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Dan Weber: the Special Environment of Covington Catholic's Gym

Dan Weber writes a sports column for The River City News. Contact him at

As rewarding as it is to return home to Northern Kentucky after three decades in places like Philadelphia and New Jersey, Chicago/Northwest Indiana and Los Angeles/Orange County, there's one thing I've missed.

In moving on from the Big East to the Big Ten to the Pac-10/12, from Xavier and UC, the Reds and Bengals, TMU and NKU, to the Big Five, Villanova and Penn State, the Eagles and Phillies, even Rutgers and Princeton and then back to Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, and Notre Dame, the Cubs and Bears, Valparaiso even, and then out West to USC and UCLA, the Dodgers, Angels, and Padres and all the rest of the far-flung outposts from Corvallis, Ore., to Pullman, Wash., to Boulder, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., there was always a sense of home. Back home, that is.

Whether it was Crosley Field, where we got to go on Knothole Days walking in our uniforms over the Southern Railroad Bridge from Ludlow, or just hanging out at Lemker Field, having that one place that a Northern Kentucky sports fan could call home always seemed a bit missing.

The late, great Covington Ball Park was lost to I-75 along with three others in Covington. And Regents Hall where our NKU teams found a first home was too small, among other inadequacies. And as venerable as Dayton's O.W. Davis Field, built in 1911, Highlands's David Cecil Memorial Stadium may be for all the championship teams produced in Ft. Thomas, they're a bit too limited in their regional and seasonal appeal. And Latonia Race Course/Turfway Park is sorta', kinda' going, gone, no?

NKU's newer BB&T Arena, as perfect as it is for Northern Kentucky, or the Florence Freedom/UC Health/Y'alls Park, are just both too young to have developed the kind of sports home feel that maybe will happen in the future especially after playing so many high school regional championships there.

But not yet.

And then it hit me after returning to my onetime home at Covington Catholic for basketball this week. And realizing while watching this young but very good CovCath basketball team, that the CovCath gym will be the focal point for basketball fans here for a while in what is Kentucky's longest, most cherished sports season.

And then even though you grew up with it in so many ways, and it still feels as young here as you tell yourself that you feel, the CovCath gym will be 67 years old in January. It's the only building left standing from the original construction on this site, surrounded on the 30-acre campus by so much 21st Century multi-million-dollar reconstruction and relocation.

Good decision. The first game here -- against Cincinnati Purcell -- was played Jan. 29, 1955 when the pre-I-75 Dixie Highway was still full of traffic headed to Detroit in one direction, to Florida in the other.

But as much as basketball was, and is now, such a big part of what has gone on in the CovCath gym, it's by no means all.

They had a circus here once. And five wedding receptions. And some of the best productions of Broadway musicals under the late, great Father Mac you have ever seen at any high school anywhere.

They also had then Villa Madonna/now Thomas More basketball as the home team from the get-go for three decades with a trio of Villa Madonna products -- Coach Charlie Wolf and players Larry Staverman and Danny Tieman -- going on to the NBA.

Jim Wissman, a Newport Catholic guy who went on to play at Villa Madonna, was here the other night watching CovCath but he could remember those Villa Madonna days. Like when an NAIA champion Tennessee A&I team that would be win three straight national titles and become the first ever team from a black school to win even one and coached by legendary Basketball Hall of Famer -- and Kentucky native -- John McClendon, came in one night to play the Rebels in front of an SRO crowd. 

The first six players on that team would go on to play in the NBA, led by New York Knick great Dick Barnett, who would shoot his jumper from one side of half-court on CovCath's 84-foot high school court and land across the mid-court line going the other way by the time the shot went through the net. "Fall back, baby," he would call out. Wissman just shakes his head at how good that team was.

But I also shake my head as a kid who had become accustomed to heading up to or down to CovCath on Saturdays with my seventh-grade St. James Irish or my eighth-grade Blessed Sacrament Eagles for Saturday CYO basketball every week when they turned the courts sideways and played two games at a time. I didn't know at the time that the CovCath coach waiting for us -- Bob Naber -- was a former Louisville star and NBA player. Just that he always seemed happy to have us there.

Unfortunately for me, I missed one of those special early moments because of basketball. It must have been June and the NBA Finals were on TV. That hadn't always been the case in those early sports TV days. And so when my dad invited me to come along with him for the only time the Kentucky Golden Gloves were ever hosted in Northern Kentucky -- by Ludlow's Kehoe Council Knights of Columbus -- I passed.

