So if there was a glaring omission in my WWCS post about teachers, it was these 3: Mr. Lesko, Mr. Michels, and Mr. Fazzari.
There were some subtle oversights from middle school that I realized upon reflection , the biggest of which was Mr. Poole (god rest his soul), senorita Sarah the 6th grade Spanish teacher who was only there for one year, and the ever popular campus minister Mr. Glatt.
But the 1st Triumvirate were not just teachers, they were my basketball coaches and thus, occupy a completely different sphere of influence in my life. (My apologies to Todd Kimble, who would be Cicero to Caesar, Pompeii and Crassus.)
I think every youth coach of any competitive sport starts each season with the proviso “If I get on you, remember it’s not you as a person I’m gettin on, it’s just you as a basketball player, don’t take it personally.” I don’t recall one of these coaches saying that explicitly, but I know it was communicated somehow, because I very specifically had the thought in response, “Well maybe you make a distinction between me the person and me the basketball player, but I sure don’t.” And to this day (yes, this very day when I have not played a meaningful basketball game since Hoopfest 2016, where I literally sprained my ankle walking into the game off a substitution, and have not actually set foot on a basketball court since January 2018) I self identify as a “wanna-be basketball player.” So you can see how my basketball coaches needed their own categorical post apart from my other teachers.
f you watched the WWCS post I tried to emphasize that this wasn’t just school, it was family and religion and therefore the totality of my life all bundled up in a neat little package. In the case of John Lesko that package was very intricate and tightly woven. So he was my 6th grade social studies teacher, and I got student of the year in that class BTW. I remember he taught a religion class somewhere along the way, it was all about the history of the Bible, how it was written etc. He also married into the Magnaghi family, which is significant because the Magnaghi and Daltoso families were business partners in the Walla Walla Sweet Onion business. I worked for my grandpa out sacking onions in the summer and John Lesko as a dutiful son-in -law did the same . In fact I remember my grandpa telling me I was going to be working for him and he wa like “and one of your friends is going to be working out there with us.” That friend was my current teacher John Lesko. So I am in 6th grade and the school basketball coach and my teacher is also picking me up at 5am to go out the onion fields to work for my grandpa.
And at this point he hadn’t ever been my basketball coach except for a brief weekend AAU tournament in Waitsburg when I was 12. That turned out to be the only AAU tourney I ever played in (because Mrs Elrobach “didn’t think I could keep up” with the rest of the Rebels). So by the time I was approaching high school and he became my basketball coach, we were quite well aquatinted. Too well acquainted probably. As a Magnaghi in-law Lesko had coached his brother-in-law Kevin. I remember my grandmother saying one time that it sure would be nice if Lesko could give his brother-in-law Kevin more playing time because he knows how much he wants to play, and that promoted the obligatory guy response from my grandpa and all my uncles about sports being sacrocint from those types of considerations . I mention this because it parallels my own situation. Eerily so. Kevin was a huge basketball fan, even tried calling Michael Jordan on a trip to Chicago. He was a skinny kid who struggled to get meaningful playing time in high school. He would go on to grow up, marry a woman named Christina only a short time before his father passed away, and have sons that rock long locks of fabulously silky hair. On the surface Kevin and I are twins. I don’t know the details of his life story but you are reading mine.
