Anyone who has watched a high school basketball game at De La Salle will have noticed an inscription on the gymnasium wall that reads: “We will play anybody, any place, at any time.”
That was the mantra of legendary coach Johnny Altobello for whom the athletic complex is named.
It was scribed into the rally cries of the two New Orleans Catholic schools he coached and whose roundball histories he carved.
Although De La Salle did not have a gym of its own during the early days of Altobello’s tenure from 1953-70, the Cavaliers considered their home court any place they played.
That came to mind when watching De La Salle and Brother Martin compete in the Allstate Sugar Bowl “Marsh Madness” state tournament in
Lake Charles last week.
Under head coach/principal Paul Kelly, the Cavaliers defeated the Nos. 2 and 1 seeds, St. Thomas More (62-61) and University Lab (81-69), respectively, to win the Division II championship.
Under Altobello, De La Salle captured four state championships. It won a fifth in 1968 under coach Jimmy Tillette.
To a degree, Altobello has also influenced Brother Martin basketball history. There are memorabilia that link the Gentilly school to Altobello’s first head coaching job at St. Aloysius.
A Warren Easton graduate who went on to star at Loyola New Orleans, Johnny interviewed for two coaching jobs: at St. Aloysius and at Jesuit.
“There was no difference between the pay and benefits at either school, so I asked Merle (Mrs. Altobello) what she thought,” he said in an interview before his death in 2009.
The coach said she told him, “John, you’re an Easton man. Jesuit has been your archrival. Go to St. Aloysius.”
He did and took the somewhat successful Crusaders’ basketball program to new heights. Under Altobello, St. Aloysius won six city and four state championships. His 1948-49 and 1950-51 teams were undefeated.
At the two schools, Altobello posted a personal record of 589-92. His successful baseball teams at the two schools put him over the 1,000-win mark.
He retired from coaching one year after St. Aloysius and Cor Jesu merged to become Brother Martin.
Under four coaches – Andy Russo (1970 and 1971), Tom Kolb (1974), John Lavie (2004 and 2005) and Scott Thompson (2010) – Brother Martin has won six state championships, and nearly added a seventh last week under Chris Biehl, an outstanding young mentor.
While De La Salle ended its 31-year drought, Biehl’s Crusaders fell one win and one point short of adding a seventh title when it lost to No. 1 seed Scotlandville, 53-52, in the Division I final.
In an unusually low scoring victory over Gentilly rival St. Augustine, Biehl completely changed the Crusaders’ game plan from a furious in-your-face to a slower ball-control attack.
St. Augustine coach Mitchell Johnson was happy to oblige. His Purple Knights also ran a competent motion offense.
The results were unusual for both. In a game decided by a free throw in overtime, the Crusaders hit just 22.5 percent of their field goals (9-of-40) and were 1-for-14 from beyond the 3-point line. St. Aug was 13-of-34 (38.2 percent) but committed 15 fouls.
The critical mistake came at the end of regulation play when Bryson Celestine fouled Martin freshman Davonn Moore with 3.3 seconds on the clock. Although admittedly nervious, Moore hit the two free throws to send the game into overtime, tied at 30.
The outcome came via another free throw by Martin’s Vejon Wallis with .3 left after the Purple Knights allowed the Crusaders to freeze the ball through most of the extra period.
Free throws also determined the outcome of the championship game, but Brother Martin was the perpetrator and lost to No. 1 Scotlandville by a point.
The Crusaders bowed out with a 21-8 record, but De La Salle, which defeated St. Thomas More, though outscored in all but one period, took home a division title and a 30-win season.
The team’s strength was the versatility of its starters and team depth. Eight players saw at least 10 minutes of action against the Cougars, whom they outscored, 28-13, in the deciding third period to take a 47-41 lead. It proved to be too much to overcome.
Thirteen 3-point baskets were the difference in the finals against a favored University.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.