Few towns or cities in Rhode Island have human resources like Johnston, who always band together, especially when it comes providing first class sports and recreational facilities.
Which is why people of all ages turned back the hands of time Saturday morning and reminisced about their younger years of playing basketball at “The Dome.”
That was the official name of ageless Rainone Gymnasium that was almost knocked down.
But why? The building contains so much history.
Saturday, amid a standing room only crowd, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena hosted — and emceed — a history-filled re-dedication of Rainone Gym.
The gymnasium was established in 1965 and is located off Mill Street. The mayor also unveiled DiGregorio Court which, which he called an “extraordinary labor of love for this town, our recreational community and our youth.”
The mayor went on: “As many of you here — including myself — remember, the old Rainone gym … today, we sit in a totally reinvented Rainone Gymnasium.”
Thus, after Pastor Chris Abhulime of King’s Tabernacle Church delivered an inspirational opening prayer, Polisena — wearing a collector’s sweatshirt with the words “Rainone Gymnasium – The Dome, Est. 1965” emblazoned on the front — said: “Let me introduce you to the person who had the idea for this project.”
Town Council Vice President and Mayor-elect Joseph Polisena Jr. attended the opening.
“We’ve upgraded so many of our facilities over the years, whether it was minor upgrades to fields or major construction like the Mazzulla Indoor Recreation Center, we gathered many stakeholders and the collaboration between private business owners, union workers and the town was absolutely seamless,” said the mayor-elect. “So many people in our community stepped up to volunteer not only materials but even more importantly … time, and it shows, just how much how much they care about our community, its infrastructure and its residents.”
As was the case with many people Saturday, Polisena Jr. remembered: “I played in this gym and on the court outside countless times when I was younger and the difference between then and now … this place is unrecognizable. I hope this serves as a model, not (just) for Johnston but for other municipalities in the state. When elected officials and residents work together with a sense of pride, dedication and
community — we can solve any problem, build any building and ultimately unlock our unlimited potential.”
As Town Council President Robert V. Russo re-emphasized: “Sure, we could have torn this place down. But why? There’s so much history here. Like many people (here) today, I played here and so did my brother and many friends.”
Back then, someone at the event suggested, “The Dome” looked more like a dark and dingy gym. It had the sort of “in-need-of-repair” restrooms like you’d expect to see in a movie or inner New York City neighborhood basketball gym where a lot of college and NBA stars got started on the courts.
Perhaps Rice DiGregorio, who owns DiGregorio Construction, was the project’s major donor and had the most unique statement of the day when he said, “The first time I walked in here I thought I was in Madison Square Garden. Years ago I was here playing basketball on a Sunday morning when my daughter was born.”
DiGregorio went on: “I believe and know that I am not alone in saying this, but Rainone Gym formed and shaped many of the people here today. There are no other communities like Johnston, and I feel this facility is fundament to our small town.”
Back when he was only 8-years-old, he said his Uncle Jack randomly “picked me up one night and said Rico, you’re going to play basketball with your cousin Rob tonight. I was so excited, yet nervous, all at the same time.”
That was 45 years ago and DiGregorio went on to play at the youth, middle school and high school levels. He said his first coach ex-Marine Vin LaFazia, “helped develop leadership skills and guided many young athletes into the men they are today, and for that, I am forever grateful.”
Like many people Saturday, DiGregorio and his friend Michael Sabitoni, said: “We all spent countless hours in this gym as kids; even as adult playing in the men’s league. This is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the Johnston Community.”
To which Sabitoni, the highly respected executive of RI-based Laborers International Union of North America, added: “I’m so dam proud to be part of this project. I really wish Danny (Mazzulla, the late Recreation Director and high school and college hoop standout) was here to be with us and see this beautiful facility.”
Sabitoni, who like DiGregorio and others, are proud of their Johnston heritage.
As they concluded: “When we’re asked to help, everyone steps up; that result is right here and that’s why we now have this beautiful facility. Basketball, and this gym, are a part of me — just as I know how important is to many that are here today.”
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