Feb 11, 2007 — Here's why the game matters.
First, it's fun. Always has been, going back to the day Jim Dooley picked up a ball on a 1950s Bronx playground and started sinking jump shots from every angle.
Second, it put him in college. Funny story, the Jewish sporting goods salesman called the Jesuit school with a recommendation and secured Dooley a scholarship, sight unseen.
Third, it gave him a wife, even if indirectly. Mary could never say she didn't know what she was getting into.
Fourth, it gave him a job. Half a job really; he was a history teacher,
too. But since 1965, he has always been coach -
The Coach - that fading ideal of the respected elder charged with
teaching the young.
Fifth, it showed him the world. At 39, just as most people are settling in for good, he was asked to coach Iceland's national team. Name your country, he'll list his friends.
Sixth, it let him lead. And shape. And engage. Forty-one years of teenagers - some great players, most just happy to be in the team picture - are marked with his lessons. Compete. Value a teammate. Solve problems on your own. All imparted with the flair of a saber fighter.
But you want to know why this game, with a ball and a hoop, really matters?
Because amid the joy, hard things await all of us. Painful things. Like burying a sister two days before Christmas.
When Jim Dooley needed them most, those lessons he learned so long ago and passed on to a biblical generation were there for him.
Delone Catholic head boys' basketball coach Jim
Dooley talks with his team during Friday's game.
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(Bil Bowden - YDR)
The Pat Brady Project
For two weeks,Delone Catholic's boys were flat. Everything was great early in the season and through the holiday tournaments, but then the calendar turned and, suddenly, the momentum was gone.
What was worse, Pat Brady could not make a shot. A senior seeing real varsity minutes for the first time, Brady had gone cold.
So that's where Dooley began practice Jan. 16.
Brady on the side, taking jump shots, casually, while the others warmed up. The kid had no confidence. Dooley just wanted him to feel the basketball in his hands.
Dooley nursed hundreds of kids through similar slumps between the start of his career and his 1,000th high school game, which he coached Feb. 2. Along the way, he became a respected figure across central Pennsylvania. Before coming to Delone, he spent 12 years coaching at Gettysburg High.
He glanced at his watch, an old digital Timex with a metal band, and started the drills at precisely 5:00.
Dooley wanted to emphasize mental and physical toughness. He wrote it on his practice schedule, a minute-by-minute breakdown with diagrams, thoughts and admonitions like, "HARD WORK FOR 3 MINUTES."
Handwritten in block letters, the schedule was three pages long and labeled with Roman numerals: XXXV. He keeps them all to compare from year to year.
Dooley patrolled the top of the key, clapping, bellowing, extolling. He needed more intensity from his players, so the cajoling would wait.
He wore blue gym shorts that stopped a few inches above the knee, a white Georgetown polo and white New Balance sneakers. He kept a black felt-tip pen tucked into his shirt collar.
At 62, his still robust upper body tilted forward 12 degrees and bobbed on spindly, Babe Ruth legs. He constantly flipped his wrist to check the time.
At 5:09, he switched to defensive drills, stopping penetration in man-to-man situations. At 5:14, he went to a four-on-four shell. At 5:19, the JV players, wearing gold, tried to score on the varsity. The JV team got stuck.
"Come on, gold," he yelled. "Get out of it, gold. No one's going to help you out of it. You've got to get out of it on your own. You've got to help each other out of it."
On it went until 6:30.
As they broke up, Dooley pulled Brady aside for a few more shots. Just feel the ball. Feel the ball.
How things happen
The first job was a fluke.
He was house-sitting for his parents in 1965, the summer after graduating from the University of Scranton, waiting to start graduate school at St.John's.
A new high school in Pasadena, Md., needed a basketball coach and history teacher. Dooley's parents came home to find an empty house.
It didn't matter that his new varsity basketball team had no seniors, or that only one kid knew how to make a layup or that the coach was only 21 years old.
God, they were awful. Dooley's third and final Pasadena team won its only game on the last night of the season.
"We partied like he won the championship," his wife said.
Mary. Without her, he might have gone crazy those first three years.
They met in 1964, painting backboards in the Adirondacks at a summer camp partly owned by Dooley's father. The infatuation blossomed, and they were married in 1966.
