FAMILY DINNER conversations often morph into how to break a 3-2 zone, complete with salt and pepper shakers being arranged on the table. Friends know to limit their calls this time of year because they understand that it's basketball season. Basketball and coaching are part of the McNichol family fabric, in their blood, in their genes.

Terry and Mary Beth McNichol are unique. They're the only husband and wife who coach high schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Mary Beth at Notre Dame Academy for 17 years and Terry at Haverford High for 12 years. Between them, they have close to 50 years of coaching experience. What's more, their twin daughters, Kacy and Kylynn, are now coaching, and their son, Shane, is a 6-1 junior who plays for dad at Haverford.

Mary Beth achieved her 300th coaching victory last year at Notre Dame, where she has guided the Irish to four Inter-Academic League titles. Terry is coming off one of his most successful seasons at Haverford, going 15-9 last year, with victories over Central League powerhouses Lower Merion and Conestoga. The Fords even hosted their first PIAA District 1 Class AAAA playoff game since 1992.

So it's only natural where the foundation of this basketball family began: at the Palestra, during a basketball game. Terry was a freshman at Villanova and Mary Beth was Mary Beth Gibson, on her way to a playing career that would land her in the Villanova Hall of Fame.

"It does seem appropriate that that's where we met," said Mary Beth, also the associate business manager at Notre Dame. "Terry's sister, Mary Ann, was on the team and we both commuted. I don't know if we would have ever met if not for basketball. It's over 30 years we've been together and basketball is in our blood. People ask all the time how we do it, because during the season it's very rare we're all together. I have three games a week, Terry has three games a week, and that means the girls, Shane and Terry won't all be home at the same time. We all manage it."

From October to March a lot of pizza is eaten on the go, but the McNichols always try to go to Mass together and sit down for family supper on Sundays.

But it goes way beyond that.

The McNichol family's commitment to the game is pure and genuine. They're old school, committed to teaching young men and women the game of basketball. Nothing forced or coerced.

And Terry's and Mary Beth's commitment to each other extends to the basketball court. Mary Beth frequently will scout for Terry, like she did last year when she took a look at Ridley. Or when Terry took members of his team to Notre Dame to help Mary Beth put in a press.

Terry will see something watching a college game and give it to Mary Beth; Mary Beth will notice something new and pass it along to Terry. But it's not all basketball, all of the time.

"When we are together on Sundays, we do like to watch football," Mary Beth said, laughing. "But eventually, basketball will come on during the season. With the kids, we've always reminded them that it is just a game. Academics have always come first. But when Kylynn and Kacy asked me about coaching, I told them to try it. If they liked it, they could stay with it. But there has to be a passion for doing it."

Kacy, the older of the twins (by 1 minute), is the head coach of Notre Dame's junior varsity and Kylynn her assistant. They began coaching 3 years ago at the AAU level, with Kylynn as head coach and Kacy assistant.

Their first experience with basketball came when they were 6 weeks old, sitting courtside in a car seat while Mary Beth was coached the seventh- and eighth-grade CYO team for her parish, Annunciation BVM, in Havertown.

The girls would go from gym to gym. By the time they were ready to play for mom at Notre Dame, they would arrive before anyone else at school at 8 a.m. They would use the time to shoot, then go back at lunchtime to shoot some more.

Kacy and Kylynn are seniors at Neumann College in Aston, and it looks like they are headed in the same direction as their parents.

"That was life, going from one game to the next, always running, and we loved it," Kylynn said. "We liked it then and we wouldn't be coaching if we didn't love doing it now. I can still remember my mother picking us up from school when we were 5. We'd eat our dinners out of these plastic containers. I enjoyed that, just running, running, going from here to there."

Kacy still would prefer to play. This has been a bittersweet time for her. She played through a virus and a broken left wrist her freshman year at Neumann. It was discovered that she was suffering through chronic pain in all her joints, a malady that sends her to physical therapy 3 days a week. Her goal was to play again. She even counted the 1,149 days she went without playing, from the last time she played for Neumann to the time she was able to play last summer.

"The frustrating part was, no one really understood or told me why I wasn't able to play," Kacy said. "I never lost hope, but I had to find myself without playing. Coaching has helped me do that. I didn't know what life would be without playing basketball. But I'm in a different role. This has started a new chapter for me."

Shane comes off the bench for the Fords, who have nine seniors.

He usually runs from the car when he and his dad pull up for practice, because he doesn't want to walk into the gym with his dad. He would like to give the impression there is a little separation between himself and his father.

"It's a tough situation for Shane, who calls me 'coach' during practice, and I go back to being called 'Dad' at home," Terry said. "He deals with a lot of pressure being the son of the coach to begin with. Being a coach whose son is on the team, I get some pressure, too. People assume I'd start him, but it's difficult, because Shane has to earn it. I won't hand it to him. I'm probably harder on him than the rest of the kids on the team. He's my son and I love him; I want the best for him. But I won't hand him a starting position unless he earns it. But because Shane has great knowledge of the game, I can see him one day coaching, too."

Terry McNichol has multiple basketball chapters, from when he played at Devon Prep ("I was a very average player," he says, laughing), to coaching the boys team at Annunciation, when Mary Beth had the girls, to his coaching at Haverford. Terry often puts out a respectable team, battling powerhouses like Lower Merion, Ridley and Conestoga.

"We just don't know any other way; people from the outside see our schedules and think we're constantly busy," said Terry, a financial planner for CBIZ in Plymouth Meeting. "Mary Beth has a team, I have a team, and when the girls played, we had another team. It may sound stupid, but I think what keeps us going, why we keep doing it, is our common love that we both have for the game. It's something we share, but something we do on our own, too.

"Coaching gets in your blood. We were just goofy enough to marry each other. Certain things you give up, work things, job opportunities that Mary Beth has passed on to keep coaching."

Mary Beth and Terry were on vacation in Florida recently when Terry broached the topic of when they will give up coaching.

They have a family of seven - Terry, Mary Beth, Kacy, Kylynn, Shane, their dog Shamrock . . . and basketball.

"That's the way it is," Terry said. "I can at least see a light at the end of the tunnel, but Mary Beth scares me, because I can see her in a walker out there still doing it."

They're both in good situations. Notre Dame has been very good to Mary Beth and Haverford has been very good to Terry. Coaching and basketball have been so much a part of their lives, yet they admit when their teams struggle, sometimes they get frustrated.

Then, September rolls around and it's time for open gym . . .

"Here we go again," Terry says. "There's no reason to stop. We just happen to be married to each other and both coach." *