BY LARRY FLEISHER
It began the first time Ray Salnave stepped foot inside the gym at Cardozo High School.
Even before any of the fall teams at the Bayside school started practicing, Salnave was working on his game over a span of about seven hours, according to coach Ron Naclerio.
Two years later, Salnave and the Judges are the defending city champions and are looking to add a third banner to a program that has produced standouts such as Rafer Alston, Duane Causwell, Duane and Brian Woodward, Royal Ivey and Darryl Hill.
To hear Naclerio say it, as good as those players were, Salnave is wired differently, and the junior shooting guard has a different motor on the court.
“He has certain traits that very [few] kids I’ve ever coached have,” Naclerio said. “He’s got one or two traits that none of the kids I’ve coached had. He’s tough to coach because he’s volatile sometimes and people know when he was young and childish, he did things but the volatility is his desire to win. I would probably say out of all the players I’ve ever coached, he might have the closest desire to win as do.”
“It’s a good thing, but some people are used to the ordinary basketball player,” Salnave said. “You can say I’m an ordinary basketball player, but my thing is I like to win. Whatever it takes, I’ll do what it takes to win. Coach says that about me — that means I’m doing something good. We have the same goal. We both don’t like losing.”
That desire manifested itself during the final seconds of title game against Thomas Jefferson at Barclays Center. In Cardozo’s 55-54 victory, Salnave drove to the basket, was fouled and made the free throws with 2.5 seconds remaining. That ended a 16-point game that saw him go 10-of-12 from the line and a title run that saw the Judges defeat teams from the powerhouse Brooklyn AA Division in Boys & Girls, South Shore, Brooklyn Collegiate and Jefferson.
Now Cardozo is the team to beat and even more so than other non-title years. The last time Cardozo won a title was in 1999, and since then, there have been some difficult defeats, notably a four-point overtime loss to Jefferson in the 2013 quarterfinals, a one-point loss to Lincoln in the 2011 semifinals and a five-point loss to Boys & Girls in the 2010 title game.
“When you put so much into it and you make it the most important thing in your life, it’s a weird feeling because you’re so used to having the agony of defeat at the end of the season,” Naclerio said. “To have that thrill of victory for the second time, you want the season to end like that and I know the odds are the season probably won’t end up like that.”
If Cardozo is going to experience that thrill again, besides Salnave — who averaged 18 points last season and was recently offered a scholarship to Rutgers — some other people will be even more important. Cardozo is replacing forwards Carl Edoua Balthazar and Francisco Williams as well as stout defenders Marzuq Jimoh and Kristian Mondesir.
Naclerio said that sophomore Tareq Coburn is ready and that he expects contributions from Armando Dunn and Amir Tutt. He also is anticipating the impact of guard Aaron Walker, who transferred from Molloy and was described as being a Division One player.
“I know how hard it is because not only do you have to be very good, you have to be a little lucky,” Naclerio said. “When you have a bad game you have to find a way to get through it in the playoffs, you got to get through injuries, you got to get through ineligibilities, you got to get through being the hunted and the kids that start the season off with the pain and agony from the previous year. It’s a lot easier to talk to them than when the kids think when the script is going to be the same.
The Judges were good by going 28-2 and 16-0 in league games. They also had the good fortune of having Salnave’s will in the title game and throughout the playoffs.
Or as Naclerio says: “I’d rather be a champ than a chump.”
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