Though you won’t find any of the fans at Carnesecca Arena in Jamaica, home of the St. John’s Red Storm, donning ’s number 31 jersey, there’s a good chance that every spectator has something to learn from this Redman’s story.
It’s a story of perseverance. A story that encourages athletes and nonathletes alike to never give up on their dreams — big or small — and teaches us that with the right mindset in life, anything is possible.
“I wrote this book, really, to motivate people,” Billy Mitaritonna tells the Press of his story as a St. John’s Basketball walk-on, Last of the Redmen. “I did this to show kids and parents that failure is OK, it’s important to fail in life on your way to success.”
Mitaritonna can now put his feet on his desk at Half Hollow Hills West High School, where he still teaches social studies, and reflect on the 17 successful years he spent building the school’s basketball program from the ground up. While under Mitaritonna’s tutelage, the Hills West Varsity Boys Basketball team won four Suffolk County AA Championships, and won back-to-back Long Island championships in 2010 and 2011.
“He knows how to form relationships with people, and in sports, that’s really important,” says Steve Atkinson, the current Hills West Varsity Hoops coach who was Mitaritonna’s assistant for seven years. “How he dealt with players…he knew when to and when not to. He always had the pulse of the team and that’s an incredible talent.”
Mitaritonna’s love for the game stemmed from his relationship with his father, Angelo, who had a background in NCAA and semi-pro hoops during the 1950s. Angelo used sports to teach valuable lessons to his son that have endured time like waxed hardwood. Basic lessons like believing in yourself and treating others around you with respect laid the foundation for his son’s life story turned memoir.
“My father would make one statement and ask one question on the way home from games: ‘I really enjoyed watching you today, did you have fun?’” Mitaritonna says.
That sort of levelheaded guidance helped Mitaritonna deal with the ups and downs that life threw his way, and become a well-decorated basketball coach in the process.
As a basketball lover who attended Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, Mitaritonna was cut from the school’s prestigious hoops program in his freshman and sophomore years when he went out for the team. As a junior, and with the reality of a super-talented roster staring him in the face, Mitaritonna took on a new challenge: He was brought in as the team manager. Under the guidance of the legendary high school basketball coach Jack Curran, Mitaritonna soaked in all he could.
Mitaritonna then attended Westbrook College in Portland, Maine. He made the division III basketball team as a freshman despite the fact that he did not play one minute of high school basketball. When he moved back home to Queens for personal reasons, Mitaritonna wondered where his love of the game would take him next. This was where his underdog story came full circle — he joined the St. John’s Redmen, a powerhouse division I basketball program, as a manager.
Due to a swath of injuries, Mitaritonna was permitted to try out for the team as a walk-on. After making the official roster Mitaritonna was traveling to away games with the team, participating in practices, and of course was given the opportunity to step onto the hardwood as a member of the team he followed as a young boy in six contests during the 1993-94 season.
“Bill was never the superstar but he was the quintessential team player,” Hills West Baseball coach Tom Migliozzi, who has worked alongside Mitaritonna at Hills West for 20 years, told the Press. “This life experience lets him understand the kids who may struggle with playing time.
“During practice he gives those kids opportunities to play the game they love,” Migliozzi continues. “He yells positive stuff, makes a big deal of every positive thing these kids do … it makes them feel good.”
As his coaching career unfolded, Mitaritonna was able to translate his personal experiences as a young player into lessons for players he coached.
“Maybe a big part of it was that I wasn’t that good,” Mitaritonna says. “Maybe it’s good for kids to look at themselves and say ‘I need to go practice more. I need to get better. I tell my son now, ‘Do you want to be the best player in 7th grade, or the best player in 12th grade?’”
Mitaritonna formed a reputation for putting fun first and expressing mutual respect. Those are lessons that can be applied to all aspects of life, even outside of the gym.
“The most important thing about Bill is that he is the ultimate players’ coach,” says Migliozzi.
“He is not only a role model for these kids, he is a confidant, and does this while maintaining his authority. He wears his passion for camaraderie on his sleeve. He laughs with his team as hard as he competes with his team. This is an art, not a coincidence.”