The new Central Catholic High School Convocation Center gym. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Saturday evening, more than 1,000 students, parents, alumni, and supporters gathered at Central Catholic High School for a boisterous pep rally-style event celebrating the opening of its new 40,000-square-foot, $12 million Kahlig-Cowie Convocation Center.

The center includes a gym and event space, locker rooms and a state-of-the-art weight room, a grotto and prayer garden, and a 150-seat chapel, each named for a prominent donor or member of the Marianist faith community.

The central feature of the new facility is a full size basketball court named in honor of Joe Cortez, a Central Catholic alumnus and former champion coach of the school’s basketball team.

Cortez coached the Buttons from 1959 to 1995 and led the team, whose name refers to the rattling end of the rattlesnake’s tail, to a record of 791-404, including 10 state championships and a winning streak of 46 consecutive games that stretched from 1964 to 1966. A member of the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame, Cortez remains the all-time leader in career victories among San Antonio high school basketball coaches.

“Papa Joe,” as he is affectionately known, was present for the ceremony. With the help of his son Jody Cortez and current Buttons head coach Bruce McConaghy, the elderly Cortez set aside his walker and took the first shot on the new basketball court. This was followed by a round of shots from basketball alumni, including Tony Liberto, starting guard on the 1982 state champion Buttons team, who swished several free throws.

After a 12-year effort at building a new facility, Liberto said, “This is going to be a game-changer for Central Catholic.” He mentioned a potential positive effect on recruiting new student athletes and on practice and competition for the team.

“This is a much bigger facility, a much better weight room. We worked in a weight room over there about the size of two closets,” he said, referring to the team’s former athletic facility.

Current senior forward Tully McKenna echoed Liberto’s appreciation of the new weight room, saying the old version “used to be underground” with no windows. McKenna said he’s glad to have his last year in the new center and that he’s looking forward to “finishing strong.”

“I’m excited for Central in the future, because this is kind of an attraction now,” he said of the 1,100 seat-auditorium. 

Just after the celebration, Cortez said basketball is not just about fun and games, but has to have meaning and purpose and teach leadership and a service obligation to help others. 

Cortez explained his coaching philosophy as the crowd milled around him. He said, “My objective was for them to transform from a young kid that was dependable, to a young man that was self-sufficient.” Amidst his technical teaching about the game, he taught “that they have an obligation to also help other people. It’s not just about ourselves, it’s about other people,” he emphasized.

During the rally, Central Catholic President Paul Garro told the crowd Cortez was the first Hispanic basketball player for the University of Texas Longhorns, in the early 1950s.

“I’m very proud of our heritage, and especially the sacrifices that our parents made,” Cortez said. “They gave us the greatest inheritance you could ever want, and that was our faith.” Their love and guidance “makes us try to live up to their expectations,” he said, “so I set some high expectations for our players.”

Cortez’s son Jody and daughter Laura Mendez accompanied their father for the celebration. “We’re so proud of him,” Mendez said. “It’s a great honor for him. It seems like it’s the right way to honor him with his name on the court. He gave his whole coaching career to Central and he loves this school, and it’s a beautiful tribute.”

The Buttons play their first game on the new Coach Joe Cortez Court Nov. 9.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...