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Phil Anastasia: Triton's Butch McLean: An inspiration to his athletes

The best thing about Butch McLean's last season as basketball coach at Triton wasn't the beginning or the end. It was the middle.

The best thing about Butch McLean's last season as basketball coach at Triton wasn't the beginning or the end. It was the middle.

It was that stretch in January, when the Mustangs won five Olympic Patriot games in a row - and also knocked off perennial power Camden Catholic in a crossover game - to seize sole possession of first place in the division.

I went to a Triton practice one night in late January to talk with McLean about his surprising team, and how much his players were helping him through his battle with cancer.

He was so proud of his athletes, so pleased with their effort, that he nearly broke down in tears.

"These kids, they choke me up," McLean said.

McLean died Monday morning. He was 60.

McLean coached hundreds of games and directed thousands of practices. His basketball life was filled with a million moments.

I prefer to remember him on that cold night in that warm gym. His team was in first place. His heart was full.

"I told my girlfriend, 'Somebody pinch me,' " McLean said.

McLean battled cancer for two years. It was a tough fight, especially at the end, but he displayed a courage and dignity that was an inspiration to his family and friends.

"These last two years have been tough for him, but he would never let you know it," said Haddon Heights coach Mike Ricci, who was an assistant under McLean for three years with the Garnets. "When I would ask how he was feeling, he would always say, 'Hanging in there, pal.' "

"Even in the worst of times he kept a big smile on his face. He showed all of us the meaning of courage and leadership."

Shawnee coach Joe Kessler recalled McLean's generosity.

"Butch was just a great person, a great friend, someone that would go out of his way to do whatever he could for you," Kessler said.

Former Triton principal Ed Stahl spoke of McLean's work ethic, dedication, and strength in dealing with his illness.

"He was a fighter who never gave up on or off the court," Stahl said. "He inspired a lot of people, including me."

Triton senior Brian Keller, a football star who was the leading scorer on the basketball team, said his coach's courage was an inspiration to the team. There were many times when McLean would arrive at the gym straight from treatment, or would need a trash can because of his nausea, or a steady supply of water cups to quench his dry mouth.

"Strength just oozed out of him," Keller said. "His big thing was to continue to fight, even when the odds are against you, even when your back is against the wall. He never gave up. He showed us that."

McLean's teams at Haddon Heights and Triton won some and lost some. His best squads were just like him: Tough, scrappy, gritty.

"He always got the most out of his players," Kessler said.

That's what was so special about last season. Triton last won a division title in boys' basketball in 1974. But with a tenacity that reflected their coach, the Mustangs surged to the top of the standings.

That's where they stood, all alone, that night in late January.

In the end, Shawnee rallied to win the division as Triton's limitations caught up with the Mustangs. They finished with a 12-14 record.

But what's great is that for a little while in his last season, Butch McLean was right where he belonged: in first place.