the job. They interviewed two people locally, and I found out the day I interviewed that I got the job.”
If you could go back in time, would there be anything that you would change in those first 20 or so years as a coach?
“Trying to build better relationships with the guys, on and off the court. Sometimes I was a little pig-headed and this is the only way we’re going to play. I’m still that way to a point, but doing a better job with in-game decisions. Whether to switch a defense. For a long time, we were a motion team where I tried to teach them how to fill four spots, teach them how to read (the defense). It was the state championship team. We had a lot of talent. We were kinda struggling, and the guys weren’t selfish. Finally, I started going to more sets and then I would call them in practice. We were scrimmaging and guys would say ‘Coach can you call them out.’ Even when we were going five-on-five, the fast break is theirs, but if they don’t have it, I would call it. Then they would call it and everybody mimics the call. That’s how we’ve been playing now. It might not have shown against Eastridge, but we call a lot of plays.
“I’ve always carried a card with the goals, who’s refereeing the game and some plays on it. In case we need a play or something. I have all the plays listed, and I have a long list. Some of them are just little tweaks and some of them aren’t. In practice, the first five minutes before we stretch we run our plays. I call the play. The point guard calls it, and everybody echoes the call – five-on-O. I think it’s been good for us. Last year, I started doing this because I saw Nazareth College doing it. We had nine turnovers a game last year. This year, we had a few more, but I think it’s really helped.
“There are other ways to play basketball. Not just the way I see it. I have philosophy that I’m really strong with, but I’m not afraid to tweak things if I have to. Like against Eastridge (in the most recent Class A1 final), that was the first game all year that we started in a zone. The first game. The whole year. Other games we were going to play zone, but we started man. Then talking to the assistants and we realized zone was our best bet. Though they scored and beat us inside and they drove baseline and stuff the bottom line, they had 40 points with two-and-a-half-minutes to go. They’re one of the highest scoring teams in the county. Even though we gave up a couple easy baskets, Tony (Arnold) went coast-to-coast a lot on us (when we played during the regular season), and they had offensive rebounds on us in the first game. They didn’t have many offensive rebounds, and they didn’t have many fast breaks in the championship game. I felt good about that. We did do some things. We just had a lot of trouble finishing shots and getting shots. Their defense was really good.”
You won your first sectional title in 2011 and then again in 2017. How were you a different coach the second time around?
“In both situations, I usually had the best player on the court. I had Josiah Heath who dominated the sectional tournament, just dominated it that year (2011). Nick Doktor was as good a point guard as I’ve ever had. That combination with a lot of guys who filled in proved to be pretty good. When I had Gerald (Drumgoole), a lot of times he was the best player on the court. In the last bunch of years, I’ve tried to have a better relationship with my players. I’ve tried to understand what they’re going through. Not that there’s kids that I get rid of that I’ve kept, but it’s all about helping kids nowadays. I feel that I’ve had a good relationship with my teams the last few years. I regret some of the years that I wasn’t better with the team. I was always looking to win, win, win. Sometimes the by-product of good relationships with your players is winning. That’s the one big thing. I think I’ve been a little more patient. Some guys will come back and go ‘Coach, you’re slacking.’ I’m not slacking, just really patient. I’m an impatient guy as it is. I’ll jump on guys if I need to at practice, but I think I’m a little more patient with them. I try to think before I act a little bit more.”
In your team huddles during timeouts, often there’s not a lot of talking for the first 10 to 15 seconds. What is happening during that period of time?
“A lot of times I’ll ask them what they want to run, so it may be quiet (while they’re thinking). Sometimes I do blitz them a little bit. I yell out at them. I still get on them. I’m trying to get on them more in practice with that being like the homework. The tests are the games, but I’m not a (Fairport head coach) Scott Fitch. No matter what, he’s calm. There are some coaches that are like that. I’m not like that. I’m not that calm. That (waiting for the kids to respond) and the wonderful world of Prozac. I’ve been on Prozac about eight, nine years now. It’s really helped level me off.
