Royals prepare for hoops season without Oliva

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Joe Arbitello is the head coach of the Christ the King boys’ basketball team – for now.

Arbitello, the school’s athletic director, is taking over for longtime coach Bob Oliva, who has been diagnosed with a heart ailment that resulted in a hospital stay last month.

Although there has been no official announcement – Arbitello hasn’t been named the interim coach and Oliva hasn’t made a decision on his coaching future – the 31-year-old is filling in for Oliva, who has a record of 549-181 in 27 years.

“This is a program and Bob Oliva always ran it like a program,” Arbitello said. “From freshman to JV to varsity, we all kind of did the same thing, so things aren’t going to radically change. I’m going to add a little bit of my own thing to it and if it is successful, we’ll keep it.”

Oliva, who coached several NBA players, including Lamar Odom and Speedy Claxton, faced accusations earlier this year of sexually abusing a minor 30 years ago. He denied the claim and no charges have been filed. His supporters, including two members of Christ the King’s board of directors, Thomas Ognibene and state Sen. Serphin Maltese, strongly backed Oliva.

The Royals, who lost to Holy Cross in last year’s CHSAA Class AA intersectional final, started practicing Nov. 1, but they did it without Oliva, who hasn’t returned since the accusations and his heart ailment.

“It’s a little different that Mr. O is not here,” senior guard Sean Johnson said. “But it’s the same, same team, same coaches this year.”

Arbitello, who said he speaks to Oliva daily, has been coaching at Christ the King for 13 years, almost immediately after graduating from the Middle Village school in 1995. He played for Oliva and was named a “non-playing captain” of the team that won the city championship in 1995.

“I was a pretty realistic kid,” Arbitello said. “I saw that Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton and Erick Barkley were on the team and I knew I was never going to play.”

Arbitello went to St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, but served as a junior varsity assistant under Artie Cox. He’s also been an assistant for Oliva, a varsity ‘B’ head coach and the girls’ JV coach at Christ the King, where he’s worked full time for the past nine years.

“This is it for me,” Arbitello said. “Unless Duke comes in here and offers me the head coaching job there, I’m not looking to be anyone’s assistant coach, St. John’s or Manhattan or anything like that. I’m here and I plan on staying here for the next 20 years even if I’m not the boys’ basketball coach.”

Arbitello said he didn’t anticipate taking over for Oliva, certainly not with his wife, Veronica, pregnant with the couple’s first child. She is due Nov. 23, three days before the Royals’ first game of the season.

“To say this is something I wanted at this particular time in my life? No, this is not what I wanted,” he said. “Am I happy to have it? Sure. After Nov. 23 am I going to be happy to have it? I guess we’ll see.”

Helping make the transition seamless are assistant coaches Artie Cox, Greg Lemko and Derrick Phelps.

“I coached with Artie for eight years and I think he’s a great offensive game coach and the defensive principals and the skill work Greg does is great and nobody can ask anything more from Derrick Phelps,” Arbitello said. “I have a lot of confidence in those guys and my job is really easy, because I have them.”

Arbitello said he addressed Oliva’s situation in the first meeting with the varsity team – “It took two minutes,” he said – and Arbitello immediately told the team that, in his role as athletic director, he is taking over Oliva’s duties for the immediate future.

“I’m going to make the decisions and my decision is to let these guys take a little bit more of an active role out there,” he said of his assistant coaches. “They’re great at what they do. I couldn’t ask for a better staff.”

Arbitello said, despite Oliva’s absence, expectations remain high for the Royals, who lost Erving Walker (Florida) and Ryan Pearson (George Mason) to graduation.

The first test comes in three weeks against South Shore.

“I think about it a lot,” Arbitello said of his first game. “I’m not worried about winning and losing. I just want to make sure the kids play hard and we do what we always do.”

Posted 6:38 pm, October 10, 2011
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