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Coaches, former players make final trips to unique North Catholic gym

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 10:06 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
North Catholic played North Hills on Don Graham Court on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, at North Catholic. This is the final season at the high school in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill neighborhood,. The school relocates to Cranberry next year.

The overhead lights seemed dimmer and the wood floor may be darker, but otherwise the old North Catholic gym looked like Buzz Gabos always remembered.

“That place means so much to me,” said Gabos, a 1988 graduate who visited his alma mater for the first time in more than a decade when his North Hill basketball team traveled to Troy Hill two days before Christmas.

It was an emotional experience, he said, realizing that the visit likely could be his last.

Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic will move to its new Cranberry campus before next season, leaving behind a historic gym that for decades has been home.

“I understand (the move),” said Gabos, noting that the shrinking school played Class AAAA basketball when he graduated. “… But the place just has so much character. And not just the gym, the whole building itself. It's a beautiful building.”

This final basketball season on Troy Hill has grown rather sentimental, said North Catholic basketball coach Dave Long, a 1970 graduate whose extended family has become synonymous with the school. That finality has drawn alumni who want to visit the school and its quirky gym one last time.

“I always enjoy the interaction with former players telling old North Catholic stories,” Long said. “Sometimes I'm almost sad that the game's about to begin, because I look out into the auditorium stands and see someone who played here 20 or 25 years ago. I would prefer to just sit down and chat for a half an hour.”

Long has coached basketball at North Catholic for more than 30 years, first as Don Graham's assistant and then as head coach. This season's lineup should contend for the Section 2-A title. Yet, Long isn't certain he'll follow the team to Cranberry; he has five young granddaughters who also keep him busy nowadays.

“If I don't coach another game (after this season), God blessed me with more games than any coach should be allowed to coach,” Long said. “If it's meant to be, then I'll be back on the sideline. North Catholic is going through a great deal of change. At times I think to myself, maybe it would be good for the program to be under somebody else's tutelage for the future.”

But he admits it wouldn't take much to keep him coaching.

“I'm already getting grief for even entertaining the idea that I possibly won't be coach,” said Long, a retired teacher. “I don't know personally whether I could live without it. You do things for so long, I don't know what life would be like without.”

Mars coach Rob Carmody, a 1990 graduate who played and coached at the school, brought his team to visit North Catholic last Saturday. The Planets have been regulars at the Don Graham Classic, with Carmody there to honor his former coach.

“There was a wave of memories of being there as a player and coach and student,” Carmody said. “I was someone who took a lot out of there, and that was the last time I was going to be there in a situation that was competitive. It was definitely an emotional moment. It has a very special place in my heart.”

When North Hills visited Dec. 23, North Catholic used that night to honor its state championship football team. The larger-than-usual crowd, which watched the victory bell ring, was dotted with familiar faces.

“It was a zoo,” Gabos said. “It really was a great atmosphere.”

Gabos hadn't visited since he was coaching Vincentian Academy and the two schools would scrimmage. That was more than a decade ago. He never asked to schedule North Catholic because he didn't want either team to lose, he said. It was former athletic director Dan Cardone who added North Catholic to this year's schedule.

“He said he thought I'd want to go up there before they closed the place,” Gabos said. “It was a great night, just to go back one last time.”

The WPIAL has no other gym quite like North Catholic's, which is a converted auditorium. The court once ran widthwise across the stage until rows of wooden seats were removed and the platform was extended.

“You grow an even stronger attachment (to the gym) because of the uniqueness,” Long said. “It's just not your regular, run of the mill high school facility. And it has a great deal of history.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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