Manhasset resident Billy Mitaritonna only wanted to do one thing as a kid: play basketball.
Growing up in Rosedale, Queens in the 1980s, Mitaritonna was originally a fiend for baseball, with his mother Mary coordinating umpires for local games and his father Angelo coaching Little League. But it was watching then-St. John’s University player and eventual Olympic gold medalist Chris Mullin on television that inspired him to try shooting hoops in pickup games.
Upon reaching his first year at Archbishop Molloy High School, Mitaritonna tried out for then-coach Jack Curran’s freshman basketball squad, and was cut.
“I wasn’t tall at the time, maybe 5’6, so I went to the drawing board and said, ‘I’m going to get better,'” Mitaritonna said.
The next year, Mitaritonna tried out for Curran’s junior varsity team, and was again cut. He was considering giving up on basketball altogether when his father gave him some advice.
“My dad said, ‘If you love it, don’t put your head between your tail. Go out and prove them wrong,'” Mitaritonna said.
Sixteen-year-old Mitaritonna would be cut in his junior and senior years as well, but continued playing pickup games outside of school.
Luck came through when, in his senior year, college basketball coach Jim Graffam spotted him playing on the blacktop, and recruited him for the team at Westbrook College in Westbrook, Maine.
“I was surprised,” Mitaritonna remembers. “Guys that don’t play in high school didn’t play in college. But I’d gotten stronger, worked on my game a lot. I guess I was a prototypical late bloomer.”
In the fall of 1990, Mitaritonna began playing with Graffam’s team at Westbrook. Soon after finishing his sophomore year, though, surgeries for both of his parents at Winthrop University Hospital led to Mitaritonna transferring to the closer-to-home St. John’s.
“My junior year, all I did when I had the time was play,” Mitaritonna said. “It was how I got my mind off things.”
For his second year as a transfer, Mitaritonna took a chance, tried out for St. John’s varsity basketball team, and was named a Redman.
“It was amazing to me,” Mitaritonna said. “I was going from never playing in high school to being a walk-on at St. John’s!”
As the only walk-on player in the 1993-94 season, Mitaritonna played in six games, once at the urging of some of his friends from Queens.
“I had a couple of friends who were in the stands,” Mitraritonna said. “And when they saw me on the bench, they began a chant saying ‘We want Bill!'”
Coach Brian Mahoney put Mitaritonna in, and the friends kept coming.
“Every time I took a shot and missed, they gave me a standing O,” Mitaritonna said.
After graduating from St. John’s with a degree in sports management, Mitaritonna briefly returned to Archbishop Molloy as a substitute teacher, and was invited by Curran to coach basketball alongside him.
“Curran told me that in his 55 years of coaching, I was his ‘greatest mistake,'” Mitaritonna said, chuckling.
Mitaritonna later began coaching the varsity basketball squad at Half Hollow Hills High School West in Dix Hills, where his team won two Suffolk County championships and one Long Island championship, and was ranked #1 in the state in 2010.
The same year, Mitaritonna was honored by Newsday as High School Basketball Coach of the Year, and retired from high school coaching to focus on his family.
“I miss my relationships with my players,” Mitaritonna said. “I don’t miss the late nights, of course, but I still miss them.”
A Manhasset resident for 17 years, Mitaritonna lives with his wife and three children, and is entering his 21st year as a history teacher at Hills West. About the same time that he left coaching, his father Angelo suggested that he put his career in writing.
“At Christmas dinner, my dad told me, your story is pretty inspirational,” Mitaritonna said. “And that’s when I decided to write a book.”
It took several years for Mitaritonna to write the book, but his fire was ignited when Angelo died two years ago.
“I said at the time, ‘I know what the end of the book is now,'” Mitaritonna said. “It’s a tribute to him and all my coaches.”
November of 2018 saw Mitaritonna self-publish “Last of the Redmen: Memoirs of a St. John’s Basketball Walk-On” on Amazon, and since then, he said, he’s enjoyed living an author’s life. He was even honored last month by Schneps Media as a King of New York, alongside luminaries like NBC anchor Chuck Scarborough and Toys for Tots chairman Major Chuck Kilbride.
Next for Mitaritonna will be a miniature book and speaking tour with Graffam, his former coach at the now-defunct Westbrook, in middle and elementary schools across the state of Maine, telling his story to kids who may be in his place as a cut player one day.
“I get to help kids as a teacher every day, but now I get to help kids who get cut from the team,” Mitaritonna said.
Mitaronna recalled an event a couple of months ago, when some of his sons’ friends in seventh grade were cut from their own school’s basketball team. He sat them down on his couch, and told them not to worry too much about.
“It’s not life and death, but it is important to kids’ development that they learn not to just quit, to come back and persevere,” Mitaritonna said.