Thursday, April 26, 2001

LaRosa proposes boxing for bonding kids, cops

        Before Buddy LaRosa made his fortune providing pizza to the proletariat, he made a name for himself by delivering punches.

        He was 123 pounds of fistic fury, a boxer who won more than he lost and learned more than he real ized. When a black market developed for gasoline ration stamps during World War II, LaRosa was too busy to be bothered.

        “All my buddies broke into gas stations and stole gas stamps,” LaRosa said. “They wanted me to go with them. I told them, "I can't. I'm in training,' and one by one, my buddies got caught and they got busted. What kept me straight? Boxing.”

        On the same theory that created his restaurant empire — that a single good idea can be franchised ad infinitum — Buddy LaRosa's latest brainstorm is to pitch boxing as an aid to law enforcement. In the wake of Cincinnati's recent riots, LaRosa pro poses a Police Athletic League boxing program to bring cops and kids to common ground.

        While it would be naive to suggest sports can heal the festering wounds between Cincinnati's black community and its police force, it would be cynical to dismiss LaRosa's idea as inadequate. At this point in history, anything positive deserves a push.

        “Over time, it will create a relationship and a bond between the kids who are in the boxing program and the police department,” LaRosa said. “It would help make it more of a student-coach relationship. You'd have (increased) respect from both sides and more familiarity. A kid would see an officer on the street and say, "That's my coach.'”

        The PAL was founded in New York City in 1914, when police captain John Sweeney created a baseball program to occupy some of the idle hands on the Lower East Side. New York's PAL has evolved to include 17 full-time youth centers, 67 part-time centers and a range of activities as diverse as computer training, poetry contests and horseback riding. Its annual budget has

        grown to $22 million, and its success has spawned a national organization that now numbers 360 chapters.

        Deer Park police chief Al Gille is the president of the Ohio PAL. Friday, he is scheduled to brief LaRosa on the requirements and advantages of membership.

        “There are several routes,” Gille said. “There are several PALs in Hamilton County. We could charter it under our PAL here, or the City of Cincinnati could fill out an application form for $250. You need a delegate — someone to run the program — and a letter from the chief to indicate the police department is behind this.”

        Never one to let an idea fail for lack of follow-through, LaRosa already has broached his PAL proposal with Cincinnati police chief Tom Streicher, city council member Alicia Reece, Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen and virtually anyone else who stands still long enough to be lobbied.

        “When we boxed, there were any number of gyms where we boxed, and we had city champions,” LaRosa said. “Everybody looked up to them. They carried the respect and pride of being city champion. We could resurrect that. There are countless numbers of kids that it could help. It gets them off the street and gets rid of their hostility through controlled violence.”

        That's the idea, anyway.

        “I might not choose boxing as the first line of defense,” said Elinor King of the New York PAL. “But anything that keeps their interest is worth a shot.”

        Though few share LaRosa's romantic vision of boxing's peacemaking possibilities, his energy and enthusiasm at the age of 71 arouse only admiration. Cincinnati's continuing ability to produce elite boxers is largely a function of LaRosa's love and largesse.

        Marty Smith, Cincinnati's Golden Gloves delegate, said LaRosa spends close to $100,000 annually underwriting three gyms and funding the training and travel costs of dozens of fighters. Part of LaRosa's motivation in pursuing a PAL program is to provide local amateur boxing with financial backing when he's no longer around to pay the bills.

        “You can put a top-of-the-line boxing facility together for $20,000,” LaRosa said. “Those rings last forever. I've still got the ring that Ezzard Charles fought in at the Cincinnati Gardens. The biggest ingredient is the energy the kids supply.”

        Gille said the city of Deer Park provides $250 annually for the PAL's application fee, but the pro grams are otherwise funded through PAL and government grants and private donations.

        The size of those subsidies is likely to increase. Last year, President Clinton signed a bill that would provide existing and new PAL programs with $80 million over a five-year span. If Congress appropriates those funds promptly, payments could begin as early as October 2002.

        To qualify for a share of that money, a PAL chapter must provide at least three programs in addition to recreational and athletic activities, such as jobs skills preparation, conflict resolution and academic counseling. This might lead LaRosa to enlist partners in his PAL campaign, or to attach himself to an existing chapter.

        “We're constantly looking at new programs,” Gille said. “We've got a golf program, a martial arts program, seventh- and eighth-grade baseball teams, dances, tennis. We had lacrosse for a while, and we even tried clogging.

        “You might only get 2-3 percent involved in your programs, but there's a sense you care, a sense of order, and there's a ripple effect. Kids will come up to you and want to talk — not because they play on your golf team, but because they trust you.”

        PAL programs are designed to help humanize the police in the communities the officers patrol, and to help the police recognize citizens as individuals rather than statistics.

        “I believe in what we do and the way we do it,” said Jim Dolan, sports director of the New York PAL. “Kids need somewhere to go after school, somewhere they can get positive reinforcement, positive role models and have some fun.

        “At the beginning of the program, they're kind of stand-offish. During the program, they start to jell.”

        Among Dolan's recent initiatives is a Cops and Kids basketball league. The rules require that each team have one policemen on the floor at all times. There is no requirement, however, that the kids let the cops touch the ball.

        “Most of the cops are out of shape,” Dolan said. “And they're sucking wind by the second half. And the kids are ragging on them.”

        This is healthier, certainly, than hurling bricks and firing bullets. Policemen put themselves on the line every day, but they do some of their best work when they let down their guard.

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