In January 2007, a childhood friend informed me that my high school basketball coach had cancer. This came as a complete surprise as I had seen him in 2005 looking healthy as an ox. I decided to give him a call the day after I found out that his cancer was terminal. It was tough dialing those numbers as I knew it would be the last time we would talk.
Despite his difficulty, his spirit was high and he sounded positive. That demeanour didn't surprise me as he was the kind of man who could handle any adversity yet his gentle soul was my lasting memory on the telephone.
We talked about my life in Sweden and the exciting news of our baby boy due in February. He touched on his cancer and the tough battle although I could tell that he didn't want to dwell on it. He knew his time was near.
I told him how important his teachings were to me and followed up the conversation with a hand written letter. A few paragraphs from the letter are below:
I hope you know how important your teaching and nurturing were to me during my 3 years with the high school basketball team. I remember our hoop days fondly and only wish I didn't break my collarbone in my first year! It was tough watching from the bench but that team (your first) was very special. 28-4 as I recall.
I appreciate all your efforts in making me better as a player and providing opportunities for colleges to see me. Basketball has taken me a long way in life and you are a big part of that success.
We also talked about the two things he treasured the most; his family (wife and two twenty-something sons) and his church (dear to him). During this part of the conversation was when the spontaneous advice came - words I needed to hear.
He said, "Make sure you don't push your son into sports". I had heard similar advice in random discussions over the years although no one had ever said it directly to me. I had never known his sons to be particularly athletic yet I never expected my coach to be the type to push them into sports.
When my son was 13 months, he displayed a natural talent for basketball in regards to shooting on the small net we had in the house. He seemed so interested in the sport which was fun to witness. I was excited being an ex Division 1 college basketball player and encouraged him although my coach's words frequently echoed around me.
Soon after turning two, my son started to be interested in more typical Swedish sports like football (soccer in USA). In addition, his basketball interest decreased considerably. When he does take the basketball outside, he usually kicks it around instead of dribbling or shooting; a sight that usually makes me chuckle. Instead of being disappointed or pushing him into my favorite sport, I flow with his interests as any good parent should.
I'd like to think I would have acted in this fashion had I not heard my coach's words but they helped to put things into perspective. His sentence, "Don't push your son into sports" made a big impact on me then and still reverberates today.
In July 2005, I was greeting a steady stream of family and friends at my father's funeral. There were several unexpected guests that day yet no one more so than the person who came down the aisle and brought the biggest smile to my face. He exuded comforting warmth and provided a moment for me that touched my heart. It was my high school basketball coach, Paul Lavelle.
Before the funeral, I had not seen him in a long time although I was consistent in sending holiday cards over the years and fondly remember a spontaneous visit I made to his home in the mid 1990's. He somehow found out about my dad (most likely the newspaper) and made the effort to support me on one of my most difficult days. What I didn't realize then is that I would never see him again.
In March of 2007, less than two months after our phone conversation, Coach Paul Lavelle passed away at the age of 54.
Here's what my aforementioned friend Don wrote about him in an email:
I am very sad to tell you about Paul, but today he passed away peacefully after a difficult fight with cancer. He was a good man, teacher, friend, husband and father. He made a difference in my life and I will always remember him as a decent and honest man and teacher. I hope those of you who responded to him, helped him through his final weeks. It made a difference to him – He made a difference for me in my life.
God bless Paul Lavelle and those of us who knew him.
Those eloquent words capture the essence of the man and the inspiration he provided to those of us fortunate enough to know him.
Rest in Peace Coach Lavelle. Your family and church will remain in my thoughts and prayers.
Happy Gswede Sunday!
Coach Lavelle helped Gswede to soar during his final year in high school.