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The Game That Gave A Coach Life

August 19, 2023 5 min read

The Game That Gave A Coach Life

 By Ray Glier

Jim Freel, 63, vowed to be a more relaxed high school basketball coach. He was going to use that thing called a seat more often and not be so stringent a sideline coach. He’s a nice man, not a sideline tyrant, but Jim said he needed some more chill. The game can work you up, especially when you are devoted to it like Freel.

Still, they give out heart stents even to nice-guy coaches, like Freel. And they make you rest after a reckoning, like a heart attack. They take your whistle, your team, and your basketball, which is basically taking your identity.

“I found basketball hard to even watch on TV laying in the hospital bed,” Freel said.

Two things make Freel’s story alluring and worthy of the Geezer Jock newsletter.

The heart attack May 21 couldn’t shake his passion for the game. Jim almost died and yet he is unafraid to coach again, or lace up sneakers one day and play in the senior games.

While his Delaware Gold M60-64 team played in the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, Freel, who had the heart attack while playing basketball, of course, stood behind his wife who was seated in the fan section. He couldn’t play and he couldn’t coach, but he still wouldn’t sit.

This collection of players, all local to the Wilmington, Del., area has been competitive for years in the Senior Games, locally and nationally. They finished 4-3 in Pittsburgh and got a bronze medal in DII.

I asked one of the team members, “Who’s your best player?”

He pointed to Freel.

Figures. Jim looked like an all-in leader even while being left out.

**

No one should assume life skips along after you have been saved and you are on your way to fitness and playing ball again. There is a mental challenge and Jim Freel is here to tell you it’s real.

Freel was in the hospital 26 days after the surgery because doctors couldn’t get his blood pressure under control. He tried to go on walks down the cardiology hallway to get with the recovery regimen and fell twice.

“It's been real tough, I didn't think it was going to be so tough,” Freel said. “I should be happy that I'm alive, but I wake up every day and I can't get it out of my head. Is it gonna happen again? I didn't have any symptoms and all of a sudden, I’m on the ground.”

And now?

“Like I said, I didn't think I was ever gonna come back, it’s amazing the stuff that goes through your head, but now I really believe I'm going to come back. I don't know what that level is, but I'm going to play again.”

Freel has a wife (Kae Lynn) and sons and a daughter and their significant others (Paul/Britt, Daniel/Kate, Shannon/Matt and son Shawn and seven grandchildren) to think about, so he is not side-stepping anything in recovery. He rehabs and kept his promise not to even touch a basketball in Pittsburgh (I think). He also wants to coach again, though it won’t be this coming season as he steps back for a year.

Just this week the Buffalo Bills' defensive back Damar Hamlin came back and played his first game after a near-catastrophic heart episode. What level will Hamlin play? He’s 38 years younger than Freel so he has expectations, but Geezer Jocks should have expectations, too. Freel grew up playing on the driveway courts, like the one he almost died on, and I bet he has expectations his game will come back to him, just like Hamlin.

What also makes Freel’s story alluring is the way Delaware Gold plays. Jim insists Tony Figiola is the coach and the maestro and assistant Gino Morelli is next in authority, but this team plays the way a coach like Freel would like them to play.

The first pass is not the last pass. A cutter from the side raises an arm to present as a target as he cuts through the lane. If you get beat off the dribble help arrives. A screen is square, not a half-assed angle. They communicate on defense and they can switch at all three spots, but maybe be a little careful if their big has to suddenly handle a hiccup-quick guard.

But that goes both ways. Gary Schills, the Gold center at 6-foot-6, can have a shorter player on him and—boom—he gets the ball on the block. It’s pretty cool to see a basketball team have spacing and recognize a mismatch. Kenny Dill, a shooter, played off Schills’ positioning and must have had 30 in one game, mostly with 3s.

On one play I saw an archaic move by a Delaware player and blinked my eyes. “Was that an actual box out?”

Delaware Gold has height and it has shooters. It could have used some more athleticism in one loss to get to more 50-50 balls, those balls that bounce loose and are anyone’s to snatch and usually go to the quicker player. But it’s a solid crew, not some put together all-star team whose only goal is gold.

You hear that Geezer Jocks? Too many times I’m hearing how much fun competing is and teams go out and recruit a player from Illinois to play on a Florida team only for the sake of winning.

The other Delaware Gold players include Fran Forrest, Rod Moyer, John Malik, and Darryl Bowen. They have been at this about 13 years and have won some silver medals. Chemistry matters.

The reason Freel’s team is important is that it should remind us about the real value of Wins and Losses and just playing the game well, like Delaware Gold.

There is an old saying “Don’t measure your life with someone else’s ruler.” Plenty of basketball coaches have been caught in that scrum comparing themselves to “the guy on the other sideline” and the value of “the other guy’s” contract and all “the other guy's wins” and that can lead to stress.

And sometimes playing the game well and just minding your own store doesn’t eliminate enough stress and we just go down, like Jim Freel, who one season was Delaware Coach of the Year.

But he got back up and that’s another thing not to overlook in his story. Immediate CPR saved Freel. Several people took turns on him pumping at his heart to get it started until the medics arrived. It takes some effort and resolve to do CPR and they all kept him going, especially a nurse who happened to be at the graduation party, Alyssa O’Connor.

Sports, as Hamlin and Freel can attest, can in rare times feel unblessed, but in those two moments for those men, one on a football field, the other on a basketball court, sports can be cathartic and cleansing. They were lucky they were where they were when their hearts stopped.

I know if have a moment I want it on a field of my dreams.


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