The couple survived Maryland, and moved on to Shippensburg High School. Dooley suddenly had players and, before long, winning teams.
He and Mary had a ball. After games, the younger faculty, coaches and players came by the house to eat pizza and talk roundball.
That set the template.
As Dooley moved through four high schools, he wrote his life in bold letters, with an ever-expanding circle of friends outnumbered only by his former players.
Long after their trophies were covered in dust, the Dooley alumni would receive a Christmas card or a congratulatory note that sent them rifling through their papers, looking for one of the poems the coach wrote on his scouting report, the one where he mentioned them by name.
To that group, he would always be Coach.
Christmas shopping in Copenhagen
So then how did he wind up coaching Iceland's national team?
The Mariel boatlift.
To explain, in 1980, Cuban refugees began arriving on American shores in mass numbers, and the U.S. government set up processing centers around the country.
Mary taught English as a second language, and the government paid her $100 a day, tax free, to give crash courses to refugees at Fort Indiantown Gap. She earned $3,600 and wanted to go to Europe.
They started the tour in Iceland, visiting the family of an exchange student they once hosted.
At a cocktail party, Dooley started talking basketball. Of course he did. The men were not pleased with the young American players Icelandic club teams imported. They were all fresh out of college and looking to chase women, instead of teaching the game to the natives.
Well, Dooley said, if you want someone to teach the kids, bring coaches over. He didn't think anything of it.
Six months later, a contract to coach the first club of Reykjavik arrived at the Dooley house.
"Mary's all excited, she wants to do this," Dooley said. "I don't want to do this. We end up going."
It wasn't just one team. For the 1982-83 season, Dooley coached the men's and women's masters teams, along with four developmental clubs.
Three days into the job, one of his players asked him to lunch.
"So I get dressed up, and of course they're speaking in Icelandic because it's a big business thing, and I can't speak one word of it. So I'm at this luncheon, I'm trying to eat food, I don't know what I'm eating. I'm sitting with these four guys, and they're speaking Icelandic, they haven't spoken English yet, and I hear my name.
"So I stood up and waved, and everybody clapped. Then I said to the guy next to me, 'That's pretty funny. What, are they just happy I got there alive?'"
"He said, 'You don't understand, do you?' "
"I said, 'I understand very little.'"
"He said, 'You've just been named the national basketball coach of the country.' "
So, make it seven teams, and they all practiced late at night.
"I was 38, 39 years old," Dooley said. "I had to demonstrate everything because the lower you got, the less they understood English. I was in the greatest shape of my life. I mean, I was really in shape because I'm going three, four practices a day. It was amazing."
Mary loved it. Molly and Dan, their children, were teenagers. They learned the language their father never mastered. They saw the island as their frozen, temporary wonderland.
"He coached at night, so we had the days free," Mary said. "Icelanders are so concentrated on that island they go Christmas shopping in Copenhagen (Denmark). So we did our Christmas shopping in Copenhagen."
No one could say the coach lived a sheltered life before Iceland, but the year abroad opened him to the possibilities of international travel and the idea that the game could serve as a language of its own.
"You kind of measure your life before and after," Dooley said.
Wins and losses
The themes are always the same.
"Compete, compete, compete again."
"Don't beat yourself up. Plenty of other people are willing to beat you up."
"Sacrifice for your teammate. Applaud a teammate, don't be jealous. Somebody else did something, that's great."
He talks about basketball, but life bleeds through. Ask about the importance of driving to the basket, you hear about Lech Walesa, leader of the Polish Solidarity movement.
For a time, he considered a jump to college ball, but high schools, specifically Pennsylvania high schools, are his niche. He loves them too much to let them go.
After four decades, Dooley trusts his own voice and thick, Bronx accent.
He worries about the direction of coaching, as more high schools decide winning comes above all else. Were he just starting now, Dooley doesn't know if he'd last. In the future, he says, longtime coaches will be few and far between.
Then, there is the change in how kids are introduced to athletics.
It used to be, they would grab a ball and play. Learn skills on their own, pick their own teams, set up their own ground rules. Organized sports came later.
The kids are still the same, he said, but the context has changed.
Now, from the first pee-wee game on, everything is sanctioned and regulated. On and off the court, children are allowed to make fewer choices of real consequence.
