Kingston resident and former John A. Coleman Catholic High School JV boys’ basketball coach Les Lombardi was named as one of two conference honorees by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), and will be enshrined in the “MAAC Experience” exhibit at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this month.
As part of the MAAC Basketball Honor Roll event, Lombardi will join Ron Foxcroft as a conference honoree alongside a male and female alum from each of the conference’s 11 schools.
“It’s really a tribute to all the people that I’ve worked with and built relationships with over the last 30 years of doing this,” Lombardi said. “It’s significant because basketball has been a great part of my life, and to be in the basketball hall of fame in any way, shape or form is a real honor.”
Lombardi grew up in Poughkeepsie and played basketball for Cathedral Prep in Queens before heading home for college. After playing at the JV level at Marist College, Lombardi was cut from the varsity program by Ron Petro, who would go on to become his friend and mentor. During college, Lombardi helped Petro, and also helped revitalize a CYO basketball program at Mount Carmel Church in Poughkeepsie; as a kid, CYO basketball was a crucial component to Lombardi’s own love of the game.
“I played CYO ball when I was in the 7th and 8th grade,” he said, “That’s what started my real interest in the game.”
Lombardi earned the Cardinal Spellman Award for the Outstanding Graduate from Marist, and his first job after college in 1969 was as an English teacher at Coleman, where he took on his first basketball coaching job and also coached track and field. Lombardi was also instrumental in helping introduce new educational technology to the school, like videotaping. During his four years at Coleman, Lombardi helped the JV team to an undefeated season, simultaneously earning his master’s in secondary education at SUNY New Paltz. He also took courses at the British Summer Institute at Oxford University.
“That was great,” Lombardi said of his time at Coleman. “Not many people coming right out of college get an opportunity to coach at the high school level, and I had a great experience at Coleman. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about the game and more about the coaching side of it.”
Lombardi headed south next, where he taught and coached varsity boys’ basketball at Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland; within five years, the team had amassed two consecutive AA County titles and had won the Maryland State AA Championship. Lombardi’s success earned him the role of the coach of the Capital All-Stars in the 1978 McDonald’s Capital Classic, the first time the local team had ever beaten the overall U.S. All-Stars. Lombardi remains a part of the McDonald’s All-American games today.
College called for Lombardi next, and he spent the next seven years as head coach of the NCAA Division III Delaware Valley College’s varsity men’s basketball program in Doylsetown, Pa. He also taught speech and mass communications at the college, was the head of the Liberal Arts Cultural Program, and was the director of residence life for two years.
In 1987, fellow Coleman alum John Stote, chose Lombardi to lead “The Rock” team at Anaconda Sports, where he helped spread the word about the brand and the game, and helped organize the annual Shootout Party at every Final Four of the Great Alaskan Shootout, an annual basketball tournament hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage every Thanksgiving.
But while Alaska may seem very far away, Lombardi’s influence in the game goes much further. In 2005, Lombardi’s wife, Mary Ann, was teaching in Ireland as a Fulbright Scholar. Lombardi took the opportunity to found the international exchange program Hoops Across the Ocean, which brought teams from Ireland and China to Kingston, where they live with host families and learn the game of basketball.
“Girls’ and women’s basketball is actually more advanced in Ireland than boys’ basketball, because the girls don’t have the pressure to play rugby, hurling and those sports,” Lombardi said. “It was a really, really rewarding experience, because both the Irish and the Chinese just wanted to learn the game, and they recognize that Americans know the game better than they do. And I think it’s the opportunity to come to the States and work on the skills and the drills that they wouldn’t be exposed to over there. With the recent Olympics we saw the world’s improvement. I think one of the things that impressed me is that when we started to get involved with the Chinese coming over, more people in China play basketball than there are people that live in the United States.”
Lombardi said he’s always valued his time coaching basketball.
“I think it’s one of the purest forms of teaching,” he said. “There’s no real textbook, and your performance is evaluated by your execution.”
He added that coaching in 2016 is quite different than it was when he started over four decades ago.
“It’s completely different today,” he said. “It takes a certain kind of dedication to be an athlete, and I don’t want to call them distractions, but there are a lot of other ways that kids today can consume their time, so to speak, unfortunately. High school sports has suffered. And we start kids so early in youth organizations that sometimes they get burned out by the time they get to high school.”
Lombardi said one of the youngest members of his family, his grandson Nicholas, is a big basketball enthusiast.
“My grandson, we call him our all-star recruit,” he said. “He’s 6 years old and he really just loves the game. We really haven’t pushed him, but he’s a good athlete and he loves Villanova. He can do play-by-play of Villanova games.”
As for the MAAC Experience experience, Lombardi — no stranger to technology — said each of the inductees will have a video tribute in their honor.
“It’s really pretty cool,” he said, adding that he plans to have a big local crowd on hand for the October enshrinement.
“We’re hoping with all my in-laws and outlaws and friends in Kingston we’ll be running a bus over for the event,” he said.