MAYS LANDING, N.J. - Dave Lewis couldn't move. The hospital stay earlier in the week that confirmed his worst fears, the new round of chemotherapy earlier in the day, all had conspired to pin Oakcrest High's 58-year-old basketball coach to the courtside chair that most of his peers in the Cape-Atlantic League use as a prop.
His assistants, Frank Brown and Andre Clements barked instructions to the players. His 10-year-old son, with a seat right next to him, worked the refs. A little hand signal here, a few words from his chair - such was the sum of his contributions.
At least until the final 2 minutes.
That's when Oakcrest's star player, Alex Nelson, picked up his fifth foul, a dubious charging call as he drove to the hole against Lower Cape May. Nelson, already incensed over fouls three and four, slammed the wall behind the basket in anguish, then spun and directed his attention to the referee.
In one motion, the coach sprung from his seat, corralled his player and called a timeout, averting an almost certain technical. In a game Oakcrest ultimately won, 47-45, it was the best bit of coaching done from either side that night.
"We're educators," Lewis said softly from that same chair a half-hour later. "No matter what happens, we need to teach the kids how to function the right way, how to behave the right way. And I think that's what good coaches do."
In his seventh season at Oakcrest, Lewis - through his 2-year battle with multiple myeloma - has confirmed what his players, parents and coaching colleagues already knew. He isn't only a good coach. He's a great coach.
He isn't only an educator. He's also a spiritual compass.
"Where do we start?" said Pete Nelson, who has two boys, Erik and Alex, on the team. "Dave is like a father to all these kids. This is like a family. It goes way beyond basketball, even before he got sick. And now . . . I mean, he comes to some games barely able to move. He's an inspiration to these kids . . . "
"We pray for him every night," said Pete's wife, Karen.
She's not alone. Minutes after his tough loss to Oakcrest that night, Lower Cape May coach Pat Holden echoed those words. No one likes to lose, but when Lewis finally came out on top against Middle Township in his 10th try, there was genuine warmth between the staffs afterward.
Indeed, Lewis might not be alive today had not a Middle assistant coach, Dr. Rich Traum, bugged him to schedule a long-overdue colonoscopy. That procedure revealed an unusual cancerous tumor, leading to more tests and an early diagnosis of his condition.
He coached through the first round of chemotherapy last winter, juggling his obligations as a teacher for emotionally troubled high school students, as a coach, and, finally, as a husband and father of two young children.
"It's especially hard on the little guy, because he's so tired at night," said Beth, his wife. "But he was always tired during the basketball season."
There is no cure for multiple myeloma, but there was hope that a stem-cell transplant last June had slowed the cancer to a crawl. Lewis even resumed jogging on weekends. With the resumption of the basketball season, though, came a resumption of the fatigue and flulike conditions he had battled through all of last season. After a particularly hellish weekend in mid-December - which included that first-ever victory over Middle - Lewis was admitted Dec. 18 to the Abramson Cancer Center at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center for more tests.
The tests revealed his cancer had returned. He was released the next afternoon, just in time to coach his game against Millville that night - from his seat, of course.
"Last year at the Boardwalk Classic, we won our first game, and then he went right to the hospital, he was so weak," said Nelson, a senior forward who scored a school-record 49 points against Millville. "He stayed there overnight. He basically ripped all his IVs out the next morning and came back to coach us the next afternoon."
There are obvious questions to all this, of course. Shouldn't Lewis spend more time with his family? Is he shortchanging his players? And, finally, the most unnerving one: Is he shortening his life through the rigors of coaching?
In a manner similar to the way he coaches, Lewis addressed and dissected them one at a time. His family, which includes two grown daughters from a previous marriage, are fabric to the games. One daughter regularly bakes for the team. Both attend often - it is, in fact, where they most often see their father. His 13-year-old daughter is there regularly, and Dave Jr. has the best seat in the house, right next to his dad.
A longtime assistant at Mainland before becoming Oakcrest's coach in 2000, Lewis has no qualms leaning on his assistants. Brown starred at Middle and has been with him all 7 seasons. Clements has his name on a plaque outside Oakcrest's gym. Even when he was healthy, Lewis was the quiet one on the sideline.
"The reality of it is that my ego is not the kind that requires me to do all the directing," he said.
And the final question, the one about mortality? Lewis said his oncologist, Dr. Jack Goldberg, never told him to stop.
"The thing about him is he understands the quality-of-life issues for his patients," Lewis said. "He understands how important this is to me. And just because you have cancer doesn't mean you stop the rest of your life."
Especially if that life affects so many others. One year, 2 years, 10 years - Lewis doesn't know how much time he has left. But to stop coaching now, he said, would be to take the easy way out.
"One of the things I have said to people is that I will do everything I can to teach the kids about mental toughness," Lewis said. "They're all going to deal with adversity in their lives.
Every family does. If I can model for them a little bit about how it works or what the deal is, then I've helped them in a way that's well beyond basketball."
Nelson received one such lesson that night. Lewis has never received a technical foul, which he seems as proud of as any victory. As he sat there, the gym now almost empty, two of his former players shot baskets with his son and his assistants. It's another thing he is as proud of as any win - that his players come back to visit, in droves.
"I have kids who I dismissed from the team come back," he said.
One such player was now shooting baskets with his son.
"I always have felt that the true test of what your team is like is what are they like at 30," the coach said. "Have they become good fathers? Do they care about their kids? Are they good husbands? That's really the set of values you're trying to teach them and trying to model for them." *
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