Over the last three decades, Kenny Pignatello grew to have a special bond with his close friend Joe Forenza.
In fact, the two were supposed to get together two days before Christmas to exchange gifts and share stories and laughter like they always did, going back to the days when they were both assistant coaches together at Marist High School, during the Royal Knights’ glory days in the late 1980s to early 1990s.
But when Pignatello didn’t hear from his good friend at all for a few days, he knew something was wrong.
“It wasn’t like Joe not to at least answer his phone,” Pignatello said. “He was supposed to be at my office Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.”
Later that day, Pignatello’s worries became reality. One of the local Guttenberg youngsters that Forenza used to work with on his basketball skills went to bring his coach some food. He knew how to enter the house if Forenza didn’t answer the bell. The teenager went into Forenza’s home and found him dead.
Joe Forenza was only 64 years old. He went from having a simple sore throat on Saturday to what he told family members was a slight fever on Sunday and was gone by Tuesday. That’s what this horrific murderer known as the coronavirus COVID-19 has done to more than 340,000 Americans since last March, a statistic that now includes Joe Forenza.
Plain and simple, Joe Forenza was a basketball lifer.
He was first a basketball star at North Bergen High School, earning All-Group IV honors as a senior in 1973, when he was in pursuit of the school’s all-time single game scoring record, tossing in 52 points in a game against Hoboken. Forenza fell one point shy of the record that was set by Randy Chave, who was an assistant coach at North Bergen at that game.
Chave persuaded North Bergen head coach Matty Sabello to put Forenza back into the game so he could go after Chave’s record.
“I had 31 points after three quarters and Coach Sabello took me out of the game,” Forenza once recalled. “In the fourth quarter, Coach Chave walked down the bench and told me that I was coming close to his record. He said, ‘If anyone is going to break my record, it might as well be you.’”
Forenza averaged 23.6 points per game that season, second in Hudson County, trailing only the immortal Jackie Gilloon of Memorial. He also scored 516 points that season, breaking Chave’s record.
Both of those records (single game and seasonal marks) were eventually broken in the 1978 magical season by the legendary Danny Callandrillo.
Forenza then went on to play basketball at Montclair State College, but a shoulder injury ended his playing career after just one season.
He then returned to the school that he once attended as a youngster, Anna L. Klein School, and was a teacher. His father, Patrick, was the Superintendent of Schools and Joe moved his way up the ladder, eventually becoming a vice-principal at Klein.
But Forenza stuck close to his first true love, namely the sport of basketball, and started the school’s boys’ team that eventually became a powerhouse.
“It was always about basketball,” said Forenza’s cousin Maria Nolan, New Jersey’s all-time leader in coaching volleyball victories during her time at Secaucus and currently Immaculate Heart Academy in Westwood. “He loved basketball. I loved going to watch him play. We were a close-knit Italian family. I have happy memories of our family. Most of us all grew up on the same block [69th Street in Guttenberg].”
Forenza’s teams at Klein School posted an astounding 252-15 record and at one stretch, from 1986 through 1989, the Klein School team won 155 straight games.
One of the best players to come out of the Klein School program was John Giraldo.
“My lasting memory of Coach Forenza is how selfless he was,” said Giraldo, who had a brilliant career at Marist and later Monmouth University and is currently the head coach at Matawan High School. “It started with my generation and now 25-to-30 years later, he’s still driving kids to AAU practices. He was loyal as a man could be. I’m going to always remember the things he did for me personally, but selfless is the one word I’ll use to describe him.”
Giraldo had a close relationship with his grade school coach.
“He took me under his wing,” Giraldo said. “I was just a skinny little kid, but he knew that I’d have the work ethic to become successful. But if it weren’t for him taking me to AAU practices and camps, I probably would have never gone to Marist or to Monmouth. It all started with Mr. Forenza. I thank God for growing up in Guttenberg and having him in my life.”
Giraldo spoke of the dedication Forenza had for the kids of Klein School.
“He made the Klein kids feel like they were playing in the NBA,” Giraldo said. “We had film sessions about the opposing teams. We had detailed oriented scouting reports. He kept the most meticulous and detailed stats.”
Forenza meant so much to Giraldo that he made Forenza the godfather to his daughter, Camila, now 14.
Giraldo was not the only Klein School product to get to college basketball, as Randy Encarnacion, Alvaro Mejia and Pablo Carrasco all followed suit from Guttenberg to Marist to NCAA Division I college basketball.
“Once Mr. Forenza became an assistant coach at Marist, I followed him there and so did other kids from Guttenberg,” Giraldo said.
Forenza spent nine years as an assistant to Mike Leonardo at Marist, as the Royal Knights became the dominant team in HCIAA basketball, winning six county titles and the 1992 NJSIAA Parochial B state title, defeating St. Anthony in the sectional title game. The Royal Knights went all the way to the Tournament of Champions finale, falling to Shawnee.
Forenza then spent three years as an assistant coach at Union Hill before joining forces with Nick Mariniello at Hudson Catholic. Forenza and Mariniello worked together as assistants to Leonardo at Marist. When Mariniello got the head coaching position at Hudson Catholic a decade ago, he asked Forenza to join his coaching staff.
“Joe was an unbelievable person,” Mariniello said. “He did so much for so many people. What he did for the kids was tremendous. It was a gift having him around. He was a lifer in basketball. He was a great sounding board for me. He helped me with statistics. He was involved with getting the kids awards. He did it for a very long time. I know he and Kenny were very close and they were just so good, so generous with the kids. He was very proud of our county championships.”
Hudson Catholic won seven straight Hudson County championships with Mariniello as the head coach and Forenza and Pignatello on the staff.
“We talked twice a week and I gave him updates on our kids,” Pignatello said. “It was always about the kids, about the Guttenberg kids, the Hudson Catholic kids. He always knew I kept in touch with the Hudson Catholic kids. We always had great conversations about the kids.”
In 2007, Forenza took his rightly place in the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame, much like Gilloon, who he played against, and Sabello and Chave who coached him.
“A lot of people don’t realize how good of a player he was,” Mariniello said. “Every time we went up to play at North Bergen, I made it a point to show the kids his name on their wall as a Hall of Famer.”
Pignatello was asked if he had a lasting memory of his time with Forenza.
“When we beat St. Anthony at Rutgers [for the NJSIAA Non-Public B state sectional championship in 2017], we had finally reached the mountain top,” Pignatello said. “It was such a weight lifted off our shoulders. I also will always remember standing next to Joe for the Star Spangled Banner and he’d say, ‘What’s this? The 40,401 time we stood next to each other for the Anthem. He was such a special guy in my life. I can’t even begin to think how much I’m going to miss him.”
“He was a kind hearted generous person who was passionate about basketball,” Nolan said. “He was always so generous and cared so much about those boys.”
To the end, that’s who Joe Forenza was – all about the kids. It’s a loss that a lot of people will grieve for, especially with a new basketball season getting ready to begin.
A celebration of Forenza’s life will take place at his beloved Anna L. Klein School on January 20, which would have been Joe’s 65th birthday. They will dedicate the Joseph G. Forenza Basketball Court that day at 7 p.m. After the dedication, friends can pass through the gym, provided masks are worn and social distancing takes place, especially since the tragedy of Forenza’s passing comes at the hand of the COVID-19 virus. The tragic death total of 340,000 or so Americans now includes someone we all knew and loved.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely former Snyder High School and Purdue University basketball standout Roy “Pooh” Hairston.