A Father’s Day Reflection on Basketball and My Family
Since 2006, I have been a member of the WBCA – the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. That may seem odd given that I have never coached a women’s basketball team or any basketball team for that matter.
The WBCA does now have a membership category for fans. Many people know me as a devoted fan of Boston College Women’s Basketball, and let’s say an ardent admirer of UCONN. I also support my Crimson and Golden Gophers, and in general, I am a fan of women’s basketball. That might be enough to explain why I faithfully renew my WBCA membership each year; but it would only be part of the story.
In this Father’s Day post, I would like to share the rest of the story.
It would be an understatement to say that coaching basketball had a profound impact on my father’s life and career. Remarkably, his decision to stop coaching basketball had an even greater impact on his life and on our family.
After graduating from high school in 1949, he served four years in the Air Force before returning home to the Roxbury section of Boston where he was born. By 1957 he was married and working full-time as a side laster in the local shoe factory . He was also a player-coach on the company basketball team in the Boston Park League and volunteered three afternoons and three nights per week as a basketball coach (among other things) at the Emmanuel House.
Emmanuel House was a Catholic settlement house in the neighborhood. He had found refuge there after his father died when he was 8 years old. It was at the Emmanuel House that he developed his lifelong love for basketball, despite never “outgrowing” the nickname “Pee Wee” that his mother gave him as a child.
After winning the settlement league championship with Emmanuel House and the division championship with the company team he was offered the coaching job at Don Bosco Technical High School, a Catholic vocational/technical school that had recently relocated to downtown Boston – about a mile from his neighborhood.
In 1958, he led Don Bosco to the Catholic League Suburban Division championship – the school’s first athletic championship. The following year he was offered a position as a history and math teacher. He left the shoe factory (returning in the summer months) and began what would become a 40-year career as a math teacher. Don Bosco didn’t have its own gym until the 1970s, so after school as many players as possible would pile into his shiny black Plymouth and drive to practice.
I was born in 1959 and my sister followed in 1961. His career as a coach and teacher were thriving. Around that time, the new director of the school, a selfless priest named Fr. Vincent Duffy, encouraged my father to go to college – yes, he had not yet gone to college. He replied that with two young kids at home he could not possibly go to night school and coach basketball, the job he was hired to do. Fr. Duffy told him that in the long run it would be better for him to get his credentials to be a teacher even if it cost the school a coach.
My father stopped coaching (kept teaching) and enrolled in night school at Northeastern University, about a mile from Don Bosco. After earning his Bachelor’s Degree with honors, he continued on another mile up the road, earning his M.Ed. from Boston State College in 1968. In the 1967-1968 school year he also left his position at Don Bosco, moving to public schools and Canton High School.
Father and Son
After settling into his new position, basketball called again. Taking on the position of coach of the freshman boys basketball team, he also served as advance scout for the varsity team. As a 10-year old, I was able to accompany him around southeastern Massachusetts on Friday nights (but not Tuesdays) as he scouted the next opponent. I eagerly watched him chart shots and make notes throughout the game. I learned how to chart shots along with him. After returning home, I would head off to bed as he sat at the kitchen table writing up his notes to deliver to the varsity team on Saturday morning. He would patiently explain to me the key things he was noting, but I just couldn’t see the game the way he did. I assumed that skill would come with age and experience. It didn’t.
The varsity team won its first league championship. After coaching the freshman team for a few more years, he took another short break from basketball. Then in the mid-1970s he was offered the opportunity to coach the varsity girls basketball team.
Now in my last years of high school and first years at Harvard I was able to catch the bus to Canton and attend his games. By that time, I had sharpened my skills at charting shots as well as tracking offensive and defensive rebounds, assists, and turnovers. I would summarize the data, compute the game and cumulative stats, prepare visualizations, call in scores, and write game summaries for the local papers. Although I had clearly found my passion, I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just thrilled to be working with my father and making a small contribution to his team.
And together we became fans of girls and women’s basketball. Never ones to do something halfway, we watched the annual Iowa 6 on 6 basketball tournament on public television. I sent away for an Iowa Cornets t-shirt (how could I resist that name as a basketball fan and music major). We watched Delta State, Louisiana Tech, and Old Dominion win championships and cheered for the Mighty Macs.