“When I ask the team, what would you like to run? They’ll look at me. It’s not like they look at me like I don’t know what to run, but I try to get their opinions on stuff. Before we played Eastridge, we were prepping playing man (defense). But I told them ‘I feel our best defense is zone against this team. Do you agree? They go ‘Oh yeah.’ They’re the ones that are out there. I was more of a task master years ago. Our practices are very organized down to the minute. I am kind of a dictator with that. The assistant coaches know exactly what they’re doing. We’ll break away from it if we have to do, but it’s very structured.”
Winning back-to-back sectional titles at the larger classifications, not many schools can do that. What were the challenges in trying to repeat as sectional champs and ultimately as state champs?
“The first year we were 11-and-O. We had good guys on the team, but I wasn’t having a lot of fun. They just were getting full of themselves. The loss at Victor that year, people say well Zach Stenglein didn’t play that game. Yeah, but Victor was missing Mike Novitsky, the big kid who went to UB for football. They outplayed us. We didn’t shoot well. That set in with those guys that ‘Coach is right.’ That was the challenge in of itself. That team was really focused at the end of the year. Even though the next year Patrick Thomas moved to West Irondequoit and that was obviously a good addition. Having the younger Stenglein (Josh). Freddie June was back and having Gerald. They had a taste of what it was like, and they wanted to taste it again. You’re trying to get a sectional title.
“The guys had the taste of that and they wanted it. They really wanted to do it again. I’m not saying it was easy, but it gave them more perspective of what their goals were. ‘Hey! We can get back. We got Freddie back. We got Gerald back. We got other guys who were on the team. We gave it a good run. We beat West Seneca West, and they were undefeated in football and basketball coming into that game. We go and play Amityville who I thought was really good. They had two thousand-point scorers; one was a 1,500-point-guy. We were ahead in the fourth quarter a little bit, but in the second half we couldn’t make a shot. Give them a credit. Then they went on a three-minute run, and that was all it took. Amityville went on to the next game by 20. We probably ended up being the best competition for them. Those guys wanted to get back there. Guys saw how fun it was to get that, and they wanted to go back. That was their goal, to win states again.”
A lot of coaches have come and gone during your time. What drives you to continue?
“I just love being around the kids and being around basketball. You love to win, but I really enjoy it. I still do my stats by hand. I don’t do the computer programs. I just finished up contacting some coaches for guys. We lost to Eastridge on that Saturday. I was really ready to get back at it the following Wednesday. I wouldn’t do it, but the virus came and now I’m really down in the dumps. I always give the guys a few weeks off.
“I’m sending some workouts to the guys because of the layoff caused by the virus. I usually don’t do too much with them right away. Usually they’re going with AAU. I feel this year I have to go sooner because they’re at home. I don’t want to say they’re rotting away. Probably this week I’m going to send workouts. I can picture some of them doing the workouts and some won’t. That’s part of what we’re going through right now. It’s unique. It’s like years ago and they had all that snow and we had to play the regional game at GCC. We had to play the qualifier at Bloomfield that year. Things happen. I was depressed yesterday because they were saying this current situation could go to July or August. It’s crazy.
“Coaching basketball is my passion. I don’t golf. I don’t play basketball anymore. I don’t play softball anymore. This is what I do. I admit I get tired during the season, but every time I go to practice it’s a lift. It’s a boost to go to practice. I live for practice, really do. I live to go to practice. That’s the part I enjoy the most. The games are fun, but they’re more for the kids. I like seeing the kids improve. I have two great assistants in Dan Foley and Derrick Kemp and then Kyle Trevas doing the JV. A lot of people ask me ‘How much longer?’ When I don’t want to go to practice anymore, that would be the time. I could easily go another 10 years of coaching. I just have that passion for it.”
Thirty-plus years, it’s probably hard to narrow it down. Are there any moments that stand out?