Before I could even get to high school and play for coach Lesko I had to play for Mr. Michels in 7th grade. Mr Michels was an institution. When I got to give out the Mark Daltoso Memorial scholarship in 2016 I commented on how my dad was one of the first students Mr. Michels ever had, which was super relevant as he was about to retire after 40+ years at DeSales. 20 years after he had my dad he started coaching me as a 7th grader. Mr Michels was also the US history and Government teacher. I also took sociology from him, one of my favorite classes of all time. Mr Michels gave quite a bit of extra credit so if you were good you could have a test score of 122/100. I got A’s in his classes. Other people yet to appear in the countdown got like A+++ in his classes, but I digress. He was also the track coach. My mom made me run track my sophomore and junior years for reasons I will probably explore in a future post about my mom being influential in my life. But I hated track. I was slow. I could improve but I felt I was never going to close the gap between me and fast. I would never be a contender to win races outright, and so I really felt I was working really hard for moral victories, because outright victories were out of my grasp (hooray! another PR, but I still crossed the finish line last). This came to a head my junior year when I tried to get out of a race off for the final spot on the 4x400 relay team. That is when Mr Michels and I had a conversation and he said I was an “enigma.” He said he could see me working hard in practice and yet it was pretty obvious I didn’t want to be there, and this didn’t make sense. I wanted to say to him “What’s so hard to understand. I’m competitive! I hate to lose, and every race I run I lose. I can’t stand being in a position where I literally can’t win. It’s frustrating and humiliating. I try hard to get better, but so is all my competition and after all the season I haven’t been able to close that gap. You are competitive yourself. You hate to lose too. What is so hard to understand about that?”
But I didn’t say that. I said nothing. And the reason I didn’t say that was because even then I knew that being competitive is not about hating to lose, it’s about remaining in the game as long as possible to maximize your chance of another victory. It is a love of the struggle to determine a winner, not a love of being a winner. Everyone loves to win. It’s only those that love to fight for those wins that can claim to be competitive. I knew Mr. Michel’s would have nailed me with that. I do consider myself very competitive and my work ethic proved it. But in this case I was the opposite of competitive, I was discouraged. I wanted to win and I was willing to work to win. But I didn’t believe I could win so I wanted to stop trying. That is not being competitive and I knew it. Mr Michels knew it too, so he made me race off with Von anyway. Von won fair and square. I was exhausted and relieved. Not my finest moment as a competitor. Well the rest of the story is that our track team won the State Track and Field Championship that year. I was in one event. the 4x100 relay team that came in last place. I was one of 4 runners that combined to contribute 1 point to our victory total. Now back to basketball...
My 7th grade season under Mr Michels was fairly uneventful. I do remember throwing up from running lines in practice, but overall we won some games, we lost some games. There were a lot of players and it felt like we just got equal time on the court to develop. The only game I really remember was against Mac-Hi. I got like 3 easy buckets in a row in the first half. Put back, a lose ball that rolled out to me wide open, and a backdoor cut. I just remember Coach Michels saying “way to spark us out there Tony!” High praise for me. Immediately following the season I had the first of my 2 hernia surgeries, and I have not done a single sit up since. But I was able to recover and have a decent YMCA league, apart from me botching 2 free throws that could have been my own Pat Barry moment.
Also notable, 7th grade is when I started to film the high school basketball games and I had the managerial side show with Von and Adam. Von was the manager and I was the side show, just playing around being a goof ball on those long road trips often riding in the back of Lesko’s car. Getting tied up in my Jacksonville Jaguars coat was a popular past time. They blamed me for losing the camera in Burbank, but I maintain to this day that it wasn’t my fault.
Then in 8th grade one of the high school assistants, Jamie Wolverton, was the coach. I knew Jamie from filming varsity games last year. Excellent coach. I haven’t really thought about him for 20 yearsI wonder what he’s doing now? Wouldn’t surprise me if he is a D1 coach or assistant Athletic Director somewhere. But the morning of the first day of practice, for the first time in my life, I did not want to play basketball. We practices at 6am before school and my dad was up to take me and I literally just refused to get out of bed. It was weird. The night before I had been excited, but something weird happened. And if there is a measure of insanity Within me this would appear to have been the moment it was released. Was this my “first episode of psychosis.“ Or just a panic attack maybe? Or it might have been Emetophobia: the fear of throwing up. Maybe this was the origin of what I referenced Drew having told me in the WWCS post.
I remember walking into school and peaking in at practice. The team was in the concluding huddle. After dealing with all the “where were you this morning?” comments, coach Wolverton actually cornered me in the hallway and talked to me. I had tried to evade him but Adam Driver, who may or may not appear later in the 40 for 40 countdown, helped corral me into the coach. We talked and ultimately I joined the team.
