By Andrew Wroblewski
Two years ago, during the 2013 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, Hall of Fame basketball coach Rick Pitino, formerly of Bayville and the current University of Louisville coach, called out his home region for what he said has been a recent downswing in the production of homegrown basketball talent on Long Island.
Noting that the region in the 1970s and 1980s produced Hall of Famer Julius Erving, two-time NBA all-star Randy Smith and three-time NBA champion Mitch Kupchak, Pitino said the Island just hasn’t matched its past production.
The statement caught the attentionof Tom Femminella, a Massapequa native who is Massapequa High School’s all-time leading scoring and played college ball for Catholic University in the mid-2000s before going on to coach at Hofstra University and then Ward Melville High School. There he helped produce the school’s first ever NCAA Division I basketball player, Gabe Brown (American University).
With a playing and coaching history engrained in Long Island, Femminella believes he can help address Pitino’s claim and he believes he can do it with the team he’s assembled as the new head basketball coach for Upper Room Christian School in Dix Hills.
This winter, Femminella will lead the Royals – made up players from Long Island and across the globe – through an East-Coast-spanning schedule in hopes of breeding a basketball culture based in hard work and teamwork that will “get the youth around the community, around here, to be excited about the game and to realize the opportunities that it can give to them.
“We’re only going to be as successful as these guys are once they leave this school. Hopefully, we have a lot of fun in the building, get a lot of wins. But we want to have a lot of kids who are getting scholarship opportunities so that it raises the level of basketball, not just here at the school, but on Long Island altogether,” said Femminella, 33. The coach is also a computer science and health teacher at Upper Room, which is a K-12 private school founded in 1981 200 students enrolled.
“This doesn’t happen everywhere. We’re a tiny school trying to do big things.”
The tiny school has joined the newly-assembled North American Christian Athletic Conference, which consists of eight schools in total. With school-provided and raised funds, the Royals are set to travel to Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Connecticut and South Carolina during the upcoming season.
There, they’ll face opponents like Saint Benedict's Preparatory School in New Jersey and Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina, which have collectively produced 10 NBA talents in the last 20 years, and participate in showcase tournaments such as DMV Elite in Maryland, which promises to draw media and collegiate attention.
Femminella is hopeful some of that attention will center on the 13 young men he’s assembled for Upper Room’s roster this season, including Stefan Jevdjenijevic, formerly of Serbia, and Osbel Caraballo, formerly of Venezuela.
“I have come all the way from Serbia to get this kind of education and play at this level of basketball in the U.S.,” Jevdjenijevic said. “It is going to be a great opportunity for myself.”
Caraballo echoed the sentiment. “I am very proud to be a student athlete at Upper Room Christian School. This is a great opportunity to development not only my basketball skills under coach Femminella, but also my academic skills. It has been a big change from living in Venezuela, but it has been a positive experience and I’m excited for the future,” he said.
As Caraballo said, the Royals are focused on more than just basketball. Femminella said the school hopes to offer the athletes opportunities past the gym floor.
“Successful alumni,” Femminella said. “That’s what it’s all about. Once the kids get out of here, we have to get them ready for the real world. We’re trying to make this a one-stop-shop.”
Femminella said Upper Room has a tutoring program under teacher Gerry White to shore up ever-important SAT scores and other academic traits necessary to reach the next step in education.
The current next step for the Royals is an exhibition matchup, their first of the season, Nov. 13 at home against SPIRE Institute, of Ohio. Upper Room’s season opener is set for 6 p.m. Dec. 2 at home against Martin De Porres High School, of Rockaway Park.