It's no picnic coaching high school basketball nowadays. I've heard all the stories – about the self-centered players, the meddling parents, the trouble getting kids to embrace discipline and defense.
“It's a daily struggle,” said Canisius head coach Kyle Husband. “Today's world is all about 'Me.' ”
But it's nice to be reminded what can happen when a bunch of teenagers submerge their egos and express themselves as a team, when the program is more precious than any individual, the sum greater than the parts.
Husband has built such a program in nine years at Canisius. The Crusaders are a deep and talented group. But it's their selflessness that defines them. On Wednesday night, they survived some ragged stretches to outlast Timon, 53-47, for their third straight Manhattan Cup title.
Canisius didn't play its best game. Bishop Timon-St. Jude, which was outmanned but battled to the final buzzer, saw to that. Adam Weir, who will compete on the same court for Canisius College next fall, had a strong all-around game and led the way with 15 points. But he had an erratic shooting game on a night when the Canisius offense seemed rushed and out of sync.
That generally happens when you're trying to beat a local rival for the third time in a season. But when a team doesn't rely on any single player to carry the offense, it wins those games when the top scorers are a little off – especially when it embraces the suffocating pressure defense the Crusaders used to wear down Timon.
“You look across the board, down the bench, we probably have eight or nine guys who could go to any high school and be the best player there,” said senior Matt MacDonald. “Certain guys could average 20 a night, but choose to sacrifice for team. You look at a result like this and it tells you how important that is.”
Spoken like a true coach's son. MacDonald's dad, Mike, was the long-time coach at Canisius College and is now winning big at Medaille. Mike couldn't make the Cup final. His Mavs had an ECAC playoff game in Pennsylvania.
It's true about the Crusaders' depth. Several players have transferred to other Monsignor Martin teams to get more playing time. Their second team would be one of the best teams in the area. Harold Washington, a freshman guard, had some big plays in the final. So did sophomore guard Josh Huffman.
Canisius, the top-rated large school in Western New York, is loaded with underclassmen and should contend for years to come.
“We've got a good thing going,” Husband said. “The kids know what steps they have to take and the system we have. We preach it year-round. The Canisius way. It's tenacity and defense.”
The Canisius way works. No team had won the Cup three years in a row since the Crusaders under the late Tom Keenan from 1996-98. Husband was a senior on that '96 team, which upset St. Joe's in the title game and eventually lost to a Jason Rowe-led Traditional team in the federation Class C semifinals.
Husband went on to play college ball at Rensselaer. When he came back to Buffalo, he felt a certain lack of direction in his life. He worked as a bartender for awhile. But deep down, he knew his heart was still in the game.
“Basketball was always my life,” Husband said. “After college, when I came back to town, I thought, 'Geez, now what?'
“I had always stayed close with Tom [Keenan] and he wanted me to come and help. I knew what I wanted right away, once I started working with him.”
Keenan was battling cancer when Husband became an assistant coach. Husband watched his old coach run the team for three years with the disease.
He saw how much basketball meant to Keenan, who loved the game and showed what it meant to sacrifice to see it played well.
Ben Batory coached the Crusaders in the 2003-04 season, the year Keenan passed away. Husband took over the following year and won the Manhattan Cup, the first of his five, in his first season.
Husband said this was a particularly tough season. He and his wife, Kassi, have a 9-month-old son, Will. Now a Husband and father, he also had a gifted family of teenaged athletes to nurture. It didn't come easy. The great teams always take time.
“It definitely took a little while to buy in,” said MacDonald, who scored 11 points. “In November, we were all looking for 'ours,' and it just takes a while for any team to bond together. We really started to click the last month.”
Hard work paid off. Jim Mauro, the Canisius AD, said he was meeting with his hockey coaches recently and told them there's a simple reason Husband and his staff win so much. They work their tails off.
Basketball can be a beautiful game when it's played well, when the five players are flowing as one unit. It can be tough to watch when they're not.
“But when it does work, it's fun to watch,” Husband said. “It can be special.”
Three Manhattan titles in a row, four in five years. For a high school hoop coach, it doesn't get any more special than that.