Was that a good decision? What if I had just bailed on basketball at that point? If I had then maybe I could have developed a personal identity different from the “wanna-be” basketball player I have been for the last 25 years. What would my life be like if it was based on something other than basketball?
Of course there’s no guarantee things would have been any better, or any worse. What I do know is that was a rough season. I got to where I was playing well in practice, but in games I literally had tunnel vision and felt like I was running in quicksand. I think I got most improved at the end of the year, which I thought was funny. If you kick your self off the team to start you set the bar so low that it sure liked like I improved by the end of the year, but in a lot of ways I totally regressed.
To make matters worse, Casey switched schools right after the season and I had to find a new best friend. That hurt me personally and basketball wise, but how I dealt with that is the subject of a future post.
So I get to high school and naturally I don’t make varsity as a freshman. Hell I was on C team most of the time and that was coached by 2 other guys. I think one was Ryan Mikelson (??) who I want to say led the Big 9 in scoring once but I have no confirmation of this. The other guy had been a player at DeSales but I forget his name. Cool guy. Good with Xs and Os. He did make the mistake of making us all rise to attention in the locker room so he could make an “arousing speech” when he should have said “rousing speech” (and I used “rise to attention” as a sexual entandra’ there). I liked both of them as coaches but they were only around for one season. That means my sophomore year I was again on JV but coached by Greg Fazzari.
Mr Fazzari is a saint. Maybe more like an Eastern Orthodox Saint, because although he’s Italian his features and thick black hair say Greek (which makes total sense if you know anything about Mediterranean history and I took AP history from Mr. Sheel so there you go). In fact I remember when we went to Italy in 2000 our tour guide lady literally said “none of you look Italian.” And Mr. Fazzari was like “Oh Yeah, I’m definitely Italian.” But he definitely profiles as Aegean more than Adriatic or Mediterranean at large.
He was passionate and devout in his religious beliefs and he would express them wherever he felt it necessary or appropriate, be that during a prayer service, in a science lab or on the basketball court.
I had Mr. Fazzari for Geometry, and physics. I want to say I had him for a science class as a freshman as well but I don’t know what it would have been. I specifically recall in physics the first day he was talking about conversion of units and he says “now make sure you get this because if you don’t you are going to be lost all year.” I distinctly remember thinking about raising my hand and asking him to go over it again, but then I thought “I think I got this, I’m like 90% with it. But I wasn’t 90% with it. I was 83% with it at most. And within 2 weeks I was lost and I dropped out of AP physics to just regular physics. It was the same class taught by Fazzari but now I was being graded easier, which allowed me to ultimately slide by with a passing grade.
So I actually had high hopes as a sophomore of squeezing in on the end of the varsity bench as a 12th man. The amount of athletic talent in the school at that time was an embarrassment of riches seeing as we were in the middle of a 3 peat in football and like 7 peat in baseball. But nobody liked basketball at DeSales but me, so I had been working on my game while everyone else was playing football. Plus my boy Casey was back at DeSales and we both made each other better whenever we could play together. It was a preseason practice and I was defending Ned Cox in a full court defensive slide drill. I cut him off sliding left and pressed off my left foot to come back right and I felt the unmistakable burning sensation in my groin. No it wasn’t an STD. It was a hernia. My 2nd so I knew exactly what it was. Another injury derailed my season and ended any hope of making varsity. The recovery from surgery is really only a few weeks so I played a few games that year on JV, but I don’t really remember much. I can remember playing in a JV game at home against Asotin late in the year, because Cousin Daniel of the Boardman OR Daltoso clan was in the house. I remember that game mostly because Daniel commented on how vigorously Coach Fazzari was encouraging me to front the post and deny the entry pass. I remember I actually hit a legitimate jump shot off an inbound pass, and I pulled off the Allen Iverson slow spin/behind the back dribble move off of the Reebok DMX commercial. And we won!
