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Long Beach, Syosset
Mike Francesa and Chris Russo
`I was a kid who'd go surfing at 6:30 in the morning, get out of the water by 9, take a shower and go to work at the Atlantic Beach Club.'

By Steve Zipay
Staff Writer

Mike Francesa, left, in the WFAN studio, talking sports with Chris (Mad Dog) Russo; both spent much of their youth in Nassau County. Mike Francesa, left, in the WFAN studio, talking sports with Chris (Mad Dog) Russo; both spent much of their youth in Nassau County. (Newsday Photo, 1993/Ken Spencer)

Hearing WFAN's Mike Francesa and Chris Russo argue about baseball or football, listeners can't help but believe that the radio partners have nothing in common except a passion for sports.

They're wrong.

Mike and the Mad Dog, the most popular pairing in the history of sports-talk radio (WFAN/660 AM), share at least one thing: crystal-clear memories of being raised on Long Island.

Francesa, 44, has spent much of his life on the barrier island that includes Long Beach, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach; he now lives in Manhasset. Russo, 39, grew up in Syosset; at 15, he left to attend an upstate boarding school.

``I was fortunate because I grew up in the period when there was a lot of land, open space, where kids could run around,'' said Russo, who until he was 9 lived at 11 Harmony Ct., a little street off Split Rock Road about a quarter-mile from the LIRR train station.

``We played ball in the court and had a big field, two houses down, where we played football and baseball and where we built dugouts,'' Russo said. ``And Split Rock School, where I went from grades one through six, had lot of land in front and back.'' Behind the Russo house was Galeeza Stable. ``My father was a jewelry salesman and he took the train to work every day. I used to look through the back porch window and see my father cut through the stable when he'd come home at night.

``My recollection as a young kid is always summertime, being outside,'' Russo said. ``I remember when I learned to ride a bike without training wheels down Harmony Court . . . I remember rushing home for the World Series in 1967 when the Cards beat the Red Sox and in 1968 to see Willie Horton being interviewed after Detroit beat St. Louis.''

After a year at Syosset Junior High, Russo went to St. Paul's in Garden City for two years. Next was the Darrow School, a boarding school in New Lebanon, N.Y., ``but I came back in the summertime and still saw some of my buddies on the basketball court at Split Rock School, which didn't close until 1977 and wasn't torn down until years later.''

Most of the open land from Russo's childhood has been sold to developers. ``Now it's all houses,'' said Russo, who today lives in New Caanan, Conn. ``And the stable is a retirement village.''

For Francesa, it is another type of open space that triggers memories: endless beaches and the blue Atlantic.

``For many summers, I was a kid who'd go surfing at 6:30 in the morning, get out of the water by 9, take a shower and go to work at the Atlantic Beach Club,'' said Francesa, who grew up in Long Beach's West End. At the club, he parked cars, bused tables, worked in the kitchen. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, ``we played basketball in West School and Bay Park playground,'' he recalled. ``A lot of St. John's guys, like Billy Paultz, would come down to play.''

Like many kids of that era, Francesa was a big fan of Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle.

``In 1961, I remember going to Yankee Stadium and saw Mantle and Maris and Johnny Blanchard hit home runs against the Cleveland Indians,'' he said. ``In 1963, my older brother John took me with his buddies to the Polo Grounds to see a Mets doubleheader against the Reds. We made those trips by car, but it was easier to go to Shea by train, especially in the summer of '69. We used to sit in the upper deck and climb down to the empty seats.''

Later, Francesa took a bus to Maria Regina High School in Uniondale. As a senior, after varsity baseball practice or games, he remembers running across Hempstead Turnpike, en masse with the team, to Nets playoff games at the just-built Nassau Coliseum. ``We'd pay $3 or $4 and saw some great players, Ollie Taylor, Rick Barry . . . '' Francesa then spent one year at the University of South Florida and transferred to St. John's.

But if there's a single Long Island tableau that Francesa treasures, it's this one: the Loop Parkway (connecting to Point Lookout), at dusk, about this time of year.

``It seems I've been making that ride over the loop, to the Meadowbrook Parkway, my whole life,'' said Francesa. ``Even though I don't live down there anymore -- my mom does and I still have property there -- everything seems to come back to that five-mile stretch. I've always said that in the springtime, if you drive the loop, going home, going south, just as the sun's going down over that marshland, it is as pretty as anywhere you will ever see.

``I love to catch it at the right time . . . in May . . . about 7:30 . . . it is just beautiful. That to me is home . . . that will always be home to me.''

Copyright © 2006, Newsday, Inc.

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