My dad, Dr. Mel Weber, a family practice physician and Kehoe KofC member and a big-time sports guy his whole life, was to be the fight doctor that day. And on his return home, he told me in no uncertain terms how badly I had screwed up. That he'd just seen the best fighter he was ever likely to see in his lifetime -- a lanky 17-year-old from Louisville Central High School. What was his name, I asked. And by now, you've figured out his response: "Cassius Clay."

Yeah, Cassius/Muhammad Ali was here. And during the years I coached baseball at CovCath before indoor batting cages in separate buildings, so was our whiffle ball machine. And when basketball wasn't here, we were. And cage or not, the darn thing worked. We could hit.

But no one minded sharing with basketball those five straight regional-winning years from 1967 through 1971 under Mote Hils when you would come down to the gym after class and there would be Hall of Famer and Top-50 All-Time NBA player Dave Cowens, the NewCath alum with his Florida State coach Hugh Durham waiting to talk to CovCath star Randy Noll, a 6-foot-8 high-scoring All-American who would go to Kentucky and then leave to star at Marshall.

But the gym was also the large group classroom for my American Studies senior social studies course where we'd bring in big hitters like Kentucky Gov. Wendell Ford, who got in an argument with our guys over drivers' licenses, as I recall. Or maybe Jerry Springer, then the vice-mayor of Cincinnati, when he and his entourage showed up for our meet-a-local-politician week.

One of those days that mattered came when the top three administrators at NKU, as it was transitioning from the two-year Community College right down the Dixie Highway to the four-year school and campus in Highland Heights. CovCath at the time was producing the most students for the school so what our seniors thought mattered.

And then, between two afternoon class sessions in late February, we mentioned to them that the one thing our kids seemed most interested in was when NKU would start sports. The answer I got from Dr. Jim Claypool, then Dean of Students, was that they were thinking about having a basketball team the next year.

My response went something like this: It's late February, you don't have a coach, you don't have any players, you don't have a schedule or a place to play and you think you might want to play next year? They said they did.

So as soon as class ended, I hot-footed it down to the coaches' office and told Mote, who was about to win his fifth straight regional -- and lose his third straight heart-breaker in the state tournament on a buzzer-beater -- that he needed to go talk to the NKU powers-that-be ASAP. And he did and within days, NKU had a new coach and soon players and a schedule to go with it and a revolving set of Northern Kentucky high schools to host the games. And me as his assistant.

And it all started right here in the CovCath gym where Northern Kentucky's only all-boys student body -- and one of just five in Greater Cincinnati -- resides. Which, as you watch the "Colonel Crazies" -- no worse than 1-2 in the nation as far as high school cheering sections go along with Anaheim Servite -- isn't that bad a place to be from.

Sure, in big games on out-of-bound plays at the sideline in front of their rambunctious cheering section, you might need a convoy of multiple administrative types from the principal and AD on down to keep them in the stands. But it's all in good fun for whatever the theme for the night might be -- it looked like ugly Christmas sweater or Santa Claus outfit night Friday.

Talk to a player or Coach Scott Ruthsatz after a home game and it's the first thing they talk about -- what a special environment it is to play here. Because it is.

But for the average fan, and they run in age from pre-school kids to octogenarians who were certainly here for games that inaugural 1955 season, this seems to have become a home away from home.

Even visitors seem to enjoy it although a team of Greater Cincinnati League athletes like LaSalle on Friday had trouble avoiding getting hit early and often with the Evan Ipsaro-to-Mitchell Rylee duo who had CovCath off on a Rylee dunk from an Ipsaro assist seconds after tipoff. Then another, on the way to a 12-1 CovCath start and 21-11 first quarter lead. It was 49-19 at the half and by the time Ruthsatz took his starters out in the third quarter, the 6-foot-8 Rylee had eight dunks by my count on the way to 72-35 running clock romp, the second of the week.

No wonder the unbeaten Colonels, as they were heading to Indianapolis Saturday to face Cathedral, the top team in Indiana last week before getting upset, wish they could take the energy in this building with them.

And they probably will. As for me, even if I didn't always realize it, I was almost certainly doing the same thing.

--Dan Weber