I recall that I recovered enough, that late in the season Lesko let me practice with the Varsity a few times. But Varsity went to state that year and I wasn’t able to be a part of it.
So by now all 3 of the triumvirate have coached me to some degree.
My junior year I was getting spot minutes on varsity. But I wasn’t productive. I couldn’t shoot, and I wasn’t the primary ball handler so I was only so useful on offense. And on defense I never would be able to rotate fast enough. But Lesko and Michaels were giving me opportunities and trying to find a role for me. Because I couldn’t rotate help side, they decided to put me on the ball of the other teams top ball handler because we were going to double team him anyway. They also tolerated my propensity to push the ball in transition regardless of if we had numbers or not. It was exciting. No one knew what to expect when I had the ball on the fast break, especially not me.
There was one major incident that year between me and the coaches that is sort of a microcosm of our entire relationship. I can’t even remember who we were playing but I had gotten some spot minutes in the first quarter and did nothing but run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I don’t think I even touched the ball. In the 2nd quarter coach Lesko comes to me and says “You ready to play hard this time?” So I did the quick calculus in my head....
“Hmm, I was playing really hard last time. If he didn’t think that I was playing hard last time, I’m not sure I can play any harder this time than I did last time. I’m sure I can play just as hard but not noticibly harder. Therefore if my last effort = not hard enough,
and this effort= last effort,
then thus by the associative property
this effort = not hard enough.”
So I said “no.” And Lesko say’s “no? NO???!!’” He turns to Michels in disbelief. Michels says “Unbelievable, Just unbelievable!” Then he turns away from me and says in Lesko’s ear “he doesn’t play again the rest of the game.”
The next day I tried to explain my split second calculations and that I didn’t want to let the team down if I couldn’t play hard enough. You got to understand, that throw away line above in parenthesis about how Mrs Erolbach keeping me off the Rebels AAU team because she didn’t think I could “keep up” was a legit concern in the back of my mind. Lesko looked at me with equal parts bafflement and consternation and then with a surprising amount of sympathy said “Look I’m just trying to motivate you. Just say yes next time and play.”
Well I think we had 2 more games and then we went to Touchet. I was getting crunch time minutes in a close game when we were down. And then I went up for a rebound off of a free throw attempt and my own teammate, the robot known as Brian Lindgren, bumped me in the air and my left knee buckled inward just as I was returning to the ground and I sprained my MCL. Of course after the fiasco about playing hard 2 games ago there was no way I could take myself out of the game. So I go through the next trip down the court and actually came off a screen and had a shot that could of tied it up except I was so focused on getting into my shot quickly that I never actually caught the ball and I lost it going up and it literally rolled off my finger and behind me. I was told it looked like I was trying to shoot a trick H.O.R.S.E. shot behind my head at the opposite hoop and the radio announcer was at a loss to express it in words. Well we lost by about 4 points and after the game I had a conversation with our athletic trainer about frozen vegetables. I went to the doctor the next day and they told me I actually tore my MCL.....Not sure how they knew that without an MRI, or why it didn’t require surgery to repair (I knew Charles Barkley had had just such a surgery recently). I suspect insurance issues were in play but that is just a baseless suspicion. At any rate, I went in to tell coach Lesko that my season was over and he said “Yeah it sounds like it.” The rest of that season was me and Keith Michels sitting on the end of the bench next to each other, crying, manly tears, individually.
I don’t think I actually had a conversation with the coaches the rest of the season except for them to comment on the brown and orange snowboard pantsI I wore over my Donjoy knee brace. “Don’t you have any black sweat pants?” was all they had to say to me for weeks.
We reveled in the joy of the Pat Barry miracle 2 free throws with no time on the clock to win our first game at districts. “Ice water in his veins” said Fazzari of the moment. But it was short lived . We lost the next two games to end our season.
