Joe Arbitello felt like a kid again. He was living and dying with every possession. Ecstatic over every made shot, inconsolable over every miss.
And, no, the Christ the King coach wasn’t back on the sideline. He was in his living room, over the weekend watching three of his former players — Ryan Myers of Iona, Jose Alvarado of Georgia Tech and Kofi Cockburn of Illinois — win their conference tournaments to book automatic bids to this week’s NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t know if it was because we didn’t have basketball this year, but I was literally on the edge of my seat. I was rooting — rooting like I was a 12-year-old kid,” the 44-year-old coach said. “Maybe it’s just because I love those guys. I love those three kids. I do.
“They represent Christ the King, especially Jose and Ryan. Each won a city championship. It was so important for them to put that Christ the King jersey and play for Christ the King.”
It will be quite a weekend for the powerhouse school that has produced the likes of Lamar Odom, Speedy Claxton, Khalid Reeves and Jayson Williams.
Cockburn, the dominant 7-foot sophomore center, will lead No. 1 Illinois against No. 16 Drexel Friday at 1:15 p.m. Alvarado, a gritty 6-foot senior point guard from Brooklyn, and ninth-seeded Georgia Tech will face No. 8 Loyola Chicago in its first tournament game in 11 years at 4 p.m. on Friday. And there is Myers, a freshman reserve guard playing for Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, hoping to help No. 15 stun No. 2 Alabama the next day.
“Those are my guys, forever my little brothers,” Alvarado said in a phone interview. “It’s cool to see them being successful in their own way.”
Arbitello’s only issue with the tournament is the draw. Alvarado and Cockburn could face each other in the second round, provided they both win their opening-round games. He isn’t sure how he’ll bring himself to watch it.
“It will make me sick,” Arbitello joked.
Alvarado and Cockburn played together for one season in 2017-18, when Alvarado was a senior and Cockburn was a sophomore. They lost in the Catholic league semifinals to a Bishop Loughlin team that included Cincinnati star guard Keith Williams. They worked well together, Alvarado making it his job to get Cockburn the ball. On Senior Day, Christ the King beat Archbishop Molloy and Cockburn dominated his counterpart, former UCLA big man Moses Brown, making sure Alvarado’s final home game was a victory.
“I remember both of them sacrificing for each other,” Arbitello said. “I just know when I had Kofi and the other team had a big guy, I never had to worry. He would dominate anybody. He was a monster.”
Following his junior year, however, Cockburn left Christ the King for Oak Hill Academy (Va.), a familiar trend for top prospects from the city. Arbitello understood it. Cockburn, raised in Jamaica, was living in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn with his mother and sister, and felt it was the best decision for his family.
Years later, the affable big man is still beloved at the Queens school. Teachers speak of him in glowing terms. They are, according to Arbitello, thrilled for the former Royals star, who still returns during the summer to help with Arbitello’s basketball camp.
“He’s an awesome kid,” Arbitello said of Cockburn, one of the best true big men in the sport, who produced 16.9 points and 9.6 rebounds a night.
Unlike Cockburn, Alvarado spent four years at Christ the King, winning a city championship as a sophomore. Arbitello would always tell whoever was willing to listen that his point guard would be a terrific college player. Ignore his size or lack of athleticism, Aribtello told coaches and evaluators. He wins. He fights. He battles.
When Alvarado signed with Georgia Tech, there were doubts whether he could play in the ACC. Alvarado heard them, even from people he once considered friends. They motivated the kid from Brooklyn. He used it as fuel.
“I’m going to have that [chip on my shoulder] forever,” Alvarado, an All-ACC first team selection who averaged 15.3 points, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals per game this year, said. “That’s what makes me a good player.”
Georgia Tech didn’t win much in his first three seasons, but Alvarado never considered going elsewhere. Coach Josh Pastner never looked for a different point guard. Never recruited over him. And this year, they were both rewarded as the Yellow Jackets broke through, entering the tournament on a six-game winning streak.
“He believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself,” Alvarado said of Pastner. “I’m loyal to whoever is loyal to me. He said, ‘You’re my guy, I’m going to roll with you.’ ”
The youngest of the three, Myers was an overlooked prospect, despite leading Christ the King to a city championship his junior year. He guided the Royals past Bishop Loughlin and its twin brother duo of Julian and Justin Champagnie in the semifinals and besting Archbishop Stepinac and current North Carolina freshman R.J. Davis in the title game. His lack of recruitment didn’t bother him. He kept working. After his senior season ended prematurely due to the virus, and Iona hired Pitino, the Gaels zeroed in on him. Myers had a strong freshman year, averaging 6.1 points, and now will be a part of March Madness.
“Some guys say trust the process — that’s Ryan Myers,” Arbitello said.
Arbitello is holding out hope there will be a high school basketball season of some kind, unlikely as that may be. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said at-risk sports like basketball will be allowed to be played, but only outdoors. That may not work for basketball, though. No matter what, Arbitello and everyone tied to Christ the King can at least live vicariously through these three former players.