San Francisco basketball legend honored for life and work

If life were only a slam dunk, Kevin Restani would still be holding his own on a hardcourt.

But that’s how the ball bounces. For the time being, he’ll have to remain on local legend status, being that he died one year ago this week, a gentle giant with an oversized but weakened heart.

Restani, one of the finest basketball players to ever rise from San Francisco’s streets, wouldn’t have been forgotten any time soon. But his friends are trying to make sure there’s a more permanent tribute to his greatness, one that will also benefit thousands of needy kids like the ones Restani, mentored, coached and inspired.

So it is that his loyal friends have spurred a partnership between Archbishop Riordan High School (where Restani starred) and the Olympic Club Foundation (where he played in his later years) to renovate Riordan’s aging gym and athletic facility.

This is no small gesture. The “Remembering Restani” campaign hopes to raise $3.2 million for the project by next year, of which the Olympic Club has pledged $1 million. That’s a lot of phone banking and cajoling, but the hope is that the good Samaritans in San Francisco will come on board and help support the facility in smaller cash increments. (For more information on how to donate, follow the link on www.riordanhs.info)

“In all the years I lived here, I never heard a bad thing said about Kevin,” said Patrick Daly, Riordan’s popular president. “I think it’s a fitting tribute.”

And it’s part of San Francisco history that comes with its own cheering section. Restani was a gawky kid who, through hard work, transformed himself into a smooth, 6-foot-9 scoring machine, dominating the high school basketball scene in the late ’60s.

Although he got scholarship offers from just about every major college program in the country, Restani, the ultimate city boy, decided to take his talents to the University of San Francisco, where he averaged a double-double and led the Dons to three West Coast Athletic Conference championships from 1971-74.

Restani was drafted in the third round and ended up playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, who then featured a center named Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He played eight years in the NBA and another seven playing professionally in Italy, where he met his wife, Roberta.

“The thing that was funny about Kevin is that he never talked about basketball or his time in the NBA,” said Bill Nasser, a former Riordan classmate who along with friends Dan McCarthy and Mark Bechelli were the driving force behind the tribute. “All he wanted to talk about was your family.”

Restani continued to play in masters tournaments for the Olympic Club for years, winning numerous titles. He had just played one in Milwaukee last year when he suffered a heart attack almost immediately upon his return. He was 58.

One of the reasons he was so revered is that he fell in a lengthy tradition of a small city honoring its prep stars, a rite that dates back to the days Joe DiMaggio and his brothers patrolled the local sandlots before moving on to the major leagues. Restani was just one of a handful of San Francisco players who made it to the NBA, a list that includes Tom Meschery, Phil Smith and Bob Portman, a group that was held in awe during their high school years.

After retiring, Restani served as a high school counselor and a substitute teacher and also coached at Riordan for a few years during the mid- ’90s.

His ties to The City also echo that of Riordan’s, one of the last all-boy schools in San Francisco, which is embarking on an ambitious plan this year to start boarding students from Europe and Asia at its Phelan Avenue campus. The school had been steadily losing enrollment since 2002 before Daly arrived last year and came up with a plan to halt the slide in part by recruiting foreign students.

The gym to be named for Restani is something of an old-style pit where the stands are high above the floor, so spectators actually look down at the players.

They decided that design was something they wanted to keep, possibly symbolic of someone else looking down from above.

Bay Area NewsLocalNews ColumnistsSan FranciscoUniversity of San Francisco

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