HoopDirt.com Guest Blog
Honoring the Coach That “Is” My Dad – Brian Barone (Head Basketball Coach SIUE)
One of the first memories I have of my dad is when I was staying in a Bradley University dorm with him as he ran basketball camp. I had to be 5 or 6. We were walking outside and heading to his car when he said, “I bet I’ll beat you to the car.” We both took off. I am not sure who won but I know from that point on my dad and I we were running together through life until his passing on June 25th, 2019.
My dad is well known because of his successes as a basketball coach. In the weeks after his passing most all of the stories that people have shared about my dad usually have more to do with him as a person than as a basketball coach. My dad IS a Hall of Fame coach, but my dad is not defined by his career path. Coaching was something he did. It isn’t who he was.
He is the person in the crowd watching his son play little league and the umpire didn’t show up so he jumped in to calls balls and strikes. He is the guy who would walk into the room singing Motown. He is the guy who would spend hours on the phone giving advice to someone about life situations.
Tony Barone will forever be a leader of our family. He stood 5’9” and could command an arena filled with thousands of people OR make a 7 foot man CRY – both tears of frustration and joy. On the other hand, he would let himself be commanded and would be brought to tears by a 21 inch newborn who bestowed on him the title “grandpa.”
He is dynamic. He is special. He is my dad.
Unfortunately, I had been thinking sharing my thoughts about him when he passed away for a while now. Nearly 6 years ago we were getting together for a family trip to New Buffalo, MI and my dad was slightly coughing. I remember thinking at that moment that something was wrong. He went to see the doctor before we left, but we packed up after his appointment to go enjoy a week away. We had to wait on the results. While on vacation we had a great time. We laughed, danced, played games and ate….then ate some more. We had a blast.
Shortly after that trip we learned that it was cancer in his lung. It didn’t make sense. He didn’t smoke and we weren’t educated enough to know that lung cancer is not only caused by smoking. My dad took the news and moved on. I know our family was in shock and scared. He seemed to look the news right in the face and say “ok…what is the next step?” He moved on. He allowed us to move on. We didn’t ignore what we had learned, but we moved on and lived. We worried and stressed at times, but somehow he allowed us to laugh, dance, play games and eat just like he did during that family trip to Michigan.
He did such a good job of living that even when he was in his final days and was struggling the most, there was a thought in my mind that he could “bounce back.” I had faith that things were going to be ok. Because he always made things ok.
See, my dad has a knack to pull the best out of people. I have seen him do it my entire life. He knows how to make someone do more than they ever thought they could do. He has a way to get people to find a way to succeed, even when nobody else saw success in that person.
He did it for the hundreds of players he coached. He did it for people he worked with and those who worked for him. He has a knack to make great people be even greater.
He has made me into the father I am today. The coaching profession takes a lot of time away from family. When I grew up I knew my dad traveled a lot, but I never felt he was not around. That is because when he was around, he was always present. One former player stood up at his funeral reception and said, “Coach Barone did a great job of putting family into basketball”.
My dad even has the ability to make my amazing mother even more amazing. Anyone who knows my dad knows that my dad is part of a team. My mom never gets the credit she truly deserves. Through this process she has proven over and over that through love anything can be achieved. She did what she had to do every day to help my dad fight his battle. Her mental and physical toughness to care for my dad as long as she did was herculean. My dad pushed her to her limits and she stepped up. My sister, brother and I will never be able to pay her back.
I was laying next to my dad as he began to pass away. Just prior I had went into the bedroom with him and turned on the Chicago Cubs game. I knew the end was near. I crawled next to him in bed, held his arm and watched the Cubs with my dad. Just like I did my entire life. I was giving him updates on what was happening in the game since his eyes were closed. At one point the Cubs got out of a bases loaded jam to maintain a one run lead. I cheered “yes” and gave fist pump to our friend who was sitting in the living room right outside the bedroom door. I could see my brother next to him. My mom was not in my vision but we could hear her and some other cousins and my aunt laughing. They were happy. For that moment there was joy. I remember thinking that it was so awesome that my dad was hearing laughter and happiness. His last moments were that. He could hear it. I know he could.
The Cubs didn’t score the next inning and as it went to commercial, I looked over at my dad and he began to move on. Within a minute or two he was gone. It was surreal. It was sad. But it was also time. He had made sure that we were all ok. My sister is a strong woman and remarkable mother. My brother is role model to myself and his nieces and nephews, along with being a pillar of strength for our family. My dad saw me reach a dream of mine when I became a head coach along with having a great wife and 4 amazing kids. My mom showed him through these recent years that she IS definitely strong enough to be ok with him moving on.
When he passed away the Cubs were winning. I think he knew what was about to happen and said to himself “I am ready to move on. My family is ready for me to move on. And to be honest…I don’t want to see the Cubs blow another lead!”…The next inning the Cubs lost the lead and the game. Only a die hard Cubs fan could have made that kind of commitment!
The day of his funeral I stood up in front of hundreds of people and gave a eulogy. I was sad. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. I told everyone that I wanted to see my dad again. I was thinking about all the times I use to go listen to him speak at a clinic and I would ask him to “please not talk too long.” When I was little, I didn’t want to sit in the stands and listen to him talk. I wanted to play catch or shoot with him, but every time I could go with him I did because I just loved being with him. I still do. That is why I wanted to say hello to him again right then in that church. I knew we all wish we could see my dad again. Hear his laugh. Get his advice. Listen to him speak as long as he wants.
So I asked all my dad’s old teammates he played with, coaches he coached with, players he coached on a team or even in a basketball camp to stand up. I then asked for all of those who stood to also have their family stand up alongside of them.
I looked out over everyone standing and experienced a powerful moment of happiness. I had referenced my dad throughout my eulogy as I am now in the present tense. As I spoke I didn’t refer to who my dad was. I only refered to who he is. I explained that was because as I looked around I see my dad in all of these people standing. He is present through all of the familes that he impacted over his lifetime.
I said “HI DAD…I LOVE YOU…GOOD TO SEE YOU TODAY”. My dad wasn’t gone. He was standing up right in front of us.
I have moments like that every day. I am lucky to see my dad daily through the stories people share, letters I receive, and even in the players I coach (two of which are children of one of his former players).
My dad spoke at basketball clinics all over the world and at the conclusion of his talks he would always leave the group with this last thought.
He would say:
“Please pray for the Chicago Cubs. Please pray for my family and your family. Do this because we all need the prayers but more importantly…WE ALL NEED TO PRACTICE”.
I love you dad.