DERRY — Former longtime Pinkerton Academy teacher and coach Tony Carnovale is known by many of his former basketball players as a father figure who helped change the landscape of New Hampshire basketball.
Now, some of those former players want to pay tribute to their beloved coach, who is terminally ill with cancer. Next Saturday at 2 p.m. a group of them will host an alumni game in Carnovale's honor at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, said one of the organizers, Stephen Dunker of Bedford.
Dunker grew up in Derry and first met Carnovale at the coach's summer youth basketball camp. Dunker honed his skills under Carnovale's leadership and went on to play four years as a member of Pinkerton's varsity team.
"I was a basketball junkie; he was the king of our town, at least from my small-world perspective at the time," Dunker said. "We all wanted to play for him."
Now vice president of of sales and marketing for AMPM Facility Services of Waltham, Mass., Dunker said Carnovale founded Derry Youth Basketball and ran it for seven weeks each summer.
"He was my coach at Pinkerton, but it felt like he started coaching us when we were 5 years old — because he did," Dunker, a 1995 Pinkerton graduate, said.
Carnovale, who taught social studies at Pinkerton, accepted every child who wanted to play in the youth basketball league, even if parents couldn't afford the cost of the camp, Dunker said. The coach also provided summer jobs for older players, Dunker added.
Players came from surrounding towns such as Chester, Auburn, and Londonderry to attend the camps, which were some of the largest in the state, Dunker said.
In addition to running the summer camps and coaching high school basketball, Carnovale began an exchange program with a Russian city during the Cold War, Dunker said. Each year, a team from Russia would come to New Hampshire or the local players would travel over there, he recalled.
The program was a remarkable success that has since been followed by multiple towns in New Hampshire, Dunker said.
In addition to coaching at Pinkerton for 22 seasons, from 1980-2002, Carnovale became a local television personality as the host of a sports talk show on WNDS for five years. After stepping down as head coach at Pinkerton, he later served briefly as boys' basketball head coach at Goffstown Area High School and as an assistant at New England College.
Carnovale led Pinkerton to four Class L (now Division I) championship games and won two, in 1988 and 1990. But, Dunker said, his greatest contributions were to the lives of the players he coached, the students he taught and the other young people he influenced.
"He loved us all to a point that we've all stayed in touch," Dunker said.
Carnovale attended last Saturday's NHIAA Division I championship game, where he posed for photos with winning coach Dave "Doc" Wheeler of Manchester Central and runner-up Tim Goodridge of Merrimack.
If Carnovale's able to attend the Pinkerton alumni game, Dunker said, his former players will be thrilled to see him. Either way, he'll be in their thoughts.