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Charlie Garfinkel’s Racket Sports: Almost 88, age just a number to Constantino

Those who have played racquetball against Ben Constantino or have watched him play are amazed by his speed afoot, his eye hand coordination, his court coverage and his devastating forehand sidewall shot.

There are probably other local racquetball players who may have some of Constantino’s skills. However, Constantino has one distinction that most other racquetball players don’t have. Ben Constantino will be 88 years old this coming Thursday.

Mel Palano has been a longtime friend of Constantino and was a legendary basketball coach at Bishop Timon High School. He is also in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “Ben has always been known as ‘Uncle Bennie’ to his friends,” Palano said. “He has a heart as big as gold and he will help anyone who needs help. However, when it comes to playing racquetball, he is as hard as nails and is an incredible competitor. It is unbelievable how well he is playing at soon to be 88 years old. I honestly believe that there isn’t a player in the country his age that could defeat him in racquetball.”

Constantino lived on the west side of Buffalo as a youngster near the Butler Mitchell Club and Downtown YMCA. At age 13 he frequented both clubs. At the Downtown YMCA, the Mohawk Club was where the city’s best handball players, such as Walter Plekan, who was nationally ranked, and Jim Butler played.

“At the time I was playing basketball at Butler Mitchell and handball at the Mohawk Club,” Constantino said. “I loved playing handball twice a week because it was a fast game and provided a great workout.”

When the weather was warm, Constantino and his friends would play handball outside on the wall at School 76. Constantino drew lines on the school wall to try to make similar dimensions as the court at the Downtown YMCA. After playing basketball for School 76 Constantino graduated and attended McKinley High School where he starred in basketball for 3 years from 1941 to 1944.

At 18 he was drafted into the Army and volunteered to become a paratrooper. The paratroopers were among the Army’s elite. He joined the 82nd Airborne and spent 16 weeks at Fort Bragg and 4 weeks of vigorous jump school training at Fort Benning, Ga. He saw action in Europe and said, “The Germans knew we were coming, and we didn’t want to disappoint them.”

After the war he attended UB under the GI Bill and played 3 years of varsity basketball. There he was introduced to paddleball, the forerunner of racquetball.

“Paddleball was played with a wooden paddle and a ball that wasn’t quite as fast as racquetball,” Constantino said. “Like handball, the game required quick reflexes and provided a great workout. However, the racquets were very cumbersome and could cause some arm problems.”

It was during his time at UB that he became good friends with fellow teammate Len Serfustini, who would go on to become one of UB’s greatest basketball coaches. Dick Shawn, later to become a famous comedian, was also on the team.

Constantino graduated from UB after attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, leading him to a career as both a teacher and administrator. He also became a noted basketball referee for high school and college games. Some of the players that he refereed would go on to become all time NBA greats, including Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy. He also coached Lanier at Fillmore Middle School when he was 15 years old.

“Even at that early age it was evident that Lanier displayed talent that showed he could be a superstar someday,” Constantino said. “He was 15 years old, stood 6-4, weighed 190 pounds and was left-handed. He could shoot from the top of the key all day. Best of all he was an easy kid to coach.”

After teaching physical education in junior high school, he became an assistant principal at Schools 78 and 6. He later became principal of School 3 for 14 years. He retired in 1985.

Constantino was also the recipient of many honors over the years. He was inducted into the Butler Mitchell Boys Club Alumni Hall of Fame and the Western New York Basketball Officials Hall of Fame. He received awards from the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, and 25 and 50 year awards for refereeing.

One of Constantino’s proudest moments occurred last Oct. 19, when he was invited to Washington with longtime friend Palano to see a memorial that was built to honor World War II veterans.

For the past 40 years Constantino has been heavily involved in racquetball, playing singles, cut throat (3 players play) and doubles.

“Physically I feel great,” Constantino said. “Even though I had a knee replacement a few years ago I can still get to almost every ball, even on drop shots, and feel I can move as well as I did 20 years ago. Realistically, I am always busy, playing racquetball, working out in the gym, attending basketball games or other functions.

“I have always been persistent in everything that I do. As for my diet, I try to eat fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables, as much as possible. I have been very fortunate to have lived a wonderful life with my wife Betty of 64 years.”