St. Joseph basketball coach Gene Pingatore has won more than 900 games in his 44-year career, putting him in an elite class with Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim and Marshall's Dorothy Gaters.
So it is obligatory to ask him to select the All-Pingatore team, the five best players he has produced. Of the more than 60 Division I players, who were best of all, his all-time starting lineup?
"Isiah Thomas and Tony Freeman are the guards. There is no question about that," he said. "Evan Turner is another. I had three high school All-Americans--Isiah, Daryl Thomas and Deryl Cunningham. So Daryl and Deryl would fill out the starting five."
The bench would be filled with All-Staters, including Ken Williams, Tony Reeder, Marty Clark, Carl Hayes, Brian Molis, William Gates, Gerald Eaker and Brandon Watkins, the star of his 1999 state championship team.
No. 900, achieved against Proviso West in the third round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, wasn't any more special than No. 700 or No. 800. He talked to Knight, his good friend, at the end of October but the subject never came up. "We don't talk about things like that," Pingatore said.
What was neat, he said, was friends told him that Isiah Thomas had mentioned something about his old coach's milestone on his twitter account. Not being a computer person, Pingatore never saw it.
"After the game, they presented me with the ball and a plaque and congratulated him on winning No. 900," he said. "Former players called. I was just happy we won the game. It was nothing special."
Afterward, Pingatore and a small group of close friends went to J. Alexander's in Oak Brook for a postgame meal. "We always go out to eat after game," he said. Again, nothing special.
But the milestone will be celebrated at a family occasion on a yet-to-be-determined date. From six to 16 family members will toast Gene's achievement "on the first available Saturday when we can get everybody together."
"What does it all mean? When I look at everything, it isn't about Gene Pingatore but about all the people who were part of the program...the great players, the great assistant coaches, staff members, administrators, parents, the fan base...everyone who contributed to 900 victories.
"The day I won No. 900, there were a bunch of fans present who have come to a lot of games. That's what it is all about, memories of all the people who have contributed to the success of the program over the years. I'm the one who still is lasting. But when I'm gone, I hope to leave a program that will continue to be successful."
Pingatore, 76, grew up in Cicero. A 1954 graduate of St. Mel, he was a 5-foot-11 forward on coach Jim Weaver's Catholic League powerhouse with Ed Gleason, Andy Sloan and Mike Caroseli. Together, they stunned the legendary Du Sable team of Sweet Charlie Brown, Paxton Lumpkin and Shellie McMillon 83-74 for the city championship.
He attended Loyola in Los Angeles. After graduation, he decided to coach at the high school level. He wanted to make a name for himself in Chicago, then land a college coaching position. By then, his family had moved to Westchester. He saw a sign posted a block from his home that the Christian Brothers, who also operated St. Mel, were planning to build a high school in his neighborhood. He contacted officials at St. Mel, applied for the job and was hired in 1960.
"I'm still here," he said. "I could have left a number of times. I could have gone to college. Bob Knight asked me four or five times to be his assistant but the timing wasn't right. Every time I had a chance to move, I opted not to do it. I have no regrets."
But he admits, based on the way things are, he isn't sure if he was starting his career today that he could last as long as he has.
"I don't know if kids are different but parents are different," he said. "I've said it for a number of years. Now society is different and that has to affect the kids. There are so many distractions...summer leagues, summer coaches, shoe companies, street agents, AAU, personal trainers, recruiting, outside influences.
"You can't coach kids the way you used to coach them. You have no control over what they will do. I used to have open practices. Now they are closed, no parents allowed. Parents are concerned about their own kids, which is understandable, but their kid is always right and the other kid is always wrong.
"They are concerned with playing time and not getting the ball enough and getting a scholarship to a Division I school. I have dealt with parents who think their kid is better than he is and should play at another level. They don't know how tough it is to play at Division I and stay at that level. And I don't know who is talking to their kid."
It almost didn't come to this. After nine years as an assistant at St. Joseph, after applying for several head coaching positions at other high schools and failing to land any of them, Pingatore planned to leave the school after the 1969-70 season to work for Alden's catalog store as a buyer for sporting goods.
In mid-season, however, head coach Pat Callahan resigned and Pingatore took over. "As a result, I never left. It was a quirk of fate," he said.
"Winning games is one thing but, to me, that would be shallow. It's about the successes of all the kids who came through the program. I get my kicks out of what they have become, how successful they have become, not just the athletes like Isiah, Daryl Thomas and Evan Turner but the doctors and lawyers and businessmen and educators. I'm so proud of what they have accomplished."
It all began when Isiah Thomas enrolled. In his first eight years, Pingatore was no better than a .500 coach. In 1977-78, Isiah, then a junior, and Ray Clark led St. Joseph to a 31-2 record and second place in the Class AA tournament.
Since then, Pingatore's teams have won 20 or more games in 28 seasons. St. Joseph won the state title in 1999, was third in 1987 and fourth in 1984. And he doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Retirement? Are you kidding?
"As long as I still am having fun, I will continue to coach, as long as I feel I can contribute and relate to the kids," he said. "That is an issue. Am I relating to them? Am I communicating with them? Do they understand me? If so, I can stay in it. I feel I can still do it."
Does he think about winning 1,000 games? Only 10 high school coaches have won more than 1,000.
"I think in terms of years, not victories," Pingatore said. "How many more years can I have? I worry about high blood pressure. I think about doing a good job, having fun and being healthy. If one leaves me, I may have to consider retiring. I would like to go four or five more years because of the good kids coming in. But I've always said that. I'm not sure I can look that far ahead."
St. Joseph is struggling. Ranked No. 7 in some preseason polls, the Chargers are 9-7 after losing to Gordon Tech last Friday. They host Leo on Friday night, then meet Hyde Park on Saturday at the Bob Hambric Shootout at Thornton Fractional North in Calumet City. Next weekend, they have dates with Fenwick and Westinghouse.
Pingatore is excited about the potential of sophomores Jordan Ash, Glynn Watson and Joffrey Brown and 6-foot-8 freshman Nick Rakocevic. But sophomores are sophomores and freshmen are freshmen.
"Can you get sophomores not to be sophomores? We have to develop leadership and chemistry," he said. "There are signs it is getting better. We tend to get better in the second half of the season."
How has he changed? Has he changed at all? "Old-timers say I have mellowed, that I'm not as tough as I used to be. But they said that about Bob Knight, to. I don't know if I have changed that much. I'm trying to put in new things. But for the most part, I'm doing the same things I always have done," he said.
"We emphasize defense. And we like to run and get after it. We still run motion. But we need to have control, not just run up and down. We're tweaking the things that we do to make adjustments to how the game has changed. We don't rely on the three-point shot as much as others. We just believe in being professional and respect the game."