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The Butler Did It: I’m not that nice a guy says Ingenito

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It’s late afternoon Friday and Jerry Ingenito is exactly where he wants to be, sitting on a cold metal folding chair in drafty Fitzgerald Gymnasium running the first hour of practice for the Queens College men’s basketball team.

The Sunnyside native is in his element doing what he does best, teaching the Knights a motion offense drill.

“Get a layup or a shot late in the clock,” Ingenito said.

In a monotone voice, Ingenito repeats the phrase, which sounds almost like a religious chant in his unmistakable New York accent.

Queens College coach Kyrk Peponakis stands away from the court watching the guru go. It’s something he’s done for nine years, but this year he has a bit more of an appreciation for his volunteer assistant coach affectionately known as “Ing.”

That’s because Ingenito has had it tougher than most.

After temporarily losing his sight from complications from then recently diagnosed diabetes — known as diabetic retinopathy — toward the end of 2002, he was on dialysis for three months, had a kidney transplant, had a heart stent implanted, lost several fingertips after circulation problems in his right arm and had a “mini-stroke.”

All told, Ingenito had 13 procedures.

But there he was Friday, running drills.

“Get a layup or a shot late in the clock,” he said.

“I never feel bad for him because he would hate me if I did, but you have to respect everything that happened to him,” Peponakis said. “He doesn’t have to, but he does it because he wants to and he loves to do it.”

Because of his failing health last year, Ingenito had to walk away from the sport that has become such a huge part of his life for the past 30 years.

Eight years as the associate head coach of the men’s team and after leading the women’s program out of the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference basement as the Lady Knights head coach, Ingenito had to give it all up.

At the young age of 43, Ingenito had to also retire from his full-time engineering job, although Peponakis says teaching basketball is his true calling.

“You make a commitment and I was trying not to walk away,” Ingenito said. “A lot of the kids who came here, I know they came here for me and it’s hard to tell them you can’t do it. I had to walk away from everything.”

For the players he coached — and so many from his CYO days, to his days as a freshman and junior varsity coach at Christ the King to the Queens College years, are still a part of his life — it was difficult to see Ingenito not in the gym.

“Last year when he was really not well I think it actually had an effect on me personally as a family member being sick,” said Erin Dollard, a senior forward on the women’s basketball team. “I think it makes you stronger. He’s built a lot of character in me in the four years I’ve been here.”

But Ingenito never looked for sympathy, and his self-deprecating humor never wavered.

“The one thing about him is he’s always been upbeat about everything. I don’t remember one time when he said, ‘when is this going to stop?’” Peponakis said. “Jerry’s whole thing has always been, ‘what’s God going to do to me next?’ And that’s even before his sickness, with everyday life, and you laugh.”

They first met in the late 1980s when Ingenito was coaching the freshmen team at Christ the King and Peponakis was an assistant freshman coach at St. Francis Prep.

Largely responsible for the development of such future stars as Derrick Phelps, Khalid Reeves and “Speedy” Claxton, Ingenito led the Royals to four freshman city titles and, as an assistant for longtime head coach Bob Oliva, won a varsity city title as well in 1989.

A year after leaving Christ the King to concentrate on his engineering job, Ingenito found himself back in basketball as an assistant coach for Peponakis, then an interim coach after Norm Roberts left for Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.

“Steven Amenta came up to me and said he was going to Queens,” Ingenito said of his close friend, who was a standout at Christ the King. “And this lunatic (Peponakis) had him recruit me and I said OK, I’ll give it a shot.”

After a slow start — the team was 0-7 and both coaches were apologizing to each other — Queens won 11 of its last 17 games and made the NYCAC tournament for the first time.

The two, along with assistant coaches Wayne Zweigbaum and Kirk Liddlelow, helped build Queens into one of the top teams in the NYCAC as the Knights went to the NCAA tournament in two of the last three years.

“What he’s shown me is how much he loves doing it,” said junior forward John Sikiric. “Even if he can’t contribute as much as he’d like to, just coming back and helping out means the world to everybody.”

But Ingenito wasn’t done there. He took over the floundering women’s basketball program at Queens in 1998.

“I love challenges. People say you can’t, you want to prove you can, but that was real tough,” said Ingenito, who credits former CYO coaches Tom Conroy and Vince Barbieri as early coaching influences. “I know those kids worked really hard. I’m not the easiest guy to work with but we won, quicker than I thought, too.”

But after the 2002 season, he had to leave Queens to battle diabetes, a disease that affects about 16 million Americans.

That’s when things started going down hill for Ingenito.

“Every doctor I saw said, ‘oh, if I saw you a month ago.’ It all came up at once,” Ingenito said. “I was going to my diabetes doctor and they were doing blood work and they recommended I see a kidney doctor. I go to him and he said I’d eventually have to do dialysis.”

Ingenito asked about the possibility of a kidney transplant, but the waiting list in New York for a living donor is about seven years.

“It’s incredible how lucky and blessed I am. I never had to ask anybody. I had all the ideas and the information, but I didn’t know how to go up and ask someone, ‘hey, can I have a kidney?’” he said. “My family all went in and got tested, (close friend) Lenny (Bishop) went in, kids who I coached. It’s a very touching thing. It’s overwhelming. I’m not that good a guy.”

Eventually he would get a kidney transplant, from his sister “Cookie,” on July 24, 2003.

But Ingenito wasn’t out of the woods yet. He had a stent inserted into his heart, had several fingertips amputated after temporarily losing circulation in his right arm and then suffered a stroke in the late summer.

But a few weeks later, he was back in the gym.

“I remember he came back and I thought, ‘this guy is crazy,’” said senior guard Gary DeBerry. “It just shows you how much he loves the game and that he loves to teach.”

Added Peponakis: “It’s like the mafia. Just when he thought he was out, we pulled him back in. He’s had probably the toughest year of anyone I know, but he gets life up there.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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