We were at his kitchen table in Warrington in January 2019, the morning outside freezing but clear and sun-sparkled, and Jim Fenerty told one basketball story after another without ever letting on that he might soon die.

A week earlier, in the midst of his 30th season as the boys’ basketball coach at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, he had retired. He had planned to finish the school year before stepping away, but he had suffered what he said was a mild heart attack, and he’d beaten back a rare blood cancer years earlier. It was time.

Then or since, he never revealed to anyone outside his family just how grave his condition really was, that his heart disease was so severe that he was living on borrowed time.

“He didn’t want everybody treating him like he was dying,” his son, Jimmy, said. So when he died Wednesday morning, at 71, it was a shock to the Philadelphia basketball community, to the Germantown Academy community, to anyone who considered him a friend or mentor or coach.

“Just a good man,” former Temple and Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. “If you were to have a son, you would want him to play for somebody who had a great value system and would mentor him very well. You would want to be filled with confidence that he would do a great job for your child. That’s how I would look at Jim Fenerty. We’re so spoiled by having these icons in and around Philadelphia as high school basketball coaches. When I reflect on the career Jim Fenerty had and the legacy he left, it’s just remarkable.”

» READ MORE: Germantown Academy’s Jim Fenerty, an all-time Philly great, is leaving coaching earlier than he’d like | Mike Sielski (from January 2019)

Among boys’ basketball coaches in Philadelphia’s three primary high school leagues – the Public, the Catholic, and the Inter-Ac – Fenerty ranks second in career victories, his 626 wins, at GA and Bishop Egan, behind only to Speedy Morris’ 736.

A Cardinal Dougherty and La Salle alumnus whose portal to coaching was the CYO program in his home parish, Incarnation of Our Lord, he went to GA in 1989, worried that he, a guy who had grown up in Kensington and Olney, would find prep-school students and their parents too snobby for his taste. “I never did,” he said.

One year later, Alvin Williams – who went on to star at Villanova, play 10 years in the NBA, and develop a near-familial relationship with Fenerty – entered the program as a freshman. The Patriots won the Inter-Ac in 1991-92 and in ’92-93, going 24-1 in the latter season, which made it easier for him to transform the program into a local and national power.

“Once you win,” he said, “you can build from within.”

Those two league championships were the first of GA’s 17 during Fenerty’s tenure, and Williams was the first of several Division I players he coached: Julius Williams, Matt Walsh, Ted Skuchas, Lee Melchionni, Ryan Ayers, others. In 1996, when the Patriots hosted Lower Merion during Kobe Bryant’s senior season, so many spectators crammed into GA’s gym that the local fire chief joked that he’d throw Fenerty in jail for violating code. A few years later, Jimmy joined his dad on a trip to Akron, Ohio, when the Patriots played St. Vincent’s-St. Mary’s and LeBron James.

Despite his success at GA, he was never tempted to take a college coaching job, he said, instead becoming the school’s athletic director and teaching social studies there until his retirement.

“I love the classroom, and I still love the classroom,” he said during that January 2019 sitdown, “and I always felt like the college thing wasn’t for me, and having not played, I thought that was going to be a hindrance. In life, sometimes you’ve got to know who you are and what you want to do. I was a Philly kid. I never wanted to be bouncing from one place to another.”

The truest testament of his impact came in the hours after his death, once word got out. By 6 p.m. Thursday, Jimmy Fenerty’s phone was still flashing and humming with more than 400 unanswered text messages and more than 70 missed calls – old friends, coaching buddies such as Dunphy, Fran O’Hanlon, Phil Martelli, so many more. Dan Dougherty, the longtime coach at Episcopal Academy, GA’s primary rival, couldn’t bear to talk to Jimmy; he had his wife call on his behalf.

“The coolest part about it,” said Jimmy, an assistant coach at Temple under Aaron McKie, “is it’s not just the players. It’s the mom, the dad. It’s the kid he had in seventh-grade homeroom. He would call me and be like, ‘Yeah, Johnny So-and-so, he’s coming along, and it’s so cool.’ And I’m like, ‘Dad, I don’t know who any of these people are.’ But he was just so happy and proud of them, and they weren’t athletes. They were just kids.”

His health problems, the uncertainty, had not stopped him from looking ahead at good things to come. He was to be the best man at Jimmy’s wedding in October, and on Tuesday, he had spent the day with his grandson, Jalen, who will turn 3 in August. “Probably his favorite person on Earth,” Jimmy said. “Ever.”

» READ MORE: Graphic artist illustrates a legendary basketball coach to raise awareness about the disease they’re both fighting (from September 2020)

He called his backyard Camp Jalen. There was a sandbox. There was a small pool; Fenerty had used a leaf-blower to inflate it because he didn’t have the wind in his lungs to do it himself. Of course, there was a basketball hoop. And once grandfather and grandson were finished playing, they sneaked into the kitchen for some ice cream.

“If I can hang in there a little longer,” Jim Fenerty had once said there, “he may turn out to be a Patriot.”

In addition to Jimmy and Jalen, Fenerty is survived by his wife, Mary; their two daughters, Jessica Peterson and Erin Fenerty; his son-in-law, Jawan Peterson; and Jimmy’s fiancee, Emily Kellett. He is also survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Gerald and Lisa Fenerty, and his sisters, Margaret M. Vernacchio and Maureen Campbell.

The Fenerty family will receive visitors and condolences on Monday, May 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Joseph A. Fluehr III Funeral Home, 241 E. Butler Ave., New Britain, Pa., and on Tuesday, May 25, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church at 856 Euclid Ave. in Warrington, Pa., with a funeral Mass following. Interment will be private. Contributions in his memory may be made to Coaches vs. Cancer, 1818 Market St., Philadelphia, Pa., 19103.