Its official name was the Southeast Rec Center.

Everybody in Bridgeton called it the "Tin Can."

That's where Charlie Kates got his start in basketball, a gangly kid with athletic ability but little direction, and little expectation that his life would stretch far beyond the chained-link fences that surrounded those asphalt courts.

"I had no clue," Kates said. "It never occurred to me in a million years that I'd be able to do what I was able to do."

Kates, a former star at now-closed Sacred Heart High School in Vineland, as well as St. Francis University in Loretto, Pa., will be inducted into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame Feb. 14 as a member of the club's 36th annual class.

It's a fitting honor for an athlete who helped turn Sacred Heart into a small-school power in the mid-1970s, became a four-year starter at the Division I college level, spent two years in a professional league in Chile - and dedicated his post-playing career to helping generations of disadvantaged youngsters.

"I'm so proud of Charlie," former Sacred Heart coach Jim Mogan said. "He came so far as a basketball player, as a person. He was a great player, and he spent his career trying to help people."

Kates spent his freshman and sophomore years at Bridgeton High School. His older brother, Richie, a world-class middleweight boxer, was the driving force in his transfer to Sacred Heart before his junior year.

"Richie wanted me to be in a better situation," Charlie Kates said. "He felt something different would help me."

Said Mogan: "Richie was the guy who made that happen. He saw Charlie needed a change."

The 6-foot-5 Kates, a leaper known for his shot-blocking and finishes above the rim, made an immediate impact at Sacred Heart. In his first season, 1975-76, the Lions went 27-3, won the South Jersey Parochial C title, and lost the state title game by a point to a nascent North Jersey power, St. Anthony of Jersey City.

As a senior, Kates led Sacred Heart to a 21-5 record. The Lions lost in the South Jersey Parochial C title game to a St. Joseph of Camden team that featured Temple-bound Ron Wister on a buzzer-beater by Jim Finnegan.

"Two tough losses," Kates said. "But you know, we had some great teams, and it was a great experience playing in those days.

"I remember we were in the Cape-Atlantic League and playing against guys like Reggie Miller [Pleasantville], Walt Montford [Atlantic City], Rick Harmon [Middle Township]. Those were great experiences."

Kates was a four-year starter and 1,000-point scorer at St. Francis. He earned a degree in social work but put off joining the work world to play two seasons in a professional league in Chile.

"Who ever would think a guy like me would get a chance to travel abroad and play basketball?" Kates said.

Kates returned to Bridgeton and joined the school system as a counselor. He worked for 32 years in the district, focusing his efforts on young people who sometimes struggled to see beyond the perimeter of the "Tin Can."

Kates also was an active member of the Bridgeton African-American Union as well as a coordinator of a drug-abuse prevention program run by the Bridgeton Housing Authority.

"I like to think I helped a lot of kids along the way," Kates said. "I liked to talk with people, help those who were disadvantaged. I understood a lot of what they were dealing with."

Said Mogan: "Charlie always was looking to help others. He always was involved in trying to make things better for a lot of those kids."

Kates has been retired for two years. He has moved to Maryland, where he spends most of his time "taking it slow."

He said he still sometimes shakes his head in wonder at his ability to rise from those hard-scrabble courts in Bridgeton's South Ward - not only to the rim, but well beyond.

"We used to play until 2 or 3 in the morning," Kates said of summer nights at the Tin Can. "They would keep the lights on, and we would play and play.

"The courts were packed. You lose a game, you would have to wait an hour just to get another chance.

"I tried to make sure my team didn't lose very much."