Bennett ruled with iron fist, open heart

When the tapestry is ultimately drawn to highlight those who have made Altoona such a special place for sports — the athletes and coaches, contributors and characters — you had better believe there will be space reserved for one Carl Bennett.

The former truck driver saved the old Howard Avenue Armory from being demolished in 1983 and turned it into Building II — a health club and a home to local basketball leagues that he ruled with an iron fist and an open heart.

Bennett passed away on Friday at the age of 72, triggering a flood of memories for those whose lives he positively touched.

Anyone who played basketball in Altoona over the past 30-plus years knew Bennett — and knew he was in charge.

“He would throw guys out for having a bandanna on,” his son Mark, who now operates the facility, said, shaking his head and laughing on Saturday morning. “He thought it wasn’t appropriate.”

Mop in hand, Bennett would customarily gather both teams before tipoff, instruct them to respect the referees, mute complaints and play the game the right way before inevitably reminding them: “This is my building, and I won’t put up with it.”

All five of Altoona’s NBA players — Johnny Moore, Doug West, Mike Iuzzolino, Danny Fortson and Candace Futrell of the WNBA — played at Building II.

Bennett had a no-dunk rule that he changed after West came along.

“Great man who has touched many if not all the players who have grown up in the area,” West, who visited Bennett in the hospital shortly before his death due to heart problems, said. “Even the ones he kicked out eventually they were allowed back in. His bark was always bigger than his bite.”

Mark Bennett said Futrell and Alli Williams, the Bishop Guilfoyle and Saint Francis standout who has made her mark in Europe, “never had memberships but were welcome to play in the summer. He (Carl) always felt it was the right thing to do.”

Iuzzolino, the closest to Bennett, had a key to the gym and, after making the NBA, donated collapsible rims.

“Our friendship was deep, and I definitely feel a debt of gratitude to him,” Iuzzolino said. “The one thing that can always be said about Carl is, in his own unique way, he had the best interest of the athletes and the community at heart.”

Just as football in the 1960s, both at Altoona and Bishop Guilfoyle, produced numerous scholarship players, basketball took over in the ’80s as many collegiate coaches could be spotted at Building II.

After scouting players, Iuzzolino said, “They somehow all ended up in Carl’s back room (which included a bar).”

Until a 2008 fire, Bennett had a wall displaying achievements of those who played at the Building.

“My mom just found a thank-you note from Rollie Massimino,” Bennett said. “My dad thrived on that. He enjoyed the attention and the fact that he was part of it.”

Beyond the basketball, Building II maintained a membership that used the weight room.

“He closed at 2 on Saturdays,” Iuzzolino said, “and I can remember he’d be yelling if someone came in (to work out) at 1:45. The next thing I heard is him telling the guy, ‘I’m leaving, but you can let yourself out whenever.”’

Saturday, longtime fxtures Rod Bohner, Dave Benton, Tom Bussman and Fred Crawford were on hand, some to pay their respects.

“The health club business is very competitive, and it’s hard to keep up with the new things,” Mark Bennett said. “We have our base, and they’re loyal to us. We’ve been here 34 years, and we’ve outlasted many of them.”

Much of that was his dad’s drive.

“He had a dream, and he worked his (butt) off,” Mark Bennett said. “He would not leave here, unless he was dragged out. He skipped family vacations. He loved this place.”

Bennett said the family is committed to sustaining Building II because, “We want our kids to have what we had.”

The mission actually started with a small half-court gym called “Building I.”

It was located behind Mount Carmel, and many of the teams in the Altoona Parochial League practiced there.

As fate would have it, relatively new to Altoona, I was offered a chance to coach Mount Carmel in 1982 and was referred to Bennett.

Carl’s first question: “What parish do you belong to?”

Cracking a smile, I asked: “Is that a prerequisite?” and explained that I’m Jewish.

Bennett didn’t miss a beat.

“That’s OK,” he said. “But you need to get somebody to lead the Hail Mary.”

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.