The next basketball conversation I had with coach Lesko was about playing point guard next year. I said offensively I was ready, my concerns were purely about guarding super fast 5’ 2” guys in the backcourt.
Then we had our boys basketball meeting to discuss summer practice at the end of the year and coach Lesko announced that he was taking on more administrative duties at the school and would be stepping down as head basketball coach. Fazzari was taking over.
That summer we went to team camp as we always did. I have intentionally skipped over team camp because I know this post is way too long as it is. But there was an exchange between me and Fazzari that I think is critical. The context was coach Fazzari meeting with us senior players. I was having a horrible camp to put it mildly. Anyway, coach Fazzari had made some comments to me previously about comparing 2 players, one scored a lot of points and was flashy and the other was quiet and unassuming, and did all the dirty work, who did I think was the better player? (In 5 years the Spurs would illustrate this to a T with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, unfortunately his reference was too obscure for me to remember). He then made a comment that I felt was accusing me of being a show off and I tried to defend myself by saying “but coach I don’t jump up and down or celebrate or do any of that stuff to call attention to myself.” And then he said “Well you know there is such a thing as calling attention to yourself by not calling attention to yourself...” and I think he went on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas or make a biblical allusion, but I don’t remember because all I heard was “Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t,” and I got mad and said something (I don’t remember what) that got the full Fazzari tongue scourge. The only other time I remember him getting like that was when JC Biagi pulled the Seymour Butts and Hugh Jass attendance joke on the peg-legged substitute teacher (I’m not making that up) and she went to get Mr. Fazzari to restore order. I was really offended but I looked at the other senior players and they just stared at me like “dude, just don’t be a show off.” To this day I still have strong mixed feelings about the whole episode, because it didn’t really end there.
As the season began I heard a lot of “Dammit Daltoso!” Partly because once you start saying it, it just kind of rolls off the tongue, but mostly because of my inability to rotate on defense fast enough to stop anyone. The only skill a player absolutely positively has to have to get into the game is to close out on the defensive rotation. And that was the main thing I was rebuked for, and it was often followed up with an explanation of why I didn’t do it, “Because you’re lazy, selfish , and don’t play for the glory of God.” Again I don’t know that l ever heard Coach Fazzari say the whole it’s not you the person, it’s you the basketball player I’m talking to thing. But I really struggled to not take that as an attack on my personal character.
I had started the first three games of my senior year. We beat Kalotus barely in a game that shouldn’t have been close. We got stomped in Pomeroy because I completely screwed up our pick and roll defense with my inability to show out and recover. Then we lost by 3 on our home court to Waitsburg. I had like 4 traveling violations which got me benched for half the game. But I hit a three to bring us within 1 with a minute left. But I missed a pull-up that would have tied it up with about 20 seconds remaining (I was money with that shot in practice. it was exactly the shot I wanted but it was a little too strong). There was a long scramble for the rebound and they ended up with 2 free throws with only 3 or 4 seconds on the clock. They made the first. And Fazzari called time out and drew up a full court play for me to hit a tying 3 and it worked just as he had drawn it up, except with only a few seconds left on the clock I had to pull from Damien Lillard range, and it was again too strong, off the glass, in and out.
As was my basketball career.
After the pick and roll debacle in Pomeroy on Friday and the 4 traveling violations on Saturday, I was a complete liability on both offense and defense. Fazzari rolled with me as long as he possibly could. He had even given me a legit chance to be a hero and save my spot in the starting lineup, but I had missed the final shot against Waitsburg and he informed me I was being benched at the start of practice the next Monday. And then 10 minutes into practice during a scrimmage, I got what turned out to be a gift. I took off from the left side of the rim, tucked under as Sophomore Derrick Mormarco, who essentially replaced me in the lineup, attempted to defend me. I double clutched and went up and under the right hand side and threw in a reverse layin. It was exactly the type of shot that was undisciplined, flashy and Fazzari hated. I could hear him yelling his disapproval of the shot as I landed awkwardly on my right ankle and rolled it under to the inside. It hurt a lot more than any of the many times I had rolled ankles before. I just sat there stunned and trying not to cry out in pain. “.Oh that’s great just sit there on the ground” Fazzari boomed across the floor. But as he approached he could tell something wasn’t right. He helped me off the court and to the training room. He taped up my ankle and put it on ice. And just like that my basketball career was over. Sure I tried to come back from my ankle Injury But I never played another meaningful minute again. Only some token minutes here and there. And it was only the ankle injury that allowed me to save face. But I knew the truth.
