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Daily News from New York, New York • 96

Daily Newsi
New York, New York
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Young lives, team bloom at Garden at OST dam Goat OF Ave. Park, THE an named KIDS asphalt for played a prince quadrangle summer of on the basketball Amster- playgrounds, Earl (The Goat) Manigault. There, they would issue an exuberantly ancient oath wait till next year vowing that next year would end with a championship game at Madison Square Garden. But when next year finally arrived yesterday morning, a hush hung over the locker room. In the hour before the Public Schools Athletic League Division Championship, the Wadleigh Tigers found themselves almost awestruck to be dressing in the same corridors as the millionaire celebrities of the New York Knicks.

"I want this day to last forever," whispered Frankie Perez, a senior. "I can't believe we here, yo," said Derrick Mack, the point guard. The distance between their Harlem neighborhood and Madison Square Garden is more than a map would imply. A few of the kids had never been to basketball's corporate Mecca. Others had never seen a Knicks game, as one player put it, "in real MARK KRIEGEL This was real life, though.

And to remind them, Earl Manigault spoke just before the kids ran out on the court. "What you do today," he said, "you going to remember the rest of your life." The Wadleigh Tigers are worth remembering. Steve Romagnoli is an English teacher trained as a bartender and a playwright. He became a coach by chance, but turned players into students by design. "I didn't know that coaching was a 24-hour, seven-day-aweek job," he said.

But he took on the kids as he took on their problems: truancy, drugs, death, violence, poverty, fatherlessness the entire roster of urban ills that puts teenagers "at risk." "These kids have endured things that might have broken most adults," said Lew Zuchman, who runs a youth program called SCAN, where the Wadleigh players attend mandatory tutoring sessions on Saturday mornings. "That's why this championship game was so important. Being here, playing here, validates something for them. It proves that, sometimes, things work out right." It was Manigault who marched them into SCAN. With no small delight, he asks: "Can you believe we got these little suckers to go to school on IN SPORTS Complete game details.

See PAGE 62 Saturday?" Manigault is famous as a fable of redemption. Three decades ago, he could pluck quarters from the top of a backboard. Then he became a junkie. Then, an ex-junkie. Now, to call him a "father figure" is to rehabilitate a muchabused expression.

Wadleigh was 19 wins without a loss when Manigault was hospitalized. A heart valve had become infected. But those close to him say his heart was breaking. He checked into Mount Sinai just a few days after the PSAL ruled that Wadleigh would have to forfeit all its league games. The bureaucrats ruled that one of the benchwarmers, a kid who only got into the games after Wadleigh was up by 30 points, should have been ruled ineligible.

This was the worst type of technicality. No one ever intended to do anything wrong, but that championship season was over. The Wadleigh story moved from the sports pages to the news pages, destined to become another example of bureaucrats burying kids with their rules. Instead, something splendidly unexpected happened. For the first time in 40 years, the PSAL overruled its own eligibility committee.

When next year finally arrived, yesterday morning, Wadleigh beat Murry Bergtraum for a championship. The Tigers are 26 wins without a loss. "I don't need nothing but a cloud to sit on," said Frankie Perez. "I don't want this day to end." "This was the best day of my life," said Derrick Mack. If it weren't for Romagnoli and Goat and the guys on the team, he said, "I'd probably be on the street smoking weed in front of the building, getting ready to waste my life D-Mack, as his teammates call him, possesses superb basketball skills and a nimble mind.

But he lost two years not going to school. Something about this squad gave him the courage to change. After transferring to Wadleigh his fourth high school Derrick Mack came to believe in next year, even if the price of that belief was going to class six days a week. "I learned not to quit," he said. A a WADLEIG, 20 SHANNON STAPLETON WADLEIGH'S Derrick Mack drives for two yesterday at the Garden.

As it happened, the Most Valuable Player of the championship game was a kid named Mark Walters. He played with a piece of paper taped to the inside of his shorts. It was dated Thursday, Feb. 6, 1992, the program to his big brother's funeral at St. Thomas Liberal Catholic Church.

No one knew Mandell Wal- Nabbed in burn of his gal pal By VIRGINIA BREEN Daily News Staff Writer A Manhattan man faced an attempted murder charge yesterday after he allegedly set his girlfriend afire while holding her captive in his apartment, police said. Cops nabbed Douglas Merkinson, 41, at his Times Square apartment following a desperate phone call from his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Anderson, 42, who said she escaped. "The victim told police her boyfriend had threatened and held her against her will, beat her, then set her on fire with rubbing alcohol the day before," said Officer Theresa Farello, a police spokeswoman. Anderson had somehow managed to flee Merkinson's assistedhousing apartment at 255 W. 43rd St.

and called police from a pay phone at the corner of 42nd St. and Eighth Ave. around 10:40 p.m. Saturday. Cops rushed her to St.

Clare's Hospital. "She had second-degree burns on her neck, chest, and left forearm, and a fractured said a hospital emergency room staffer. She was treated and released around 1:30 a.m. Reached at her downtown Manhattan apartment hours later, Anderson declined to comment. "Please," she sighed.

"This isn't news." Roseanne Haggerty, the executive director of Common Ground Community, a nonprofit group that owns and manages the landmark Times Square building as "supportive housing," would not say how long Merkinson lived there. "All that's clear at this point is that the woman did not live here," she said. "We're still not sure what happened." Merkinson's stunned neighbors on the 14th floor recalled a murder that occurred on the same floor two years ago. Tenant Phyllis Starr was stabbed to death in her apartment on May 18, 1996. Six months later, her boyfriend, who lived across the hall, was charged with murder after the FBI matched a bloody toe print to his foot.

"There's some weird stuff going on on this 14th floor," said one neighbor. "The murder was weird enough, but now I'm totally freaked out. You don't know who's living next to ters was an "at risk" kid the night he was accidentally shot at a White Castle. He loved the game, just as Mark would learn to love it in his stead. "I told Mandell we were going to the Garden," said Mark.

"My brother was with me today." His brother will be with him always, as all the next years become forever..

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