I played for Balistrere for three years in high school, including two on the varsity team, and remained friendly over the years. When he was athletic director at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., and I was a part-time reporter on summer break, he gave me the scoop on plans for the Mount's Knott Arena when it was in its infancy.
He was that kind of a guy. If he was in your corner, you had it made.
I'm not about to canonize Tom, but I want to share why he was such an extraordinary person. He was more than just a basketball coach, he was a father figure and positive role model for many of us. He called us "son" and by clever nicknames.
When I heard the news of his death, my thoughts immediately drifted back 20 years to the mid-1980s when basketball was the most important thing in the world. Or so I thought.
Memories cascaded through my mind like water out of the shower head.
- Bowling basketballs into the storage closet for steak dinners.
- Coach Balistrere hitting half-court hook shots so we could run one more suicide sprint.
- All the signs and posters throughout the locker room and team room with sayings like "There is no I in team," "Attitude is everything" and "Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships."
- Tom buying us practice shorts that had "DEFENSE" spelled out across our rears.
- His great stories. (It was said that Tom could stand up anywhere at anytime and give a 15-minute speech - about nearly any topic. And he could find a way to make you laugh.)
- The way he would stop practice with a loud whistle or shout and walk around to everyone and say "get the ball inside, get the ball inside" when we were throwing up bricks from the outside.
- The running of the halls, the jumping rope and benches, the hours running up and down stairs in the C wing of the high school before it was renovated.
- The times he kicked our butts when we were loafing and screwing around and then hugged us and applauded when we did something right.
- The devotion he created in players, coaches and managers - from top scorers like John Schwartz, Derek Hine and Tom Murphy to the managers and third-teamers. We would have run through walls for him and some of us did. I still have bruises and scuffs on my knees and hips from times I dove on the floor for a loose ball. Many of my former teammates - John DeRoss, John Huff, Steve West, Steve Martin, Larry Florek, Chris Frew, Mike Hoffman, Pat Devlin, Doug Gray, Brian Dentler and my brother Jim to name a few - also have battle scars, I'm sure.
- He treated us like family. We went to his house for spaghetti, we could talk to him like he was a parent or guidance counselor. When I saw him later in life, he always had a mile-wide smile, a handshake and a pleasant word.
That was the thing about J. Thomas Balistrere. He was much more than a basketball coach. Yeah, he loved to win, but he reminded us about the priorities that our parents taught us and found a way to get it through our heads.
He required us to wear neckties to away games, to be polite to everyone, to look someone in the eye when we shook hands - firmly, of course - and he made every one of us feel like we were a big part of the team.
Not a single player or coach - especially in the later years of his tenure - could say that they did not learn something from him. He left an indelible mark on nearly everyone he met.
Along with my parents, he helped make me a better man. And that's the highest compliment I can give.
And when I see him again, I'm buying the steak dinner.
Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of the Morning Herald. You may contact him at 800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.