Coping skills, once an essential part of growing up, might not be developed.
"When you're 80, and they tell you you can no longer drive a car, you've now lost your freedom," Dooley said. "You've got to be a real tough son-of-a-gun to say, 'You know what, I'm taking the bus,' instead of just sitting down and saying, 'What's next?'
"It doesn't matter how old you are, you've got to solve problems."
When Dooley's older sister, Peggy Nelson, was 57, she was the teacher of the year in New Rochelle, N.Y. A year later, in 1998, she had to retire because she could no longer answer her fourth graders' questions.
Alzheimer's disease came on like December dusk. Peggy would call Dooley or Mary and drift off mid-sentence, suddenly unsure who was on the other end of the line.
She spent the last three years of her life in a home. Every day Dooley prayed that God would take her.
When He did, on Dec. 20, 2006, it hurt like hell.
On Dec. 23, Dooley and his daughter Molly left Gettysburg at 4:30 in the morning, driving north through a light rain. Dooley was already tired, having coached a game seven hours earlier.
After the funeral, he read a poem celebrating Peggy's life at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery. The priest thanked him.
They mistakenly went through an E-ZPass lane entering the New Jersey Turnpike on the way home.
"The good news is, we made it," Dooley told the toll worker. "The bad news is we don't have a ticket."
The toll worker was not amused.
Dooley could have picked his lesson. "Nobody has a monopoly on pain," would have worked just as well as, "You're always getting knocked down and having to come back."
The Pat Brady Project, II
On Jan. 31, Dooley put practice into motion at 6:29 and 30 seconds.
In the two weeks since he fed Brady jump shot after jump shot, the Squires had won three straight. Dooley could be loose.
His explanation of defense to Cody Smith: "It's like being in a fight. You wouldn't stand with your hands down in a fight would you? I hope not, because I like you."
Brady, now removed from his disastrous shooting slump, sank everything. He wanted the ball.
One by one, Dooley went to his other players and asked them, did Pat get taller? Did he lift weights and get stronger? Did he get any faster?
"No," they all answered.
"He gained confidence and he's the best Pat Brady he can be," Dooley whispered.
On Feb. 2, he arrived at Delone for his 1,000th game, in uniform.
Short-sleeved blue shirt, tie, argyle sweater, khakis and saddle shoes. Mary used to buy the shoes from a factory store in Littlestown for $15. Now, she has to order them online, from Italy, for $165.
Dooley started wearing them in Shippensburg, telling Molly, "Just wait, they'll be back in style."
He glad-handed his way through the lobby. Fans showed him a program with his high-school picture.
"What the hell happened to that kid," Dooley wondered.
He settled in the bleachers and watched the JV shoot-around. Hip-hop played in the background.
The coach yawned.
He stared at Hanover's players and started asking about their guards. He was nervous.
"I think if you're not nervous, something's wrong," Dooley said.
By the third quarter of the JV game, he was up and moving, bouncing back and forth. He grabbed a ball out of the ball rack and dribbled it twice. He flipped through the scouting report he had surely memorized.
Delone's varsity players went to the locker room, and Dooley started talking hoops with a student wearing a black afro wig.
He was no longer yawning.
His pregame talk was short and heavy on details. He didn't want his players to get lost in the hoopla of senior night, but before he dismissed them, he gave one more piece of knowledge.
"You know how I tell you all these things about teammates and the lessons you learn about loyalty? Ten minutes before I came here tonight, my college roommate comes walking through the door in the middle of a snowstorm.
"He came because he knew tonight was important to me. I know all that stuff sounds corny, but we know it's true."
That, right there, is why the game matters.
Reach Jeff Frantz at 771-2062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Player· Guard at University of Scranton; scored 1,073 points and served as team captain his senior year.
Coach· 1965-1968, Northeastern H.S., Pasadena, Md.
· 1968-1977, Shippensburg H.S.
· 1977-1981, Cumberland Valley H.S.
· 1982-1983, Iceland national coach
· 1983-1989, Cumberland Valley H.S.
· 1989-2000, Gettysburg H.S.
· 2000-2001, year off
· 2001-2002, Delone Catholic H.S. freshman team
· 2003-present, Delone Catholic H.S. varsity team