At Harvard, I would climb the stairs to the top of the IAB (Indoor Athletic Building) to the “glorified” high school gym one floor above the swimming pool. There I would watch the Harvard women’s team with players such as Wendy Carle (a friend of a friend and the woman who took piano lessons right before me) and later Rose Guarino (daughter of a Boston Public Schools music administrator I knew and one of the kindest men I ever met). I would also get to catch up with some of my father’s former players who now played for local colleges and universities. Things were a lot more personal and informal in those days – you could just mingle with players on the court after the game.
When I arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1983 for graduate school, one of the first things I did was spend $12 for a season ticket to all women’s athletics (yes, $12). Because I had the ticket, I started attending women’s volleyball games. At those games I met the women’s basketball team – fundraising in the concourse during each game. Again, it was a different time. And so, that winter I spent many nights making the cold walk to Williams Arena to cheer for Laura, Carol, Gretchen and the rest of the Gophers.
I was a fan of women’s basketball.
Father and Daughter
Fast forward to 2005 and a dreary Saturday afternoon at Logan Airport in Boston. I am waiting for a flight to Indianapolis for my first NCAA Women’s Final Four. Having taken the bus to the airport from Portsmouth, NH I am sitting comfortably at the gate two hours early.
As other people began to arrive, I was joined in my small cluster of seats by two assistant coaches from Boston College and Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith.
(Aside for my non-basketball readers: At that time Kathy Delaney-Smith had been at Harvard for 20+ years with 9 first place finishes in the Ivy League and 5 NCAA tournament appearances. But she was already a legend in Massachusetts basketball before coaching her first game at Harvard due to the success of her Westwood High School team and her position as a champion for gender equality. My father’s team had considered it a moral victory to be able to contain her team for one quarter.)
The coaches chatted briefly about basketball strategy and then began discussing how they supported their players as student-athletes, the struggles and challenges the players faced, the philosophies of their programs. It was a brief, but inspiring, conversation to observe.
At that time my daughter, Mary, was in fifth grade and had just completed her second year of organized basketball. She was the tallest in her class – the first in our family to play with her back to the basket – and already seemed to have inherited her grandfather’s understanding of the game (maybe it skips a generation). We had already been looking at basketball camps for her to attend that summer; and before I got on the plane I knew it had to be either Harvard or Boston College.
As it turned out, the Boston school calendar was extended because of a large number of snow days, the Harvard camp was cancelled, and Mary was on to Boston College.
Mary attended basketball camp at BC for seven years – it was her annual refuge and oasis as she progressed through middle school and high school. The basketball was fun, but the life lessons learned from Cathy Inglese, her staff, and her players were invaluable. There were different life lessons when “Coach” was let go, a new coach was hired, and players transferred. In the years that followed, it wasn’t quite the same with the new staff, but Coach Crawley, with her “Spirit Day” sermons (probably the most appropriate word) dispensed her own invaluable lessons to the young fans and campers.
We bought BC season tickets and became very familiar with the drive to/from Chestnut Hill. Through the ACC schedule, Mary was exposed to other powerful role models like Brenda Frese, Coach P (we are from Maine, after all), and Kay Yow. We made the trip to Greensboro to visit colleges and attend the ACC tournament (for my money, the best week of basketball anywhere). As time went on, we travelled to Connecticut to see Carolyn play with the Chicago Sky, watched Ayla sing at the Grand Ole Opry, and Mary bought Vic’s social justice t-shirts. Through Facebook, Mary watched other players begin successful post-basketball careers.
As for Mary’s playing days, the 5’3” she reached in fifth grade was her final growth spurt. She moved from center to forward to point guard, but never lost her love for boxing out and fighting for a rebound. She played basketball through high school and was co-captain of the JV team her junior and senior years. She is now a graduate student at the University of Maryland, cheers on Brenda Frese and the once-hated Terps at the Xfinity Center and even has an office in the historic Cole Field House. And when she was home for Christmas last December, we were in our regular seats at Conte Forum to watch BC take on NC State.
The Rest of the Story
Now you know the rest of the story.
When I think of the impact that coaching and the game itself has had on our family, how can I not support women’s basketball and women’s basketball coaches. When I think of the impact that teachers and coaches like my father and Cathy Inglese had on countless students, players, and campers, how can I not support women’s basketball and women’s basketball coaches.
So, on this Father’s Day I will remember my father and FaceTime with my daughter and thank basketball for all that is has given our family.