SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Joe Mihalich apologized. He said he was trying his best to maintain his composure, but he needed to share the memory. Mihalich knew I had also lost my mother to cancer last autumn. He felt that might make it easier to relate.
Early in February, Niagara was in a three-game losing spiral after starting the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season with a 10-1 record. The Purple Eagles were without the injured Antoine Mason, and Mihalich could feel the season slipping away.
They were tied at Marist with two seconds to play when sophomore point guard Juan’ya Green rose up for a potential game-winning jump shot.
“I’m standing right behind Juan’ya,” Mihalich recalled, “and I have the direct line to the basket. He takes the shot, and I’m like, ‘Ah, it’s off. It’s off. We’re going to overtime’. I almost started turning around.”
His voice began to break as he recalled the moment. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I swear to God … the ball, it just went a little left. I’m telling you, it went a little left there. I’m not lying to you.”
Green’s shot went in the basket, breaking the losing spell and setting the Eagles back on course. They wound up winning the MAAC regular-season title with a 13-5 record, gaining the top seed in this weekend’s conference tournament and earning Mihalich his third Coach of the Year award.
Mihalich believes his mother, Dolores, directed that shot toward the hoop. Dolores, the biggest Niagara fan of all, a woman who for 15 years answered her telephone with the words “Go Purple Eagles!” had lost a nine-year battle with cancer at the start of the basketball season.
“I think about her all the time,” Mihalich said Thursday night after receiving his award. “She was around this year. Yeah, she was around.”
Who’s going to doubt him? For nearly a decade, his mom had defied the odds and laughed in the face of death. In December 2003, Dolores was diagnosed with colon cancer. The doctors said she might have three months to live. It spread to her liver. She survived nearly nine years.
Dolores was in the stands in Buffalo when Niagara won its first MAAC title, in 2005. She saw her son cut down the net and whisper “For you” to her. She was there in Bridgeport in 2007, when he won it again. Last year, she made it to Springfield, but she knew it would be her last MAAC tourney.
“We’re checking out of her hotel, and she told me, ‘You know, I won’t be here next year.’ ” Mihalich said. “She was ready.”
She died at 88 last Nov. 21, just before Thanksgiving. Mihalich said the hospice people knew the end was near because his mom was losing interest in most everything. She told the nurses the only thing that mattered was her six children – and Niagara basketball, her second family.
“It kept her going,” Mihalich said. “She inspired and motivated me all the time. All we were trying to do was make baskets and get rebounds. She was walking to get chemo every other week.”
Any coach will tell you it’s hard to rank his or her favorite seasons. How do you pick one championship over another? How do you compare a fond, distant memory to one that is still unfolding?
Every team has a distinctive personality. But Mihalich said this year was especially meaningful. His team, the youngest in the conference, was picked for fifth in the MAAC. Two years ago, they went 9-23, only his second losing season in his first 13 years on Monteagle Ridge.
But when you lose a parent, you feel more intimately connected to the things they held dear. “I’m telling you,” Mihalich said, “I felt like she was there every game. I really did.”
Mihalich, a Philadelphia native and the eldest of six children, considered his mother the toughest, most resilient person he had ever known. There was no keeping Dolores down. How could a coach not love a team that reflected those very qualities on a basketball court?
The Purple Eagles came from behind time after time this season. No lead was too large, no obstacle too great. They were at their best in
a crisis. They were 8-2 in the league
in games decided by four or fewer points.
“I don’t want to personalize it too much,” Mihalich said, “but this team has a will to win. I mean, she had a great will to live.”
Mihalich hesitated, fighting the tears. Watching your mother suffer with cancer is a difficult thing. Doing it for nine years had to be excruciating. In a way, I envied him, having the gift of those unanticipated years.
“But you’re never ready for it,” Mihalich said. “You think you are, but you’re never ready.”
Mihalich looked up at the ceiling in the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is encircled by black-and-white photos of the game’s greats. He said he felt humbled by the coaching award. He said his assistant coaches should be the ones getting recognized.
He has won 264 games at Niagara. He has the most wins of any coach
in MAAC history. Mihalich joins former St. Peter’s head man Ted Fiore as the only coaches to win three MAAC men’s Coach of the Year awards.
For all his accomplishments, though, Mihalich never seems content. He has the perpetually fretful demeanor of a coach who sees disaster around every corner. Maybe that 23-loss season reminded him that winning can be a fragile and fleeting thing, like life itself.
In a tight, well-balanced MAAC, winning three games in a row will be a huge task for any team. But one thing is certain. Niagara won’t go down without a fight. They have an amazing survivor’s spirit.
You could say it runs in the family.