Ray Pagan, 65, supercoach of Dapolito Center

Ray Pagan.

BY JUDITH STILES | If the Supergirls have their way with the New York City Parks Department, the gym at Tony Dapolito Recreation Center will be renamed after their beloved mentor and coach, Ray Pagan, who died this past Sept. 26 after a valiant struggle with complications related to Parkinson’s disease. He was recently retired and a month shy of 65th birthday.

Emily Mojica, a former Supergirls basketball star of the 1980s, joined with her former teammates to create iplayedforray.com, a heartfelt memorial Web site with more than 500 beautiful photographs that tell the story of how Pagan touched the lives of so many people. For more than 39 years, from 1976 to 2015, he worked at the Tony Dapolito Rec Center, at Clarkson St. and Seventh Ave. South, as youth director of the Greenwich Village Basketball League.

“There is no coach in the universe who gave so much of his time and love to the game and his players. The team was his family,” recalled Mojica, an all-star point guard who received a full basketball scholarship to Iona College, with help and guidance from Ray.

In the early ’80s, as a young teen, Mojica pleaded with Ray to start a basketball and softball team for girls.

“At first he said, no, because he had three jobs at the time,” she said. “But then he said, ‘Find me the players and I’ll coach you.’”

Pagan was never shy about giving pointers.

At the time Pagan, was also working midnight to 6 a.m. at UPS. In the mornings, he would sleep a little before he went to work part-time at a dry cleaner, and then, from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., he would work at the Carmine Recreation Center, now known as Tony Dapolito Recreation Center.

At the rec center, he worked for the Parks Department, but everyone knew he really worked for the kids. The players were his children.

“Ray knew just how to communicate with all different kinds of players from different backgrounds,” recalled Ernesto Bustamente, who coached and refereed alongside Ray at Dapolito for more than 10 years. “He was a kind of poet, in that he knew how to deliver the right message in very few words. He was a big brother to me.”

Unlike many youth sports directors, Pagan wasn’t stingy about sharing his players nor did he hoard his top-notch referees. In 1994, when Harry Malakoff, founder of the Greenwich Village Girls Basketball League, was building teams and recruiting players, Pagan sent him girls who were playing co-ed, and not getting enough basketball passes from the boys. He also connected Malakoff with the best referees in town.

“I never heard Ray yell at the kids,” remembered Ralph Washington, a co-worker at the front desk of Dapolito. “If there was a problem, he would take the kid aside and talk.  He had a big heart.”

Classic Ray in black and white. But he didn’t see the world that way: He had a talent for respecting nuances and saying the right thing at the right time to his players.

Pagan was a neighborhood legend, a father figure, a mentor, “a life-changer,” a community leader and a friend to hundreds of boys and girls who played sports in Lower Manhattan. When his friend Rich Battaglino was asked how many people showed up for the memorial service for Ray this past Oct. 14 at Dapolito, he answered, “It was a full house! As many people as you could hold, and then some!”

At the service, when friends and former players shared memories with each other, there was a common thread about how Ray was such a “fair” coach. He gave all levels of players decent playing time, and there were not a lot of benchwarmers.

Yet, at the same time Pagan was known for a fierce competitive streak, coupled with his uncanny ability to win games.

One way he solved the eternal coach’s conundrum of equal playing time versus winning, was to save his strongest players until the end, and them put them in the game all at once. It was a coaching secret that he was not reluctant to share.

Roberta Cunningham a.k.a. Poochye, the registrar who worked alongside Pagan for decades, remembered him fondly as someone who “was always willing to do a favor for anyone without expecting something in return.”

Shaking her head, she lamented, “Nobody will be able to fill the shoes of Ray.”

The Ray T.

However if the iplayedforray.com Web site is any indication, Pagan’s wisdom about life and his sharp skills as a coach will surely be passed along to more youngsters for years to come. As Ann Topper, a Supergirl, wrote in remembrance of Pagan, “Because of you Ray, we will never skip steps. We will reach out to others and we will do everything with love and passion, just the way you taught us. You were a man that went above and beyond. You brought out nothing but the best in people, and you never asked for anything in return. You were one of a kind.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *