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tough feature

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by cubreporter718, Jul 21, 2006.

  1. All,

    This was a tough one to do -- my first writing about this kind of tragedy. It's long (too long?). What does everyone think?


    There was never a happier time for Michael Cavataio. His choice to attend Christ the King was paying immediate dividends. Even though his father Mike was pushing him toward his own alma mater, Archbishop Molloy, his whole family knew this was the right choice.

    For a basketball player in Queens, Christ the King is like the Holy Grail. The Royals, coached by Bob Oliva, are a perennial power and when Michael decided he enjoyed his time on the court more than his time on a baseball diamond, the decision was clear for the Forest Hills family.

    "The basketball there was amazing," Michael says.

    And Michael wasn't just any old player, he was good Ð damn good. That winter of 2003 he led the freshman team to the city championship. The following spring he would be on Oliva's varsity squad with a chance to win another city title. Michael was thin, but he was 6-foot-3 and had the skills of a guard: a smooth shooting stroke and a slasher's mentality. Division I scholarship offers were only a year or two away.

    But then tragedy struck hard and without warning.

    Only a few short months after the city championship celebration ended, Michael's mother Joanne died of a heart attack on April 4, 2004 after suffering from a blood clot in her leg.

    Cavataio, who was 15 years old at the time, had one initial feeling that penetrated the numbness of losing someone close to you: anger.

    The following months were a struggle, for Michael and his sister Jackie, and for Mike. But Michael had some salvation that they didn't. He had basketball.

    Bad things happen to a lot of people, he thought at the time, worse things than this. So, he threw himself into the game he loved. He worked harder, trained harder, played harder. Until basketball, too, was taken away from him.

    In the first game of his sophomore season, his first with the varsity, Michael broke his left ankle. But, undeterred, he fought back. Worked harder, trained harder. He came back midway through the season. His first game back, he broke the same ankle.

    This time, his season was over.


    Something just clicked in Michael's mind. There was nothing apparent that set it off, no immediate catalyst. But after attending the first day of class at Christ the King in September, he decided the Middle Village school was no longer for him.

    That weekend he told his father he wanted to transfer to St. Francis Prep, where his sister went, where his friends from the neighborhood went. Maybe it was time to erase all the negative feelings, maybe he wanted a clean slate, a new beginning. He didn't know then and he doesn't know now what changed in him all of a sudden.

    "When my mom died, I was kind of confused about what to do," Michael said. "Sometimes you just have to be happy. You appreciate things more when something like that happens."

    Mike told him to sleep on it, don't make any hasty decisions. That Monday morning Michael's mind hadn't changed: he wanted to be at Prep. Mike said fine, but you have to call Coach Oliva.

    "I don't want him to hear from anybody else except for you," Mike said. "...Me and my wife chose that school because of Bob Oliva."

    His father didn't agree with the decision, he knew the opportunities that were present at Christ the King: more exposure, more college coaches. Like any father would be, Mike wasn't sure his son was making the right decision. Even more so, he wasn't sure, because Michael went to Christ the King for the first week of school, if the CHSAA would let him play that season for Prep. The league's transfer rules prohibit any player that attended one school during a given school year to play for another school's athletic team during the same year. No exceptions, no exemptions.

    Not even for a troubled kid who lost his mother. Not even for a teenager who clearly needed a change of environment, not just to play basketball, but for his own health.

    "I thought they should have an exemption for someone who loses a brother or sister, or a guardian Ð or a parent," Mike says. "...They have their reasons and they're good reasons. But I thought there should have been an exemption for this."

  2. Not playing last season was tough for Michael, sometimes even unbearable. The Terriers struggled in league play and just the thought that he could have changed one game, turned one loss into a win, haunted him.

    "Now and then he scratches rock bottom," his father says. "...He was down in the dumps around Christmas. Everything going on in his life, I was concerned that his grades would fall off a little bit. It's just a bad time and he didn't have basketball. That's his self-esteem - getting on the court and putting a ball through the hoop."

    During the second to last practice of the season, while most players were going through the motions, Michael was working. Maybe a bit too hard. During the rather inconsequential practice, Michael broke his left wrist, another set back to add to the long list. But he didn't need surgery for this break.

    He returned in time to play with his AAU club, the Long Island Lightning, at Rumble in the Bronx and last weekend he starred at Jam Fest in West Virginia, helping lead the Lightning to fourth place overall.

    Two years of his high-school career had been stolen from him. Luckily, playing AAU ball in the spring and summer with the Lightning and the Metro Hawks over the years allowed Michael to be seen by college coaches. Columbia, Princeton and most of the other Ivy League schools are showing interest in the A student without ever having seen him play in the CHSAA.

    This season, he'll be St. Francis Prep coach Tim Leary's go-to guy, the same rail-thin wing player, only now a 6-foot-4, 165-pound senior, that can sink the jumper and make fearless drives to the basket.

    "It's definitely going to be exciting," Michael, now 17, says. "I can't wait to play."

    College coaches will tell him to get bigger, get stronger. People will be in his ear all season, and next summer when he starts working out with his Division I team, he'll hear it, too: get bigger, get stronger, get tougher.

    But what everyone will fail to realize, no matter where he plays next year or ever again, no matter how much larger the opposing players are, he'll always be the toughest player on the floor.

    "People out there have it a lot worse," Michael says.

    Mike stares straight ahead and is asked how his son has done it, how it's even possible for him to stay positive through the uncanny bad luck that has plagued him.

    He pauses, puts his head down.

    "His mom was a great, great woman," he says, as his eyes well up with tears. "She laid a lot of the tracks. I drive the train now."


    "04-04-2004," Michael says, remembering the date of his mother's death. He says it with a smile though, not a frown or the shedding of a tear.

    Maybe he's holding it in, maybe he's blocking it all out. He's strong, as his father says, and he's been through entirely too much for someone his age.

    But despite all the things that have gone wrong, the things that cannot be erased from his memory no matter how many baskets he makes, he still has a bright future, playing basketball and in the classroom, because of an incredible will and a strong family bond.

    "If he wasn't of strong character," Mike says, "he might have turned into what other things teenagers do to fill in the time. But he's maintained his strong character and thank God things are working out now."
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