Mike Anderson and Rick Pitino Charles Wenzelberg; Getty Images
They are coping the best they can, same as you, same as me, same as everyone, trying to not go crazy looking at the same four walls, yearning for normalcy, pondering what “normalcy” will look like, plowing through Netflix and Hulu, devouring books, eager to go back to work. Making do.
“I walk every day,” says Joe Mihalich, the Hofstra basketball coach. “Six miles a day some days. I Zoom a lot now. Who knew?”
“I’ve taken up bike riding,” says Iona’s Rick Pitino, while riding that bike around Miami’s mostly abandoned streets. “First time in years.”
Jim Boeheim, whose first big job at Syracuse was earning $2,000 as the golf coach in the spring while doubling as an assistant hoops coach in the winter, was able to play a couple of rounds between the sudden end of the basketball season and the eventual shutdown of the state’s courses.
“I was at Wegman’s the other day,” Boeheim said, “and it felt like it was empty when it almost always feels like there are a thousand people in there.”
In other years, they would be shaking off the fatigue of the long season and finishing off their recruiting, planning for the summer, with so many of them crossing paths as they try to beat each other for players now, and on basketball courts across New York state next season. Wednesday officially kicks off the spring signing period. There are few days more sacred than those in the coaching calendar. In other years.
Instead, they find themselves in a most unique position, as teammates for a common cause, one organized by the New York Renaissance Basketball Association, which takes its name from the famous Harlem team of the 1920s, was founded by the great basketball impresario Dan Klores, and exists to keep young athletes focused on life’s fundamentals: school, safety, health.
It was the Rens’ executive director, Andy Borman, and a 25-year-old Syracuse graduate assistant named Ben Horwitz who, while shooting the breeze about ball not long ago came up with the idea for Team New York, in which all 44 Division I basketball coaches in New York state (the men’s and women’s coaches for all 22 D-I schools) will use a variety of social platforms to spread the essential message of the moment.
“We’ve all got a common opponent now,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson says. “And getting the message out is so important. We need to remind young kids that this disease has no preference, it affects the young and the old, and we all have to be on the same side here.”
The program was inspired by Gov. Cuomo’s daily briefings, in which he has expressed equal parts hope and caution, a balance that comes naturally for a basketball coach.
“We’re starting to see the curve plateau,” Manhattan’s Steve Masiello says. “And sometimes it’s human nature to relax. But we can’t relax right now. We have to stay vigilant.”
Says St. Bonaventure’s Mark Schmidt: “I think what’s most important to stress, especially to the younger kids, is that you have to look out for others, it’s not all about you. You have to take care of your neighbors. It’s like being a good teammate.”
That is the thing that most unifies these men: They don’t stop coaching, probably because they can’t stop coaching. The last time we saw Mihalich, his team had just savored cutting down the nets at the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament before realizing it wouldn’t be able to play in the NCAAs. So Mihalich had to look for a bright side:
“We ended our season with a win,” Mihalich said. “There aren’t a lot of teams every year who can say that.”
Talk to Mihalich about his role in spreading this message, and it feels as if you’re in his halftime locker room with that NCAA bid hanging in the balance.
“Teams that win usually are doing things the right way, do the little things,” he says. “If we want to beat this pandemic we may not be dribbling and passing and making shots, but we are wearing masks, wearing gloves, staying home. Doing the right thing can be contagious.”
Says Boeheim: “It’s not only our jobs to affect lives for the better, it’s our vocation. We have to do something.”
So there will be a flood of messages now and in the coming days on social media, and on Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook, in which they will do what they do, try to teach, try to engage, try to educate. Coaching, always coaching.
“New Yorkers in times of crisis …. they always step up,” says Pitino, who managed to catch the last flight out of Greece and has been biding his time in South Florida until he and his wife feel right about driving to New York. “They are always equal to the challenge. I get tears in my eyes thinking about the firemen applauding the workers at Elmhurst Hospital.”
“We’re in this because we want to help young people succeed and make good choices,” Anderson says. “It’s the least we can do.”
And also the best.