“My son, Cory, passed away in 1999. I had to go tell the team. He passed away on a Monday morning, and I had to tell them we’re still going to have practice. I’m going to miss one day. I told them ‘If you don’t feel like practicing, it’s okay. But don’t do it because of me or Cory. He would’ve wanted you to practice.’ We had practice the next day and then we had to play Fairport in the first round of the Monroe County tournament. End of the week, we’re being honored for number one seed and I couldn’t even go the banquet because I was at the wake. We were the number one seed and yet we have to play an East High team that is loaded: Cameron Arterberry and Brian Jackson. We’re down 10, 12 points with two minutes to go, and we come back to win it. How that happened, I’ll never know. The Mendon comeback (in this year’s Class A semi-final) was amazing. That one was even more amazing. That one stands out.
“We beat McQuaid one year in 1996. They were really good with Chris Fox and Cade Lemcke. We beat them at home. That was a really good win. First time we got to the Blue Cross Arena in 1994; that was huge. First title game in 2006, we had never played in one, to be able to coach in one. A lot of good memories.”
You mentioned Cory. How has his passing shaped your coaching?
“He was born with some medical problems. He wasn’t going to be able to play. He was a manager of the eighth-grade team. When I’m not getting the guys’ best efforts, that’s what bothers me because I had a son who would have begged to play, would have begged to be on a team and couldn’t physically do it. When I see guys that have the ability but aren’t putting forth the effort, that’s what bothers me.
“I also feel for the underdog. I kept 17 guys this year. One of the players was the last guy on the JV team two years ago and he didn’t come out last year. He came up to me in the summer and said he wanted to come out for the team. I told him ‘it’s really going to be hard. We got guys coming back, JVs coming up. You haven’t played in a year. You were one of the last guys on the team.’ The kid came to everything. Everything, I’m not saying I can do that every year, but I just saw something in him that it would so much to be on the team and it would mean a lot to his fellow teammates to have him on the team.
“I’m glad I kept him. It’s hard with 17. We had 19 at the sectional finals. I pulled two kids up from the JV. I’ve always rooted for the underdog, and that’s where Cory comes in. I think about what he was able to achieve in his short life and how he loved life, loved sports and loved Irondequoit basketball. I bring him into perspective. We have the Cory Cardon Tournament every year. I try to use his story to put into perspective how lucky you guys are to be on a team and to be able to play in front of people.”
The support that you’ve had from Rox (wife). How has that impacted your career?
“Rox is the best wife a guy could have, especially a basketball coach. Back in the day, Tim Mabb and I we were coaching three sports. We were teaching. We were getting our Master’s and I had a sick kid at home along with our daughter. To be able to do what I did and then still play in a basketball league or two and softball in the summer, she’s the best. She’s the number one assistant. She might think she’s the head coach (I think she thinks she’s the head coach when we win). She really has a good feel for the game. The support that I have from her when I talk about every good program whether it’s sports or whatever, it has to have a solid base. She makes up a lot of that solid base. I come home and have great dinners waiting for me. She knows how I am. When the season ends, she knows that I’m usually in a depression and I’m asking what’s wrong with me. She goes ‘You’re depressed because the whole thing came to an end.’ She understands that. She bears all the emotions of winning and losing for 30-plus years. She’s right there with me, number one sidekick.”
For 30 years, Tim Mabb was your JV and assistant coach. What did it take for you and Tim to collaborate for so long?
“We both loved working with kids and were very competitive. We hated to lose more than we liked to win. Tim Mabb is as loyal a person as I have known.”
You’ve coached against two former players (Rashaad Stokelin and Kyle Trevas – when he has head coach at Spencerport). What was that like?
“It’s not fun. It’s not fun. I did it first against Kyle. That was really hard. Kyle had played for us. He was a junior high coach for two years and our assistant for seven. Just coaching-wise, he was with me nine years. Now I have to go coach against him. It was hard because you don’t want to cheat the kids, but at the same time you want to play with class and stuff. We had better teams than he had when we played.
“When I played against Rashaad, I had no satisfaction. I was glad we won the game, but I had no satisfaction beating one of our guys. Once you’re one of our guys, you’re always one of our guys. I have a lot of respect for Rashaad. He’s mature beyond his years. I wish I was as patient as he is. He puts a lot of stuff in perspective. He’s ahead of his time when it comes to inter-personal communication with kids.”