Late in the season, after he had to kick me out of practice for throwing the balll at Brian Hall when he grabbed my gimpy ankle, coach Fazzari stuck a quote on my locker about “the Men on the Bench” I think it was from John Wooden. And I appreciated the gesture, but not the sentiment. He tried to give me a role as a “3 point specialist” but in my mind shooting threes was the 2nd weakest part of my game (#1 was closing out on the defensive rotation obviously). “Why don’t you just give me the role of “shot blocker” I thought as I was probably better at blocking shots from behind than I was at shooting 3s in a game. I felt misunderstood at that point. And that brought me back to “But there is such a thing as calling attention to yourself by not calling attention to yourself,” and “Because you’re lazy, selfish, and don’t play for the glory of God.”
Did I play for the glory of God? No, honestly I did not. I didn’t really think God cared much about sports. But people did.
I played for all the people who were invested in DeSales winning basketball games. That means my teammates, the coaches, and obviously the fans, students, and families in the stands. And when there was no one invested in the outcome I played basketball for the love of the game pure and simple. But I concede that I may have been playing charades when everyone else was playing chess.
I have generally believed that my coaches looked at me and saw what I saw in the mirror: a skinny (sorry, “scrawny”) kid that is accident prone, but has some athleticism with legit playmaking talent who struggles to follow direction and is slow to react. I wasn’t “Deployable.” I could not be put into the game strategically like a chess piece where you knew what you would get from me in a given situation. I was a wildcard that you played saying “let’s see what happens.” I think all coaches would agree “let’s see what happens” is not a winning strategy.
Then again I have on occasion wondered if maybe my 3 coaches all gave me much more credit as a player than I realized and I just didn’t seize it by going out and producing. In the absence of production a coach is forced to make specific requirements and demands. But production kind of trumps all. Maybe I just didn’t see what they did and so I didn’t produce like they expected, and they had to try and get something out of me, but didn’t really know how.
What can I say, Lesko, Michels and Fazzari, were teachers first and foremost. Their priority was helping me become a responsible upright citizen and a moral good person. They knew my family, they knew my academic record. They could probably imagine where I had the greatest potential and that may not have been on the basketball court. They focused on preparing me for life. And from that stand point, mission accomplished. I think my friends, family, and coworkers would all say I’m a trustworthy and likable person. I pay my taxes. I’ve never been arrested. I don’t do drugs. And despite the neurotic egomaniac that comes across in this blog, I’m actually rather quiet, unassuming and deferential in real life. I think they would be proud of who I am 20 years later if I ever gave them the chance.
However this post was extremely difficult to write because, like I said at the start, I have always self identified as a wanna-be basketball player, and that makes my relationship and history of conflict with my basketball coaches the crux of my life. So either the story goes; I was right and they misjudged me and ruined my life, or they were right and my life is an agonizing cautionary tale against hubris and to always respect your elders. Of course neither of those is true. I have very little to complain about in life. I have a wonderful family, I have helped hundreds of individual people in my counseling career. I have a wife and 2 sons that I love more each day. If this was “A Wonderful Life” and I’m George Bailey, the First Triumvirate is not Potter. There is no villainous adversary like Potter in my life. At worst, they are more like Uncle Billy. Maybe even Clarence.
And what teenage boy doesn’t need 3 guardian angels?
(And after dealing with me, they sure earned their wings)
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